Awesome ’80s in April: Night of the Comet (1984)

night of the comet poster

While working on my list of movies I wanted to watch during the Awesome ’80s in April I headed over to Letterboxd, turned on their giant list of all films, filtered out everything but movies made in the 1980s, sorted it by highest rated, and systematically made my way through the entire list. I was looking for movies I had never seen, but had always wanted to watch. Or movies I’d never heard of but that looked interesting (one of the cool things about Letterboxd is that it lets you see how your friends rated any film, and read any reviews they might have written).

Night of the Comet falls into the latter category. I’d never heard of it before, but it was rated pretty highly by people whose thoughts on movies I respect and the plot sounded interesting.

Honestly, even after all of that, I expected something much cheesier. The plot synopsis sounds like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Night of the Living Dead at the end of the world. But what I got was something more thoughtful, and well-made than that synopsis makes you expect.

An opening salvo tells us that a huge comet will be passing by Earth for the first time in millions of years. Everybody is excited. Parties are being held outside to watch the comet pass. The whole world is outside watching. The whole world except for Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Larry (Michael Bowen). They work at a movie theater and Larry has convinced Reggie to help him rent out a reel to some guys who will illegally duplicate it. Reggie really wants to see the comet pass by, but Larry is willing to pay her a whole $15 bucks and that’s hard to turn down.

They wind up spending the night in the steel-lined projection booth. The next morning they wake up to find that the comet has turned everybody (well, almost everybody) into red dust. A few people did survive but they seem to have been turned into brain-eating zombies. Larry meets his end pretty quickly and Reggie returns home to find her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) is still alive. Turns out that after an argument with her mother Sam slept in the steel-lined shed.

Together, they do what any red-blooded American teenager would do after a zombie apocalypse – they head to the mall. Actually, they head to the radio station first because a DJ’s voice can be heard playing records and they figure finding another human alive would be a good thing. The DJ is actually just a recording on a tape, but they do discover Hector (Robert Beltran) at the radio station. Hector almost immediately leaves the girls as he needs to find out if his mother is still alive (he’ll come back to the movie a little later). That’s when the girls go to the mall.

There are some scientists types who survived by hiding in an underground bunker. They must now try to rebuild humanity and that begins by running tests of the few other humans who survived to see if there is a chance at finding a vaccine to counteract the effects of the cosmic rays.

Night of the Comet does a great job of blending comedy with horror and thriller elements. The Buffy mixed with Night of the Living Dead elements I mentioned at the beginning of this post are more apt than I thought. Although it is more like Dawn of the Dead since a great portion of the movie is spent inside a mall. But it is a much better film than that synopsis might indicate. It was made on a tiny budget, but they put every dollar they had to good use. It is funny and thrilling, and has a nice sense of what it’s trying to do.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Hell of the Living Dead (1980)

hell of the living dead poster

George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) was a huge international success. It made over $1 million in Italy alone. In 1979 Lucio Fulci made an unofficial sequel, Zombi 2 (Dawn was titled Zombi in Italy). It was quite successful as well and for the next few years, the Italians began churning out one zombie film after another.

In 1980 Bruno Mattei got into the game with Hell of the Living Dead, aka Virus, aka Night of the Zombies, aka Zombie Creeping Flesh, aka half a dozen other things. It is, well it is a mess, but kind of a glorious, ridiculous, god-awful mess. It’s also a lot of fun in a late-night weekend kind of way.

The plot, such as it is, involves a research facility in Papua New Guinea that accidentally releases an experimental gas called “Operation Sweet Death” which turns the recently deceased into flesh-eating monsters.

The government sends in an elite SWAT team to take care of business. Along the way they run into two reporters and together, they make their way through the jungle, battling hordes of monsters, to the research facility to…well it’s never exactly clear what their ultimate goal is, but there sure takes a lot of gore-filled violence to get there.

Most of the plot makes very little sense. The dubbed dialogue is hilariously bad, and the acting is atrocious. There is a ton of very obvious stock footage of animals and natives thrown in to boost the run time. The score is by the very excellent band Goblin, but all of it is recycled from various other films.

