"This movie has been written about in books — go figure — and there's discussion about whether or not it's actually a zombie movie. And I can tell you it's not; it's not a zombie movie."
So says director Thom Eberhardt about 20 minutes into the commentary for his low-budget 1984 movie Night of the Comet, which Shout! Factory is releasing in a DVD/Blu-ray edition this week.
There's ample evidence contradicting Eberhardt's "not a zombie movie" claim, not the least of which is that, on the other two commentary tracks, stars Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney as well as production designer John Muto independently confirm that when they first saw the script, it was titled Teenage Comet Zombies. But Eberhardt isn't wrong, either.
It's appropriate that, even now, nobody can agree on just what Night of the Comet is. A comedy? A zombie movie? Does the mild flirtation between Stewart and Robert Beltran make it a romantic zombie comedy movie, thus beating 2004's Shaun of the Dead to the rom-zom-com punch by 20 years?
The simplest logline would be something to the effect of "in Los Angeles, two teenage girls and a truck driver find themselves the lone survivors of a comet that has disintegrated all life on earth — except for a group of devious scientists and scattered zombie-like people on the streets." For starters.
Nathan Thomas Milliner's box art for the Shout! Factory release — and let's give a big shout-out to the Factory for doing illustrated covers in this era of soulless, Photoshopped "giant floating head" posters — suggests a shoot-'em-up, featuring Stewart, Maroney, and the inappropriately first-billed Beltran packing heat and preparing to face off against a horde of zombies. Well, three zombies. Three non-shambling, occasionally chatty, not-actually-undead zombies — a cop, a plumber, and a stock boy — appear at different times in the movie, and constitute just under a half of the total zombie presence in the film. As Eberhardt notes with great bemusement, these three never fail to appear on the "nouveau posters" created by fans, up to and including Millner's now-canonical poster.
By far the most menacing, the zombie cop only appears in dream sequences, and thus, strictly speaking, does not actually exist in the film's reality. Dawn of the Dead this is not. (And though there's been an external attempt to frame it as a commentary on consumerism like Romero's classic, Night of the Comet is not that, ether.)
The other side of the reversible DVD/Blu-ray cover features the original poster art for the film. (Shout! Factory did the same thing with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, and hopefully they'll keep it up.) This art tries desperately to play up the sci-fi potential of the film, with a crowd of silhouetted people looking up in Spielbergian wonder with literal stars in their eyes, and Stewart's character silhouetted in a glowing doorway surrounded by a star field. That image promoted the film on posters and in newspaper ads across the country in 1984, as well as the initial VHS release, and in retrospect it looks actively misleading, promising astonishing sci-fi spectacle that Night of the Comet couldn't afford to produce. (Visual effects of space and the comet comprise less than a minute of the total running time.) If anything, the imagery feels cribbed from Stewart's other film from that year, The Last Starfighter. But it worked: According to Box Office Mojo, Night of the Comet made $3.5 million on its opening weekend and grossed $14 million total, which ain't too shabby for a movie with a budget of $750,000. It has a strong cult following to this day; apparently, nobody has any hard feelings about that original advertising campaign.
Eberhardt says that the previous year's Valley Girl was a big influence, as were "empty city" thrillers such as Target Earth and the "Where Is Everybody?" episode of The Twilight Zone. Working with "Valley Girls at the end of the world" as his concept, he realized about 30 pages into writing the script that there needed to be a threat of some kind; hence the zombies. Figuring out why there were zombies led to the introduction of the scientists, a subplot Eberhardt admits doesn't really make much sense.
Night of the Comet exists in the shadow of Valley Girl; in addition to sharing production staff – according to Eberhardt, Valley Girl producers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane were "a little more than ticked off" that Atlantic saddled them with the silly-looking Comet project as their follow-up – a poster for the latter film appears in the movie theater where Stewart's character works, and Maroney is later seen casually tossing aside a copy of the soundtrack album. Even Shout! Factory's promo material for Night of the Comet goes to great lengths to play to a long-dead stereotype, and it's here that the film's schizoid nature is most evident. A synopsis describes the heroes discovering "upon daybreak" that they're the lone survivors of an earthbound comet, so "they do what all good Valley Girls do — they go shopping!" Oh, and, "When their day of malling threatens to become day of mauling" — it's a homonym joke, get it? — "these gals flee with killer zombies and blood-seeking scientists in hot pursuit!"
The point of a blurb is to sell the sizzle, to get the consumer to buy a ticket or a disc or to tune in next week, so I can only assume that the marketing department was under orders to dumb it down as much as possible, and play up the female leads as helpless airheads facing a zombie apocalypse.
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But it's almost irritating how much is wrong in that blurb.
The characters show absolutely no interest whatsoever in the latest fashion trends, hence Maroney wearing a fetching coral-and-aquamarine cheerleader uniform for much of the film, a color scheme that production designer John Muto admits bears no relation to any school or fashion. They don't witness the comet because Stewart's character is indoors getting laid by the actor who would go on to play Uncle Jack in Breaking Bad (a fact mentioned in all three commentary tracks, which were recorded during the final season of that show), while Maroney is trying avoid their evil, abusive stepmother (Sharon Farrell).
The shopping excursion doesn't occur until two-thirds into the film, on the evening of the second day after the titular night; up until then, they've mostly been dealing with issues related to the extinction of the human race. Since they're experienced with MAC-10 machine guns, they more than hold their own in a gunfight against said zombies in the store – who, again, aren't really zombies by modern standards, since they think and talk and use technology including but not limited to the security system at the Bullocks Wilshire in Los Angeles. (One of those zombies is punk legend Dick Rude, a fact that will hopefully be included in the next edition of Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly's great reference book Destroy All Movies!!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film.) Valley Girls or not, these gals aren't helpless fleers, nor were they were intended to be; in her commentary, Stewart says that one of the things that appealed to her about Eberhardt's script was that the character was written as a strong, independent young woman who could look after herself, and Stewart identified with the "tomboy element."
And that ultimately accounts for the movie's enduring popularity. Beyond its value as an '80s time capsule (and the neon-drenched radio station is worthy of its own essay), Night of the Comet is not about airheaded girls running from zombies, nor about badass chicks with guns mowing those zombies down. It's somewhere in between, and if the movie is kind of a tonal mess, that's also part of its charm. Night of the Comet has something for everyone.