Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Night of the Comet
For all the things the 1980s gave us in terms of media, it also took away the drive-in movie theater. To be fair, a few survive to this day, but 80s mall culture and multiplexes co-opted the teenaged consumers using drive-ins to see a goofy picture or, as was often the case, neck while some goofy movie was playing somewhere in the distance. Thankfully, the overlap between the drive-in era and the multiplex means a number of classically cheesy drive-in movie pictures were made in the 1980s. Like their predecessors in the previous decades, the films were B-status genre pictures with rubber monsters, cool kids and allegedly “rocking” tunes.
Come to think of it, I should really select a proper 60s or 70s drive-in feature to discuss the era properly. But Night of the Comet, inspired by those cheesy B-movies of yesteryear, makes for a proper send-off to the era while being an archly 80s cheesy film in its own right.
The plot concerns sisters Reggie and Sam. Reggie works at a old movie palace somewhere in Los Angeles while Sam dedicates her life to cheerleading. They come from a broken home as Sam’s step-mother resorts to physical violence to shut her teen step-daughter up. A few days before Christmas, scientists announce a comet with a 65 million year orbit will make a close pass near the Earth. It will be visible to the naked eye, so it becomes an excuse for people to throw parties. Reggie uses it as an excuse to stay late at the theater and have sex with her boyfriend, the theater’s projectionist.
In the morning, Reggie and her boyfriend awaken to find Los Angeles creepily deserted. When Sam wakes up in a nearby suburb — likely Thousand Oaks — she finds her house also deserted. All about the neighborhood, she finds piles of red dust and abandoned clothing. Back at the theater, Reggie’s boyfriend is killed by a zombie. The two sisters eventually reunite, make their to a radio station and meet Hector Gomez. All three realize they spent the night in steel boxes — the projection booth, a shed behind Sam and Reggie’s house, and the steel bed of Hector’s truck — and that they were protected from some sort of extinction level event unleashed by the comet. But their conversation was accidentally broadcast and heard by a team of scientists who knew the comet might end civilization. Unfortunately, their precautions were not complete as they are slowly becoming zombies. They seek out Reggie in the hopes that her blood will offer them a cure — even if they have to extract every last drop of blood to find it.
And if that description sounds pretty rad, that’s definitely the charm. Night of the Comet is one of the few films to pull off cheesiness by design. Writer/director Thom Eberhardt was fond of the seriously low budget B-movies of the 60s and 70s. While working on a PBS documentary about teen girls, he began to ask them what they would do if they survived the Apocalypse. Their answers formed the basis of his script, which flipped its Omega Man inspired plot by featuring two people who would seem utterly inept in the face of mankind’s end and a zombie hoard. Other than a contrivance in which both learned to shoot semi-automatic weapons from their father years earlier, their status as fairly ordinary young women make them unusual and appealing protagonists.
Playing the leads are Mary Catherine Stewart (of The Apple and The Last Starfighter) as Reggie and soap actress Kelli Maroney (who went on to appear in Chopping Mall, which I may talk about at some point) as Sam. They’re quite capable in their roles, avoiding already well-established Valley Girl cliches for the most part in favor of something surprisingly honest for a B-movie. In films like Horror at Party Beach, the acting can be charmingly terrible, but as seasoned performers, Stewart and Maroney keep the viewer invested as Reggie finds herself abducted by the rogue scientists and Sam convinces Hector to help with the rescue effort. Star Trek: Voyager‘s Robert Beltran appears as Hector. You’d be hard pressed to tell any difference between the character and his Commander Chakotay, but it goes to show that the man is a rock in these sorts of support roles. In fact, Hector never really becomes heroic as that position is filled by either Reggie or Sam throughout the film; a fairly unusual thing to see considering the movies which inspired Eberhardt in the first place.
Also surprising is the aforementioned lack of Valley Girl cliches. Though one set piece finds the sisters shopping before they get accosted by zombie stock boys, neither actor attempts a strong “Valley Girl” accent or a lot of the jargon as seen in the previous year’s Valley Girl. This is doubly surprising as both films were produced by Atlantic Releasing Corporation; though it is possible some of the differences of opinion Eberhardt had with the producers centered on the depiction of the heroines.
Or perhaps there were conflicts over the look of the film, which is quite accomplished despite the film’s six-figure budget. Shooting much of the film on Sunday mornings, the empty Los Angeles streets give the film a production value it could never manufacture on a stage. And even when scenes were clearly shot on sets with neon decor to remind you what decade it was made in, their low-rent production values offer a certain charm as Eberhardt knew he really didn’t have to hide his limitations.
Though designed as a drive-in B-picture, Night of Comet came to its cult status thanks to endless repeat screenings on premium cable movie channels throughout the 80s and 90s; proving a certain continuity between distribution channels hungry for content. Where there is vacant airtime, cheesy movies will find a way to fill it.
Night of the Comet is available for rent on Amazon Video. A special edition Blu-ray release is also available at reasonable prices from retailers other than Amazon.