After Night Of The Creeps, Night Of The Comet is the best "Night Of The" movie of the 1980s. (There were many.) These are the kind of movies you hope for, every time you venture off the mainstream path looking for something out of the ordinary. These are the kind of movie there just plain aren't enough of, although if there were, I suppose coming across them wouldn't feel quite as special.
Night Of The Comet is about two sisters, Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney, later of Chopping Mall fame). Regina works at a movie theater where she sometimes hooks up with the dickhead projectionist (Michael Bowen, eventually of Magnolia and Kill Bill). Sam is younger, so she's stuck at home with their shitty stepmother on the night when parties are gathering to watch the approach of a rare comet. Sam is sent to her room, and Regina is holed up in the projection booth, so they're not outside with everyone else when the comet turns whole cities to zombies and dust.
Let me clarify: The comet mostly turns everyone to red dust, with a red haze coating the already-considerable haze of L.A. smog. Those who aren't turned to dust are turned into zombies, which Regina discovers when her dickhead boyfriend ventures outside in the morning and is immediately killed by one. The zombie chases Regina out into the alley, where this exchange transpires:
ZOMBIE IN ALLEY: Come here!
REGINA: Come here your ass!
Two things: Talking zombies, which is something I've always wanted to see in a movie like this, and also, what a great female protagonist! Smart-ass, super-pretty, and unafraid of no zombie.
Regina escapes and finds Sam, hiding out. They discover, with a reaction somewhat more in stride than horrified, that everyone they know is dead. Apparently if you were inside during the comet's approach, you lived. If you were outside, as most people were, you're dust. If you got caught in between, you're zombified -- but not for long; dust is in your future. Of course, it strains credulity that Regina and Sam would be the only ones who managed to stay inside, but if you go with it, the movie works. It's really Dawn Of The Dead, with a much lighter tone and an uber-sarcastic lead girl.
The cool thing about Night Of The Comet is that it isn't a standard zombie-apocalypse movie. Where you might expect the typical zombie hordes, here the zombies are very rare. This movie is even more sparsely-populated than any of the I Am Legend iterations. Eventually, Sam and Regina meet another survivor, Hector (Robert Beltran), a likable enough guy who helps them arm up before heading out for a while. Sam and Regina go foraging at the local mall -- after Dawn Of The Dead, it was hard to escape that mall -- where they encounter another group of zombies and are then captured by a brigade of scientists. The scientists, led by cult fixture Mary Woronov and Eastwood mainstay Geoffrey Lewis, are fixated on "the burden of civilization." Their nominal goal is repopulating the earth, but like any grown-ups in a 1980s teen movie, apocalypse or no, they can't be trusted.
For me, the movie falls apart, or at least lags, in this final third, as Regina and Sam have to escape the evil scientists. It would be hard for any movie to maintain the camp energy, eerie setting, and arch dialogue that Night Of The Comet initially established so well, and while some fans will disagree, I don't feel that the last half hour or so stacks up to what came before it. I also don't want to dwell on any criticisms for long, because there's so much to enjoy with this movie. It's fun, silly, highly quotable, and surprisingly convincing, and I have to suspect that it was a partial inspiration for Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It certainly helped set the precedent for smart, self-aware teen heroines.
Night Of The Comet is an underrated, under-remembered cult movie, and a neat accomplishment by its creator, Thom Eberhardt. It's a fun genre mash-up with an influential tone. It has its flaws, but it's way more fun than many so-called perfect movies. You're gonna dig it, if you haven't already dug.
For an alternate take, check out this piece that recently ran on CHUD.