The 1980s were full of creative science fiction films. Some of them became influential classics like “The Terminator“, some of them ended up in bargain bins on VHS and may never see the light of DVD day or Blu ray. This one ends up as a well remembered cult film that was done on a very limited budget but it engendered a clever and warm feeling at the end of the experience. It’s alternate title summarizes it well:
“Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies“
This is a delightfully wry sci/fi horror movie that never takes itself too seriously but is surprisingly well acted and scripted. It is full of clever quotes, fun twists, and references to the time period that will make the horror of fashion in 1984 haunt you almost as much as the zombies do. Like most films with a limited budget, it has to make up for a lack of special effects with creative set design and storytelling.
The world awaits the arrival of a comet that will supply incredible visual fireworks and it sparks Comet Watching parties around the world. There is a prologue that warns us that the last time this particular comet visited our neighborhood it was 65 million years ago, around the time the dinosaurs disappeared. Regina (Reg) works at a movie theater holding a midnight screening, but she is more interested in sleeping with her boyfriend in the projection booth than in doing her job. When we first meet her, she is already something of a zombie, a videogame zombie, oblivious to the events around her as she tries to make sure that all the top scores on the machine she plays are hers. Catherine Mary Stewart makes her second appearance on this project, ironically playing a video game much as was featured in her other film on the list “The Last Starfighter“. In this film though, she is not just the love interest, she is the main protagonist. She’s a smart eighteen year old with a younger sister, an absent military father, and a nightmare step-mother.
I mention the workplace because it is the thing that allows her to escape the damaging effects of the comet. The projection booth is encased in steel walls, supposedly a safety precaution from the old days (I hope that my friend Michael, a former projectionist, can confirm some of this). Reg and Larry spend the night in the booth and miss out on the comet. They are awaiting the return of a film they have lent out to be bootlegged, and as Larry goes out to meet his partner, he runs into the first of a Zombiefied population. In the long run it is never important, but most people exposed to the comet are turned into calcified dust. A few may have had some protection that was partial so they are slowly turning into dust but they go through a stage of murderous Zombie behavior first. There is a cute little reference to this with a poster on the wall of the theater right where Larry exits, that is for the Clark Gable/Jean Harlow film “Red Dust”. Speaking of other movie references, “Valley Girl“, is featured on a poster in the lobby of the theater, it’s soundtrack jacket is in a scene in a radio station later in the film, and “Larry” the boyfriend is played by Michael Bowen, who was “Tommy”, the Val Dude no one else can touch from the earlier film. Reg is a resourceful and well prepared young woman. When she encounters the Zombie guy who helped her boyfriend “exit” the theater, she uses some self defense moves and gets away. Driving through a deserted downtown Los Angeles is another clue as to what she missed in the night.
Reg’s sister Samantha survives as well, having run away from her abusive step mother and sleeping in a steel garden shed. When the question of underground ventilation comes up later in the movie, you will need to block this particular plot device out of your head. It is best not to think too hard about the circumstances of these events and just go with the flow. Once the sister reunite, the plot of the film kicks in. Basically it is a survival story with a little social criticism dropped in now and then. The comet effects were negligible, consisting of flashing lights on the faces of the crowds looking up and then some photographic process shots tinted red of the LA skyline. Like I said, a movie like this makes up in creativity what it lacks in budget. If this were to be remade today, we would certainly see a process that destroys all the population with some CGI face melting. This film keeps it simple, the story is about the two sisters not the plague effect on the world.
