Night of the Comet (1984)

Night of the Comet joins I Come in Peace and Trancers on a list of low-budget cult Christmas science-fiction movies from the '80s and early '90s. All three flew under our radar for years, so I'm left wondering if there are more out there. Night of the Comet is unquestionably the best of those three, incidentally. I'm not sure I'd recommend this to someone who isn't a fan of genre (and perhaps more importantly genre history, as we'll get to in a moment), but any connoisseur of '50s drive-in fare, early zombie movies, or '70s post-apocalyptic films will find this well worth checking out. It's also notable for the impression it left on popular culture: it's been cited as an inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and while watching I saw ideas I'm fairly certain were borrowed for Cabin in the Woods and Zombieland, among others.

All of which is to say this is a neat, clever film. Perhaps a bit too clever in some ways, honestly - its mashup of different ideas starts to feel more cerebral than fun on first viewing. Again, I'm not so sure this is something I'd suggest to a casual film fan, though that's kind of part and parcel with its status as a cult movie.

The movie begins with a voice-over explaining a comet is returning to Earth for the first time in sixty-five million years. Last time it was here, the dinosaurs vanished, so you can probably guess how it's going to go for us. It's arriving around Christmas (the narrator makes an ironic joke about a gift), and we shift to the movie proper to meet two of our main characters, sisters Reggie and Sam. Most people are getting ready to watch the comet outside, but for different reasons, the two of them are going to be elsewhere. Reggie winds up spending the night with her boyfriend in the projectionist booth at their job, while Sam sleeps in a steel shed after a fight with her mother-in-law.

The steel is important, because for unexplained reasons it protects them from the weird effects of the comet, which turns almost everyone alive to dust. There are a couple other potential levels of exposure with different effects, one of which superficially resembles zombification.

I say resembles, because these aren't really zombies according to the definition used in most movies, though Night of the Comet is careful to play up the ambiguity for a while. Those affected look like zombies and some seem to be trying to eat their victims, but that's where the similarities end. Many retain relatively normal cognitive functions for some time (aside from aggression, confusion, and some memory issues), and they're as easy to kill or incapacitate as a normal person. In genre terminology, these are mutants, not zombies, though the characters of course gravitate to the more obvious reference.

Reggie and Sam don't realize any of that yet - all they know is that, aside from a freak who Reggie fought off outside the movie theater where she spent the night they seem to be the only ones still alive. Except Sam's radio is tuned to a station where the DJ is still prattling on as if nothing's unusual, so they make their way to the station. Once there, they find the source of the broadcast: an automated machine playing prerecorded tracks.

They also meet Hector, a truck driver passing through who's had a couple run-ins with infected individuals and tracked down the same signal. He describes them in ways that make the infected seem even more like zombies or ghouls. The three characters spend the night in the station, where Sam sends out a playful message alerting any survivors to their presence, which gets the attention of...

A strange and never entirely explained think tank of scientist survivors in a desert installation. We quickly learn the scientists have been exposed but only partly and are working on some sort of serum to survive. One of them, Audrey, isn't on the same page - from her interchanges with the others, she comes off as somewhat nihilistic, cynical, and bitter. She argues against retrieving survivors and bringing them to their complex, only grudgingly acknowledging that she's been outvoted.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Hector's gone off alone to see if his mother survived. Of course she didn't, but he'll have a side adventure involving outrunning a zombie kid he can't bring himself to shoot (this is one of the movie's better shot sequences, in my opinion).

That leaves the sisters alone. They arm themselves with automatic weapons (their father was in the army, so they're both effective with firearms and hand-to-hand combat), and head to the mall to go "shopping." They have fun for a while until three boys wearing sunglasses get the drop on them. Sam and Reggie hold them off for a while but wind up captured when they learn the boys are willing to sacrifice their own to win.

The boys - literally stock boys - are infected and irrational. They're about to shoot Sam and Reggie when the scientists from the complex show up and gun them down. They start running some tests, but Audrey points out Sam has a rash and keeps rubbing her eyes. Another agrees they don't need to wait for the test results to conclude she's been infected. They separate the girls under the pretext of having Sam stay behind to explain to Hector who the scientists are, while the others take Reggie ahead. Audrey and one other scientist remain with Sam.

Audrey tells Sam there's a chance she could be sick, though Sam replies that her rash is a normal reaction for her - she gets it whenever she's stressed. Even so, Audrey tells her the stuff she's injecting her with will cure the infection if she has it and does so. Sam shuts her eyes and goes silent. The other scientist remarks how painless it looks, and demands they now return to the complex, then Aubrey shoots him dead.

Meanwhile, the complex is quite a bit more ominous than Reggie expected. The scientists ignore her questions and grill her on her medical history. We also discover another "survivor" is now brain dead and being used to generate blood and that the same fate awaits Reggie. The scientists are all infected and need the blood of uninfected individuals to stay alive. The infection, we learn, will eventually dust anyone who has it.

Hector (now dressed as Santa) returns to the radio station to find Audrey, whose mental faculties are fading, waiting in the radio station. Here's where we learn the movie's been messing with us and that she's not the villain: she injects herself with something to end her life and leaves Hector with information on what the scientists are doing and where they're located.

