Starring: Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran
Director: Thom Eberhardt
“Valley girls at the end of the world” is how director Thom Eberhardt describes his cult debut feature. The girls in question are sisters Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney) – athletic tomboy and squeaky-voiced cheerleader respectively – who wake up the night after the Earth has passed through the tail of a giant comet to find the skies of LA choked with red dust and most of its inhabitants turned into heaps of more of the same. A few other survivors linger on, deteriorating in a way that makes them act just like flesh-eating zombies. And, unbeknownst to the girls, there’s also a top secret think tank watching the whole thing from an underground bunker, but who knows what their deal is. Luckily, Reggie and Sam’s dad was a Green Beret, and they quickly grasp that at a time like this, a girl ought to stack up on MAC-10 submachine guns.
It’s a film that would these days be tagged with the label “Whedonesque”, but almost a decade before Buffy made her first, not entirely satisfactory, appearance on the big screen, Eberhardt delivered a perfect example of a tongue-in-cheek adventure with sassy but sweet heroines, an SF/horror homage aesthetic and pop culture-savvy dialogue – only here that self-awareness has a particular poignancy, because the characters are referencing a shared culture that no longer exists. With the bare minimum of violence, it still somehow manages to be effortlessly creepy – the think tank scenes disturb and keep you guessing, and there’s a great sequence where the girls go for some extreme retail therapy at a department store, only to run into a gang of evil stock boys. “Just a few days ago we were only stock boys. Now we run the store!”
This theme of the last becoming first, of those at the bottom of the social heap being bumped up to the top, adds a little satire to the sci-fi spoofery and the bickering girl talk, but something more too – a moral dimension. “The whole burden of civilisation has fallen on us,” Reggie points out. Arguably there’s a neo-con subtext here – Reggie and Sam come from a broken home, but the mistakes of ’60s and ’70s have been swept away overnight and it’s time to start again. You don’t have to go there if you don’t want to though; you can just watch and enjoy. For a film that was made on a meagre budget of $750,000, Night of the Comet still looks extremely clean and stylish, with graduated red filters giving the deserted city an alien, Mars-like vibe, contrasting with the cool blues and greys of the underground bunker. Okay, yes, this is a post-apocalypse with big hair, but what’s a blow-dry or two between friends? It remains one of the freshest, brightest science fiction movies of the 1980s.
The HD transfer is a little dull in the opening scenes, but once those red filters kick in, the picture becomes very crisp and sharp. The scenes in the abandoned radio station, with its saturated neon hue, translate gorgeously to Blu-ray, as do the bunker scenes with their cooler palette. The disc comes with a motherload of extras. There’s a 15-minute piece with Kelli Maroney and Catherine Mary Stewart, who talk affectionately about their roles and about the director, and the nature of making a low-budget movie – the department store sequence was a night shoot, gruelling but fun. There’s an interview with Mary Woronov, who seems to be a real character; she explains that she hated her role as a think tank scientist because she had to wear a boiler suit, and that she was allowed to write her own death scene (one of the most eerie moments in the movie). We also get to hear from Robert Beltram (with the most amazing silver hair), who plays Hector, the Mexican trucker who befriends Reggie and Sam. He reveals that his character was originally a “cholo” but he pressed for him to become more clean-cut and heroic.
There are no less than three separate audio commentaries. As witty and insightful as you might expect, Thom Eberhardt explains the film’s origins as a spoof of empty city movies such as Target Earth and a play on the film Valley Girl, then a big hit. He describes how all of those panoramas of a downtown LA apparently devoid of life were shot during working hours, taking advantage of stop lights. We also learn that the abandoned brown Mercedes that Reggie comes across belonged to him. In their commentary, Kelli Maroney and Catherine Mary Stewart divulge that Vincent Price was due to do the opening voice-over, but he wasn’t well enough, and that the film was originally going to be called Teenage Comet Zombies – how’s that for Whedonesque? In the third commentary, production designer John Minto talks about how he gave the film a coherent colour palette, and also mentions that the flickering light of the deadly comet overhead was created with a welding machine.