There were a lot of end-of-the-world movies made in the 1980’s. Unlike the swarm of natural disaster flicks that would begin to follow in the 1990’s, these films were usually delved into science-fiction or the supernatural. The end of the world was frequently discovered to be mankind’s fault. Some people genuinely believed the Reagan era would cause the end of the humanity and fears of the Cold War had again resurfaced, so many movies of the time explored a post-apocalyptic war zone. The thing separating Night of the Comet from other movies of its ilk was its tone. While post-apocalyptic movies are inherently nihilistic, this took on a much lighter, almost upbeat tone.
The first thing that makes Night of the Comet a bit lighter, right off the bat, is its PG-13 rating. It was one of the first mainstream movies in any genre to carry the rating and certainly the first zombie film to carry one as well. Zombie movies are known for their ample amounts of gore, so for Night of the Comet to elect not to showcase any of that was a bold move.
The plot is simple. The Earth is passing through the tail of a comet, which has not occurred in 65 million years. Naturally, the last time just happens to coincide with the extinction of the dinosaurs. Obviously it’s a huge deal, so just about everyone on the planet decides to watch the comet pass overhead. The major cast of characters are the people who elect not to watch the comet and wake up in the morning to find that just about everyone on Earth has vanished. At least, that’s the way it looks at first. Some people are still up and walking around, but they’re not people anymore.
Whereas Return of the Living Dead was a zombie comedy that excelled in intense nihilism, Night of the Comet gets by on pure optimism in the face of the end of the world. Sure, sisters Reggie and Sam are scared and nervous, but they have each other. The people they encounter are certainly phased by what has happened, but they aren’t broken by it.
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Movies like The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man (both based on Richard Matheson’s I am Legend) have nearly the exact same plot as Night of the Comet. Both of those movies were about the eradication of nearly all human life and adjusting to that world. Both also featured zombies that more or less retained human attributes—although in the case of Last Man on Earth, they were vampires. But the tone sets Night of the Comet apart from its contemporaries. Those movies are depressing. It makes sense, of course. The stories are inherently dark and it’s hard to take the fall of civilization as anything but downbeat.
But that’s what makes Night of the Comet unique. These girls are capable, they adjust well to the zombie-infested world and just decide to make the most of it. By all accounts they never much cared for the world the way it was and this could be a chance to do things better a second time. They meet up with a radio DJ and are pleased to see that not everyone is out for their own gain in this posthumous world.
Though it’s upbeat on the surface, there is at least some degree of darkness to the movie’s tonality. The main antagonists of the film prove not to be the zombies but the government. Which was the case for many, many movies in the 1980’s–from Day of the Dead to E.T. There’s a sense that things might be better off now. Night of the Comet kind of leaves you with the impression that if these people are no longer in charge it can only be a good thing.
These ideas don’t feel out of place with the rest of the feature. Everything about it is focused on taking things that are normally very dark and spinning them on their head. It’s looking blatantly at fears that were very common in the era and it’s laughing at them all the same. That’s a key part of the movie’s lasting power.
Night of the Comet is one of the only apocalyptic horror films to actually opt for a happy ending. After surviving their ordeal, these characters band together and just decide to make the most out of their situation. They’ve gone through some horrible things, including flesh-eating monsters and losing all of their loved ones but they’ve adjusted in the end. In fact, the ending actually features the heroes driving off into the sunset.
Ultimately, the sense of humor present in Night of the Comet helps it to stand out from the many similar movies of the decade in which it was released. Due mostly to the resurgence of the Cold War, there was a bit of a movement in the 1980’s to revisit the overwhelming plots and themes of the 1950s.
Night of the Comet is one of the best of this group because it pays homage to the 1950s films and satirizes them in equal measure. This was uncommon for its time, but it clearly has had some influence over the last thirty years. Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, This is the End and The World’s End all owe a little something to Night of the Comet, which has changed the way we look at the end of the world.