The scientists have of course been proceeding under the assumption that Reggie is a normal teenager and treating her accordingly. It's not long before she breaks free and starts running amok, learning their secrets and piecing things together. She also comes across a pair of young kids and rescues them before the scientists can medically lobotomize them.

Hector shows up at the base and gets the drop on a guard with the help of Sam - revealing that Audrey only gave her something to knock her out to fool the other scientist. Sam heads into the complex to find her sister while Hector starts wiring the scientists' truck with dynamite.

Sam finds Reggie and the kids, and they regroup with Hector, who goads the scientists into attempting to chase them down only to perish in the ensuing explosion. The five survivors head back to the city. In the epilogue, Reggie and Hector have formed a somewhat comically typical nuclear family with the two rescued children. In the closing moments of the movie, Sam meets a boy her own age who's also survived the apocalypse and heads off with him while her sister plays the role of a worried parent.

There's quite a lot here worth exploring, from the movie's satire of suburban life to the distrust of authority (we never learn whether the scientists were connected to the government, a corporation, or some kind of independent group, so the audience is left to view them through whatever lens they prefer). There's also of course some fascinating complexity to the layered use of genre tropes in the way the story shifts between different kinds of stories: the narrative really feels like it's progressing through the evolution of drive-in features from the '50s to zombie flicks and into post-apocalyptic parables of the 1970s and early '80s.

And I've barely touched on the fact two of the movie's three heroes are young women, a demographic usually relegated at this time to damsels in distress but here established as capable heroes. The sisters are framed as somewhat comically inept at times (particularly Sam), but when the fighting starts they're clever and effective. The movie doesn't treat their sexuality as a character flaw, nor does it shame them for their desires or choices. More importantly, they're not being objectified: the fact they're interested in men isn't an excuse to film them in skimpy outfits or anything of the sort. For the time and genre, all that's pretty unusual.

But of course, we're here to talk Christmas, and this movie offers a wealth of opportunity. While the holidays aren't an ever-present force the way they are in, say, Die Hard, the movie is constantly circling back to remind us when this is taking place. Actually, let's take a moment and focus on precisely when that is: the pre-recorded radio DJ informs us this is happening with eleven shopping days until Christmas, which would mean Christmas would be the twelfth day after the comet. I can't help but wonder if that's a joke about twelve days of Christmas (though, just so we're clear, those are the wrong twelve days).

But it's the comet itself I'm more interested in: it's essentially an evil version of the star of Bethlehem, which is in itself a fun gimmick for a yuletide horror film. You could read a great deal of religious symbolism in the movie, as well: the dust left behind echoes the "dust-to-dust" motif, and the whole story is more than a little reminiscent of the Rapture.

I also find it interesting how the movie plays into the idea that time stops around Christmas and the winter solstice. There's certainly an eerie stillness in the way the radio continues playing the same announcements, the quiet, empty streets, and the near-constant red-tinted skies (the movie doesn't explain this, but the implication is it's an aftereffect of the comet).

But I suspect the primary driver for using Christmas as a backdrop is comedic. The movie plays a lot of the images for humor, starting with the "early Christmas present" line in the throwback narration in the intro. The similarities between the comet and the Star of Bethlehem were almost certainly also intended as a joke, if primarily an inside one. Other holiday paraphernalia, such as decorations, Hector's Santa suit, and occasional Christmas music, likewise tended to appear in a comical context.

I should note the movie as a whole leans towards a comical tone, though there are a handful of moments briefly exploring the darker sides of the premise. That's not to say the movie doesn't offer some jump scares and moments of suspense - horror is a major component, as is science-fiction - but it's ultimately aiming for something on the fun and adventurous side of the world ending, as opposed to dwelling in existentialism or anything of the sort.

This is, in short, a neat movie. It's also a rare entry in the Christmas science-fiction subgenre, one I'd like to see visited more. The female POV characters are a lot of fun, too, and of course well ahead of their time. There's a great deal to appreciate here.

But appreciation isn't love. I enjoyed this and have immense respect for it, but - at least after my first viewing - I don't find myself feeling like I've stumbled across a new favorite. The comedy was enjoyable but rarely hilarious, the action was limited by budget, and while the atmospheric red tint makes for a neat effect, I felt like it outstayed its welcome pretty fast. On top of all that, the movie is somewhat undermined by its own shadow. This helped inspire numerous genre-mashing projects that took the ideas and executed them with more money and - frankly - more fun.

That said, I suspect my feeling on this might benefit from repeat viewings. The movie's tone bobs and weaves so much, I wasn't sure how to interpret some choices until reflecting on them later. Knowing where it's going might allow the jokes to land better and the satire to stand out - that's kind of how cult movies tend to work, after all.

This one's absolutely worth seeing if you're interested in the history of genre movies, particularly the way genres overlap and crossover. And it makes for a good experience, so long as you like the genres in question. But if you're mainly used to movies of the last decade or so, this is probably going to feel a little dated.