January 12, 2013

"Night of the Comet" by Erin Virgil

Not a movie many people are familiar with, and, by some standards, not a very good movie, Night of the Comet (1984) features two strong, plucky young sisters who survive a poorly fabricated apocalypse, then find suitable mates and repopulate Los Angeles.  Though mostly lost in our pop culture past, the movie has been acknowledged in certain circles; it was voted number ten of the top 10 Doomsday Films, by Bloody Disgusting (a horror movie website) in 2009. I have a soft spot for this movie, it's kind of a fellow lost child of the 1980's. The sisters make this movie a chick flick, bravely fighting off errant zombies and reapplying pink lipstick for the good of the world to come.

Since it is a fairly obscure movie, I'll give a brief plot summary.  The first image of the female lead, Regina Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart), shows her face at close range, lit up by a screen: she's playing Tempest at the movie arcade, and she's really good. Regina works at the movie theater, but not for long; later that night, the same comet that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago swings back around Earth and kills everyone with its deadly astral dust or some such, except for a few random citizens who spend the night inside steel structures (movie projector room, truck cab, garden shed).  Regina's younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney), wears a tight cheerleader sweater and pink and blue miniskirt for the whole movie, and, despite a lack of showers or hair care products, maintains a fluffy perm throughout (as does Regina).  Regina's eighteen and Sam's sixteen, and they cope with the total annihilation of mankind by heading off to the radio station downtown, where they soon encounter Hector, a slightly older Hispanic man who has just rolled into town in a semi truck.

Oh, and the comet didn't kill everyone, some people were only partially exposed and turned into zombies. It's a very clean apocalypse; Regina fights off a zombie in an alley lined with new, perfectly stacked cardboard boxes. The girls team up with Hector (Robert Beltran), beat down a handful of silly George Romero zombies, and then get taken away to a sketchy underground lab in the desert.  The compound belongs to a secret group which has been holed out preparing for the comet and its aftermath.  They’re really evil scientists, with a creepy illuminati feel, wearing white coats and/or belted jumpsuits.  These men are supposedly brilliant but are actually not very smart, getting repeatedly beat up by both female protagonists. Also they left the ventilation system running when the comet went by, so they're all turning into zombies and need the blood of survivors to live (thus they set out to capture the teenage girls, and some younger kids too).  The lone female scientist is the only one with half a conscience, and she helps Regina and Sam before succumbing to comet zombieitis.  (I didn't expect the plot to be this hard to explain, and I hope it's not a total drag. Really, watch the movie, it's like an hour and change and mostly worth it).

Before getting to why Night of the Comet has anything to do with feminism, here are the reasons why I (still) love it:

1. This movie offers a hard look at the gluttony of the 1980s. It takes you to post-apocalyptic arcades, movie theaters and malls, with their respective lights and boom boxes still blasting. The empty highways and skyline of Los Angeles are tinted an unsettling burnt-out red; you never forget it's an empty, poisoned city.  The director, Thomas Eberhardt, was able to create an effect that still feels real, not painfully fake, as in many B-movies of earlier decades. On the night the comet passes over Earth, there are all these neighborhood orgies, I mean, comet parties, where everyone and their shoulder pads are obliterated.  Like the earlier Omega Man and Andromeda Strain, Night of the Comet creates penetrating still-lifes of the lonely aftermath: BBQ party plates left out, plastic toys bobbing in a pool, empty Italian leather loafers. Everywhere are the former status symbols, now just meaningless junk.

2. Actual dialogue: "I'll be taking requests from all you teenage comet zombies on the hit line!" (Samantha, chewing gum and overacting).

3. Spandex, leotards, pompoms and leg warmers: these things are relics of my childhood, too, and I still feel a tenderness for them. Especially leg warmers.

And now, the feminist thread of this B-movie: Regina and Sam were raised by their father, a Green Beret currently fighting in Honduras (possibly a commentary on the CIA activities in Central America), so they know how to shoot machine guns and defend themselves against zombies and muggers alike.  Playing video games, Regina seems to get off on the technology, it thrills her. She puts her whole body into it, ignoring everything else, including her boss. In the  second scene of the movie, she fights with her slutty stepmother (who belongs on the set of Dynasty) over the phone, and then she has casual sex with Larry, the guy who runs the projector at the movie theater. Regina's a little jaded, a little rough around the edges. Samantha's on the pep squad, or was once, and still dresses like it. The girls' mother is absent, and her absence is felt by both. For a while they expect their father to show up and rescue them, but, previous society and expectations evaporated, they save themselves and find pleasing new men instead.  But, they never let these men take care of them; they probably would have survived with or without the guys.

The sisters are lovable because they are tough, and not really part of the rampant materialism of the time. But they are taken with the candy pop culture part (they're teenagers, how could they not be taken). They dance badly in an empty mall to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," pure cinematic bubble gum (they went to the mall to cheer themselves up and find "practical" clothing). There's a great shot where Regina sets her gun down in a display of stiletto heels in primary colors, all weapons of the 80's.  The mall is another boneyard, empty stores like museum rooms documenting a lost civilization. And then, the mallrats: not technically zombies, a few mallrats gone mad with power briefly capture the girls before the evil scientists show up and shoot them, saving the girls and their pure blood.  In another glancing shot at 80’s consumerism, Regina chucks a monster TV over the skyway railing to escape her captors, causing a wonderful slow motion explosion, sending glass shards and cathode ray bits flying.


Night of the Comet is truly a chick flick, because the two young women successfully carry the convoluted plot, stand up for themselves constantly and without undue bitchiness, and eventually recreate a little family.  They reject the materialism of the previous world in favor of a more grounded reality; Regina and Samantha remind each other that "the burden of civilization is on us now," and it really feels like they don't want to let humanity down. Regina hooks up with Hector, they adopt the young boy and girl they rescued from the desert lab (which, as you've probably surmised, gets blown up after the girls cleverly escape their captors), and at the very end, Samantha gets picked up by a kid in a convertible, a fellow survivor (no one has to eat in this new reality, but, as in most post-apocalyptic movies, everyone drinks and hot wires abandoned sports cars). Regina has moved from videogames to Polaroid cameras, taking tender family photos. And Samantha trades in her cheerleader sweater for something a little fancier, but no less bubble gummy. In the last scene, the red smog/astral dust that's been hanging around the whole movie finally lifts, and Los Angeles is clean and pretty.  The zombies are gone, the evil scientist zombies are gone, and the world is once again safe for slightly biracial nuclear families. It was, after all, the eighties.

Erin Virgil is a poet and visual artist living in an RV in Golden, Colorado.  She holds an MFA in poetry from Naropa University in Boulder, CO, and a B.A. in English from Barnard College in New York City, a previous home.  Her poems have been published by Matterhorn Press, Open to Interpretation, Fast Forward Press, Poets for Living Waters (a great online project), and forthcoming in Colorado Life Magazine.  She has also published one little volume of poems and a comic book, both available through Amazon, and keeps up a blog with movie reviews, photography, and arts and crafts ideas at www.emvlovely.wordpress.com