Monday 29 June 2015

Night Of The Comet

Dusty Sting Yield

Night Of The Comet
USA 1984
Directed by Thom Eberhardt
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B/
DVD Region 2 Dual Edition

Well this is a real time capsule of a movie that I’d somehow completely forgotten about.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a really great TV show on BBC2 called Moviedrome. It was basically a format for showing interesting films which were picked and presented by director Alex Cox (who directed films like Repo Man). Due to, I think, some problems Cox ran into with the BBC, the programme stopped for a while and resurfaced later, curated by Mark Cousins, but it was the various Alex Cox seasons that people of my generation really remember as portals into the world of the art of film. Admittedly, I’d seen a good deal of the stuff he showed way before Moviedrome but it was also the virtual venue where I first saw such amazing movies as The Great Silence, A Bullet For the General and, a really big one for me, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. 

And one of the films he showed was Night Of The Comet... on Sunday 9th July 1989. So I would have probably seen it within a week of broadcast on an off air recording because... some of those movies were on late at night. Catching up with it now on a new HD transfer from Arrow as a Blu Ray/DVD dual edition, it’s very clear that I had forgotten most of it and it was just like watching the movie for the very first time again. It’s also, I have to say, dated quite a bit too. Nothing like a movie made in the 1980s for quickly looking out of date although, to be fair, since the world more or less ends in a period contemporary to the movie, it was always going to date very quickly anyway.

The film starts off with some terrible, cheesy narrative about a strange comet passing by the Earth that actually makes the introductory narration on a load of 1950s B movies, such as Creature From The Black Lagoon, look like highly articulate, lyrical masterpieces of philosophical theory in comparison to this highly disasterous opening spiel. However, all is not lost because, as soon as the voice-over stops, the film perks up a little, setting up the last few hours or so before the comet passes by... establishing the two central roles of Regina, played by Catherine Mary Stewart, a cinema employee who is much more interested in achieving the high score on the arcade machine Tempest (remember that?) than getting her work done and her younger sister Sam, played by Kelli Maroney. In this opening we find out why they are both not around to actually watch the comet like most people in the world are doing that night.

The film then follows a set up pretty much in the vein of the kind of apocalyptic science fiction opus that we got in such tales as John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids (and its various movie and TV adaptations) or the brilliant low budget British sci-fi movie The Earth Dies Screaming, in that it pretty much wipes out the majority of the planet, in some fashion, apart from the few survivors who were lucky enough to fulfil a certain specific set of circumstances which have kept them out of harm’s way. In this case, it soon becomes apparent to the majority of the survivors living in some kind of global, land based Marie Celeste mystery, that almost the entire population of the planet have been turned into piles of red dust, with the exception of a few who are slower to turn into said piles of red dust and are now some kind of 'half way stage' zombie creatures out for your blood. Indeed, one of the early titles for the production was actually Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies... although, as much as that title should be celebrated, I think I prefer Night Of The Comet in some ways... perhaps mainly because, presumably due to budgetary reasons, the zombies in this are few and far between.

Now this is mostly a female led sci fi movie, which is nice, but there’s a cool little thing that happens fairly early on when Regina’s boyfriend, who actually survives the night, unwittingly leaves the cinema they’ve been sleeping in and gets immediately killed by a zombie. It’s the Marion Crane moment of the movie for this character but there is one main male protagonist, who the girls run into at the local radio station, called Hector. He’s not bad as a cavalry type rescue figure later on in the movie, when they run foul of a bunch of scientists trying to stop their own collective decline into zombiehood by stealing the cleaner survivor’s blood, but he’s not the typical male crutch of a character that these kinds of movies often fall back on and a lot of the gun play etc is just the main ladies doing all the heroics... which is a refreshing change, especially back when this movie got released.

All the way through the first half of the movie I was trying to place the face of the actor who is playing Hector, until I finally twigged it was a very young version of Robert Beltran, who later went on to become the regular character Chakotay in Star Trek: Voyager. It also has a nice appearance by cult actress Mary Woronov in here, playing one of “the scientists” along with famous character actor, the recently departed Geoffrey Lewis.

The film is a basic survival story but shot through with a lot of humour and, presumably due to the budget, less zombie antagonists and more human antagonists being brought into play. The humour is set up right from the start with Regina’s boss doing a full on sales pitch, discussing with his customers the benefits of different types of Comet Night souvenir beeny boppers. Remember those? I think they were called Deely Boppers in the states and, as a kid, I think I had a set with Pac man on the antennae... if I’m remembering correctly. There are lots of scenes in this with throwaway comic humour and, because it’s that type of movie, there aren’t many tears shed about the various friends and relatives left for dead in the wake of the comet... it moves along at a fair pace and there’s no time for people to really stop to measure the cost of everything they’ve lost, to be sure.

Some of the other humour in the film stems from movie reference and homage. For instance, when Regina’s boyfriend gets killed early on in the narrative, he is grabbed next to a movie poster for a film called Red Dust... which is, of course, what Regina and Sam soon find out the majority of the rest of the population have been turned into. There’s also a nice parody of the post-apocalyptic shopping scene in George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, only this time it’s set to a cover version of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and it ends with gun play and confrontation.

The movie also has some nice visual elements. The sequence of scenes of the lack of life left in the wake of the comet is done with a number of static shots of the devastation, leading up to a pan on the red powder which represents the passing of humanity. Everything post apocalypse that is external and set during the day time is pretty much done so with red, graduated filters coming down from the tops of the lens, to signify that the red dust is still in the air and this gives everything a striking look. It’s only the very end scene, when the aftermath of the comet has finally faded, that the filters come off the cameras.

Not much else to say about the movie other than it’s a real trip for people who grew up in the 1980s. There’s nothing too clever with a lot of the shot set ups, or at least nothing overtly interesting visually (other than the use of the coloured filters) but it’s very competently put together and, with it’s references to arcade games, teenage head gear, audio technics and the like, there’s a certain nostalgia value added to the film for people of my age... and that’s something the movie obviously didn’t have when it first came out. Time sometimes makes things seem better with age, although I have to say I remember really thinking a lot of this film the very first time I saw it, all those decades ago.

And that’s everything I have to say about Night Of The Comet apart from, it’s got a very strong end sequence with a great joke about always respecting the rules of the traffic sign, even if you are one of the last people on earth, and a last little humourous stinger involving the owner of the DMK initials... who is the mystery nemesis and challenger of Regina’s high scores list of Tempest on the machine in the cinema. It’s not the greatest piece of science fiction art in the world, in all honesty, and I think many people will probably just write this off as a piece of fluff now... but it does have a certain amount of heart and charm to it and, above all, it’s a fun film to watch. Recommended if you want to watch it as part of a triple bill with other, themed apocalypse movies... it’s not exactly demanding and it has some nice moments in it. Plus, you know, if it’s good enough for Alex Cox to show on Moviedrome... it’s good enough for me.

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