This October, Deadshirt staff revisits some of our favorite horror movies from a variety of subgenres and breaks down what makes them so memorable, so clever, and so terrifying. First up: the tongue-in-cheek zombie flick Night of the Comet.
The quickest way to describe 1984’s Night of the Comet would be “if George A. Romero directed Valley Girl.” A snappy, irreverent horror flick that never descends into farce, Night of the Comet has achieved cult status not only for its witty script, or by being a zombie film endlessly run on cable, but for the strength of its female leads, the gun-toting teenage sisters Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney).
Night of the Comet begins with an ominous, Rod Serling-lite introduction about a mysterious red comet passing by Earth. In Los Angeles, the streets are filled with people celebrating the comet’s arrival, but when the sun rises the next morning, nearly everyone in the city–and perhaps the world–have disintegrated, leaving behind only their clothes and piles of red dust. Sisters Regina and Sam, who missed viewing the comet purely by chance, soon discover that people partially exposed to the comet have become bloodthirsty zombies. They meet up with other survivors, but if we’ve learned anything from Night of the Living Dead, it’s that sometimes the living are worse than the undead.
“What I really loved about it was the fact that the characters who drove the script were female, which was kind of unusual,” Catherine Mary Stewart says in an interview included on the recent Shout! Factory Blu-Ray release of the film. Though the 80s may have been the decade of “The Final Girl,” well-rounded female characters in horror films are still a rarity, and it feels even rarer for a horror film to focus on two female characters, and have their bond be the backbone of the film. Post-apocalyptic fiction has focused on family units before, but tend to be more hypermasculine (think of the gruff father/son pairs in The Walking Dead or The Road) with female characters dead and/or victimized. Not so in Night of the Comet.
We meet Regina at her job as a movie theater usher, playing an intense game of Tempest and guarding her perfect high scores. A level-headed tomboy, Regina can handle herself in a fist fight with a zombie and a debate about whether Superman’s weakness is steel or lead. She’s immediately a fun, capable protagonist who doesn’t fit into a neat little “good girl” box. Unlike countless 80s camp counsellors, it’s ironically sex that saves her life, as Regina’s tryst in a windowless projection booth shields her from the comet. (Her loser boyfriend, who’s immediately brained by a zombie the next morning, is less lucky.) Regina would be an awesome lead character regardless, but it’s her relationship with her younger sister Samantha that really elevates Night of the Comet into something special.
In a lesser horror movie, Samantha, the blonde, bouncy cheerleader, would be one of the first to be slaughtered, probably after some jokes about her being slutty or bitchy. Night of the Comet is a much better film for it’s complex treatment of a character who could have easily been disposable. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is Regina staggering home after her first shocking encounter with a zombie, only to find Samantha completely unfazed and hopping around the house in her pink-and-blue cheerleader’s uniform with a boom box. (It’s fun to imagine that Samantha is just Kelli Maroney’s character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High surviving the apocalypse.) At first, Samantha seems completely oblivious to the end of the world. Regina has to shake her, and hold up the dusty dress that used to be their nasty stepmother, before the truth sinks in. But Samantha isn’t stupid, she’s in denial. After all, who could possibly comprehend the sudden and total obliteration of humanity?
Samantha’s troubles don’t end there. After meeting dreamy truck driver Hector (Robert Beltran), the most eligible bachelor in post-apocalyptic L.A., Sam is gripped by insecurity and fears her dynamic older sister just snagged the last man on Earth. The two girls yell at each other, then pause, before suddenly laughing in sync. Moments like these show off the fantastic, sparkling chemistry between Stewart and Maroney, who really feel like family on screen. Against all odds, they still have each other. No way is some guy going to come between them.
Thankfully, Night of the Comet isn’t all doom and gloom. What would a zombie movie be without a shopping montage in a mall, set to a cover of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” no less? “Do you have your Mastercard on you?” asks Regina, trying to cheer up Samantha. “You don’t need it. THE STORES ARE OPEN!” What follows is a fun, exuberant scene of post-apocalyptic sisterly bonding, nothing that would be out of place in a John Hughes movie, except that moments later they’re firing MAC-10s at zombie security guards. (And by the way, how amazing is Willy the New Wave zombie? “I’m not crazy, I just don’t give a fuck!”) Shop ‘till you drop dead.
In the final act, Regina and Samantha think they’ve been rescued by a team of friendly and helpful scientists, but they have anything but the girls’ welfare in mind. (This is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, so anybody resembling old authority, be they cops, security guards, or a secret cloister of scientists, aren’t to be trusted.) Oh, and in one scene Hector is completely decked out like Santa Claus, beard, red suit and all, in case you forgot that Comet does have its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Regina and Samantha rescue each other from certain doom, and face a future in the new world together. Ultimately, the “burden of civilization” is in the hands of Regina and Samantha, and unlike some of the extraordinarily bleak zombie fiction out there, they’re going to do just fine.
Night of the Comet may not be what you expect if you’re looking for a straightforward homage to George A. Romero’s zombie movies, or the punk camp of Return of the Living Dead. For a low-budget 80s horror movie, it’s surprisingly light on both gore and sexuality (though Samantha does somewhat gratuitously strip down to her skivvies). Many of my favorite horror movies are extra bloody, but the absence of hack-’em-slash-’em violence works in Comet’s favor because it relies more on the strength of its characters. Regina, Samantha, and Hector aren’t cannon fodder to be killed off lightly, so the audience has a stronger investment in their fates.
I’ll always have affection for Night of the Comet. It’s just a fun movie from beginning to end, with enough heart and weight that its concept can be taken seriously, and decades later, still feels like a refreshing reprieve from other films in the genre. The film also finds true magic amidst the horror in its two female leads, Regina and Samantha, who prove that sisterhood can survive anything–even the zombie apocalypse.
Come back next Friday for a look at another of our favorite horror movies.