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Night of the Comet

Year: 1984
Production Co: Thomas Coleman and Michael Rosenblatt Productions
Director: Tom Eberhardt
Writer: Tom Eberhardt
Cast: Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Geoffrey Lewis

Catherine Mary Stewart was having a busy year with this and The Last Starfighter, and though I don't remember her being a particularly massive star in the Hollywood firmament at the time, she should have been. Like Hellraiser (which I only just watched recently), this is an 80s stalwart that's aged very, very badly.

But amid it all, Stewart is a shining light. She was probably thought of as merely pretty at the time, but looking back at how dated the rest of the performances, set pieces and creative choices are (an apocalyptic zombie horror movie with nothing but 80s love ballads on the soundtrack?!?), she was a natural.

That doesn't only mean she was a great actor who did some work that far outstripped every other element here (she is and did) but she was a natural in that she eased completely into the story and character. She had a confidence in performing for a camera years beyond her then-tender age and making you believe every instant that she's a real girl in a real situation – to the extent you can almost forget how ridiculous both the idea and the execution are in the rest of the movie.

It's a week or so before Christmas and Earth is going to pass through the tail of a comet, people right across LA excited to go outside and watch the spectacle. But the Belmont sisters are lucky. Regina (Stewart), who works at a movie theatre and who's main concern is whoever's upset her ten best scores on her favourite video game, lets her boyfriend convince her to spend the night in the projection booth with him. And Samantha (Kelli Maroney), has a fight with her stepmother and runs away, sleeping in a shed.

The next morning, Regina and Sam have unknowingly been protected from the deadly effects of the comet's radiation because they were encased in metal when it passed, meaning that they're two of only a few left who aren't piles of red sand beside the clothes they used to wear.

And of those who are left, most are mindless zombies intent on killing. Regina makes her way from the mid Wilshire district where she works (and the only way I know that is because when I lived in LA the El Rey theatre where they shot the exteriors of her workplace was on the route of my daily walk) back home to the Valley and finds her sister okay but in denial about what's gone on.

After convincing Sam they're alone, Regina realises there's a radio station still operating so they resolve to survive past the zombie hordes outside to go and see if anyone's still alive there. They make it through and tentatively befriend Hector, another survivor who's decided to hole himself up at the studio.

Meanwhile, a group of scientists who've survived the phenomena hear Regina and Sam when they broadcast a help signal from the radio station, and they know they need to capture the girls to study them after what they've discovered about the zombie plague.

With Hector gone to try and find his family the girls hit a shopping mall for a classic 'last ones left alive' montage, but they run afoul of the current tenants when a group of zombie boys start taunting them on the intercom, eventually opening fire and making the girls defend themselves in a gun battle.

They're captured but rescued just in the nick of time by the scientists who've tracked them down, but in the hands of the disillusioned Dr White, they might face a much worse fate.

Even if the effects, music and style had been as timeless as Star Wars, Night of the Comet just has too weird a structure to really work. Though writer/director Thom Eberhardt would have no way of knowing back then, zombies would be a very different thing in the 21st century. Having your 'zombies' as nothing more than a homeless guy and a gang of youths in anti-establishment get-ups and a few scratches on their faces who can talk is a waste of the whole conceit.

I was reminded of Wolf, the straight-to-video thriller of a pre-stardom Jason Momoa playing a werewolf who talks in a ridiculous snarly voice.

It also feels like it was a collection of ideas and set pieces he'd thought of for a movie and then, when the studio demanded a draft within a week, just threw them all in. The pace is all over the place, with the overlong and ultimately inconsequential shopping mall battle a particular stand-out.

If it wasn't for Stewart it'd be another movie you've been hearing about for years and assumed it was a classic before you watched it and realised how much lower standards were back them and how much more easily we were apparently entertained.

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