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Posts Tagged ‘Geoffrey Lewis’

At times like this, with all the cinemas closed and all new releases cancelled, the big streaming sites virtually qualify as an emergency service for those of us who normally try to watch two or three movies a week. Oddly enough, though, I find myself drawn not to all the shiny new original films these guys have been making, but those older classics (or not) which have found a place in their libraries. (I did read a piece pointing out the sheer scarcity of films from before about 1980 on Netflix, the implication being that the site eventually wants us all to become consumers solely of its own product, in much the same way that Disney Plus is trying to make people forget any other studios exist – mind you, if you look at box office returns over the last few years, this seems to be happening anyway…)

To take my mind off what’s starting to look, from some angles, a bit like the popular conception of the apocalypse, I decided to revisit a somewhat offbeat take on the post-apocalypse, in the form of Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet. I don’t think I’ve seen this movie in over thirty years – the BBC used to have a regular Sunday night slot called Moviedrome, where they would show a different cult film every week, and as you can probably imagine this had a major impact on my development as a cinema bore. I saw my first Kurosawa movie through the auspices of Moviedrome, not to mention The Terminator, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alphaville,  Assault on Precinct 13, and many others. Classics all – but they also showed things like Night of the Comet, which appeared in the strand (a little research has just revealed) in 1989.

Night of the Comet was originally released in 1984. A knowingly portentous voice-over kicks off proceedings, describing the approach towards our planet of a mysterious comet, which made its last visit 65 million years ago, right about the time the dinosaurs died out. What a coincidence… It’s not one which most people pay much heed to, gathering in the streets and parks in anticipation of a literally stellar display.

Not watching the celestial fireworks, however, is steely eighteen-year-old girl Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), as she has spent the night in the steel-lined projection room of a Los Angeles theatre with her kind-of boyfriend. Come the morning, he heads off on urgent business, only to be brained by a zombie with a wrench the moment he steps out of the building. Luckily, Reg’s dad is in the army and has taught her to deal with this kind of emergency, and she heads home, slowly realising something unexpected has occurred: piles of clothes filled with reddish dust litter the streets, and the sky is stained a baleful orange colour (‘Bad smog today’ is her first thought). Eventually she puts two and two together and realises that the comet’s radiation has disintegrated the vast majority of the population and turned everyone else into a homicidal zombie!

Well, not quite everybody else: in a credulity-bothering development, Reg’s sassy younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) has also survived after spending the night in a steel garden shed. It takes a bit of persuading to make Sam realise the gravity of the situation, but eventually she wises up. The sound of DJ chatter on the radio gives the girls hope there are other survivors – but on arriving there, they find only automated equipment, broadcasting as usual. ‘Beam me up Scotty,’ says an impressed Sam.

Which is a decent cue for the appearance of truck driver Hector, given he is played by Robert Beltran (Beltran is best known for his stint in Star Trek, and the epically disgruntled interviews he would give about his lack of character development). Beltran gets top billing here, but doesn’t really deserve it. Hector also spent the night in a steel box (the back of his truck) and has had run-ins with the zombies. There is perhaps a little spark between Reg and Hector (rather to Sam’s chagrin), but before anything can develop, Hector announces he has to go and see if his mum has survived.

There is also a phone call to the station from a secret government installation who claim to be bringing survivors together – like you’d ever trust the government in this sort of situation. The head of the installation is played by Geoffrey Lewis, who is the closest thing to a mainstream movie star in this picture, while assisting him is Mary Woronov, who is both practical and stylish in boiler-suit and legwarmers. It turns out the boffins need to develop a cure for zombie-ism rather quickly (their shelter wasn’t completely steel-lined) and require the blood of bright young women to do so… Little realising the peril they are in, Sam and Reg decide to take things easy and do what any self-respecting California girl would do in this situation – load up with automatic weapons and hit the nearest shopping mall!

One of the main reasons for Night of the Comet‘s charm (which is considerable) is the way in which it shamelessly mashes together two notably dour pieces of SF to produce something much more tongue-in-cheek, even silly in places. The opening, with crowds gathering in anticipation of the show from the comet, and early reports of communication black-outs being ignored, is lifted almost beat-for-beat from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, while the vision of an empty Los Angeles with lurking zombie-like survivors is likewise an obvious steal from The Omega Man (vide Richard Matheson, again). There are also nods to Dawn of the Dead, although to be honest the zombies remain a fairly minor element of the story, perhaps explaining why this film only received a PG-13 rating on its release, one of the first films to do so.

And yet the finished film feels like it really wants to be a comedy or spoof – a line of dialogue retains the original working title for the movie, Teenage Comet Zombies, which does feel like it would have been a better fit than the one they finished up with. I’ve always felt there was a largely-unrecognised movement of low-budget SF movies made in California in the early to mid 80s, and this is part of it – I’m thinking of movies like Trancers and Cherry 2000, as well, with The Terminator undoubtedly the most significant film to come out of this scene. As a rule they are clever, inventive, and witty, and to begin with this film is no exception, playing with its genre conventions with a knowing deftness and treating the viewer with intelligence.

The first act, until the point at which Reg and Sam meet up with Hector, barely puts a foot wrong, with the revelation of the aftereffects of the comet and the presentation of the silenced city being particularly well-done. It kind of loses focus and runs out of steam after this, though: the plot sort of ambles around for a bit, with various set-pieces going on, before pulling itself back together for a half-decent finale. The good lines are further apart and the contrivances of the plot somehow more obvious; Stewart and Maroney are good enough to make you wonder why they ended up becalmed in TV, but there are some very iffy performances further down the cast list.

The problem with the movie is that it’s just not funny enough to work as a full-on comedy or spoof, but the fact that it wants to be one means it is fatally lacking in heft in its dramatic moments – Eberhardt may have based his script on interviews with actual California teenagers, asking what they would do in the event of an apocalyptic crisis (‘go shopping’ was apparently the result – they only became concerned when he pointed out the problems involved in getting a date), but there’s still something very absurd about the sisters’ untroubled response to the catastrophe that has befallen the world. This is a fundamentally superficial film, and intentionally so, but that doesn’t mean there is not a considerable amount of entertainment value to be derived along the way.

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