The characters make ridiculous decisions after ridiculous decisions. Though early on they figure out the only way to kill the zombies is to shoot them in the head, they constantly shoot them everywhere but the brain pan. One guy liked to taunt them and dance around them for some reason. Whenever a zombie attacks the other characters literally just stand there for the longest time watching them eat their friends until finally decide to act. Etc,. etc.

I’ve seen a lot of bad horror movies. I’ve seen a lot of bad zombie movies. This is one of the worst ones I’ve ever seen. And yet, under the right circumstance, in the right mood this film kind of works.

28 Days Later (2002)

28 days later poster

The zombies are fast.

It’s true that in Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later the crazed, flesh-eating villains aren’t technically zombies. In fact, Boyle has gone to great lengths to qualify them as humans infected with a virus known as RAGE. Yet, to this reviewer at least, the differences seem moot. In traditional zombie pictures, and in this film the creatures are mindless, they carry a real zeal for human flesh, they have a predilection for turning everyone else into their like, and they are fairly easy to kill. Whether the creatures are the living dead so to speak, or infected by an incurable virus doesn’t make much of a difference. Though the zombies here, seem updated from their cinematic ancestors.

These zombies are fast.

Traditional zombies are a slow-moving lot. Having been rotting in their own graves for untold years, their reanimated flesh is a little atrophied, causing them to move at a slow, sluggish pace. This has always been a helpful plot point for the heroes in zombie films, for they are easy to run away from. In fact, zombies are generally able to kill their victims through sheer numbers. Individually they are easy to destroy, but as an oncoming onslaught, the sheer numbers win every time.  Boyle circumvented this convenience by allowing his monsters to run at normal human speeds. It is an excellent update to the genre, giving the ability for more scares.

Man, I dug the first half of this movie. Well, except for the very, very beginning. The opening scene gives us the origin of RAGE, with a bunch of Clockwork Orange-inspired monkeys. I’ve never really dug origin scenes in zombie flicks. I think it’s much scarier to just have the zombies running around eating brains, without any reason for their existence. Origins, generally, just seem dumb. And here, with the infected monkeys being freed by some Green Peace types doesn’t really inspire any other feelings. Though, I suspect it was another move to plant this film outside the zombie track.

But after the scene of the dumb origin, things get really good. We’ve got a naked guy named Jim (Cillian Murphy) hooked up to various tubes in a hospital bed. I always like it when there is a bit of male nudity in a flick since there is always so much of the female variety. Anyways, Jim gets out of bed and wanders the streets of London. There are plenty of shots of Jim (fully clothed now) walking by big famous London monuments without another soul around. It seems London has been vacated. It is creepy and effective.

In a bit, Jim clamors into a church figuring to find some sanctuary, or at least have a few questions answered. What he finds is a bunch of dead folks piled up. In a good holy crap moment, Jim says, “Hello” to find a couple of the dead guys not so dead and jumping up. From there until the second half of the film, it is a constant run from the zombies.

The zombies really work in this film. They are fast, furious, and vicious. Jim eventually teams up with some other survivors and they set about trying to figure out what to do. Boyle really does a great job of adding tension to the film and keeping the scares up.

Then the film changes.

The group is rescued by a gang of all-male military types, living in a compound. Turns out the military types are a bunch of psychos and the film turns from being a zombie flick into being a stranded-in-a-compound-with-a-bunch-of-psycho-military-types kind of film. To make sure we know this is no longer a zombie flick, a big group of zombies launches an attack on the compound only to be massacred with machine guns and land mines.

In this half of the film, I don’t dig nearly as much. Zombie flicks always have trouble filling out their whole hour-and-a-half time slot. Even with a good introduction of characters, and a slow build to zombie free-for-all, there is still plenty of filler time. Here, the filmmakers seem to have decided that they might as well dump the zombies and give us some other tension-filled concoction. But, there isn’t really enough time to develop the military end of the story and it feels wrong.

It’s too bad too because that first half was really promising.