Kelly Maroney and Catherine Mary Stewart have an effective scene when the older sister tries to explain to her dubious sibling that the world has basically ended. One of the things that makes the girls a good rooting interest is that they seem pretty real in the circumstances. Sam turns and closes the door on the visual evidence of her dust piles of neighbors and in denial, pours herself a bowl of cereal. Reg is condescending at first but then more sympathetic and the two of them have to figure out what to do next. The presence of a radio program still on the air moves them to investigate at the station. They discover a couple of things; first a lot of radio is canned and played back automatically and second, that a radio station that is primarily a junction box for electronically run programming, needs to have a really cool atmosphere for the non-existent DJs. This is one of the design tricks to help make the movie more interesting, even though it does not make much sense. The station is filled with rooms that are lit with brightly colored neon tubes in artistic design. In one spot, there is a whole wall of “animated” neon lighting featuring musical instruments. It looks more like a disco than a studio, but it makes for an effective spot to stage several neat sequences.
The girls are not the only ones drawn to the radio station. A long distance trucker, who conveniently slept in the steel shell of his container cargo the night before, arrives at the station and the girls get in a brief moment of tension and then some exposition. The young Hispanic man named Hector, is handsome enough to be appealing and resourceful enough to be an effective ally for the story to come. He is played by Robert Beltran, an actor I recognized from “Star Trek Voyager”.
The time at the radio station is filled with a couple of very creepy sequences, one of which provides the only sexual moment in the film, as pretty young Samantha strips to her underwear to take a jaybird bath.
The rest of the movie involves these three and the encounters they have with other survivors and assorted infected individuals. After a bad dream and being surprised by Hector at the radio station, Reg decides the girls need to be armed and so they obtain some weapons and engage in a bit of practice before they head out to explore the city while Hector runs down to San Diego to try and see if any of his family survived. He promises to return, but the girls are self sufficient enough to prepare for other eventualities. Our family’s favorite line from the movie comes from this sequence. When the MAC 10 machine pistols they are using jam. Sam complains to her sister: “Daddy would have gotten us Uzis.”
I suppose it is obligatory for these post apocalyptic stories to have a scene of indulgence in the deserted shopping areas. The idea of having free run of the place is a fantasy that everyone might have. Ask yourself, what would I want if no one else was around and I could take anything that appealed to me? I’d be looking for a memorabilia store but teen girls would probably want to go clothes shopping. This may have been the first use in a movie of the Cyndi Lauper song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. It works really well as the two girls try to brush aside their blues with an extravagant shopping spree set to the tune of one of the most popular mid 80s hits around.
The peppy dancing comes to a quick end though when a group of mutated stock boys turn the security cameras on the girls. These near zombies are not the only ones out there however. At the radio station, Sam was contacted by phone by a mysterious group that is secreted in the desert. These scientists had the foresight to know that the comet would be dangerous, but they appear to be slowly succumbing to it’s effects and they are searching for a cure. They arrive at a fortuitous moment but their motives seem unclear.
The two main characters from this group are played by film veterans Mary Woronov and Geoffery Lewis. Woronov appeared in another Science Fiction film that has a reference in the movie. A poster for “Death Race 2000” is on the door of the theater as Reg exits out the front. Geoffery Lewis, the father of actress Juliette Lewis, was a frequent co-star with Clint Eastwood. Mr. Lewis passed away earlier this year, coincidentally right after I’d seen him in one of my favorite films from 1975, “The Wind and the Lion“. If there are any pretensions at serious social commentary in this film, they come from the dynamic of these two older actors as their characters discuss how to proceed with the other survivors of the comet. Most of that is background for the story but it does give the science complex that is featured in the third act of the film a bit more drama.
This set, featuring dark rooms, forced perspective hallways and open ceiling that allow the camera to drop in on the action, is another example of the creativity of the film makers. An otherwise mundane setting becomes more intriguing and creepy because of the way is is lit and shot. Some of the other scientists at the location provide some moments of human horror as they callously deal with their own infections by exploiting other survivors.
The five main actors all do their best to sell this scenario as a real event. They don’t ham it up or treat the material as if it were nonsense (which of course it is), but rather they add some real human emotion to an otherwise shallow premise. The reason the film is memorable is that the two girls were independent and perky as all get out, and that the make up effects were subtle enough to be real and not overdone on the gore factor. A quick final shot of one character’s transformation was enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck. The spirit of the film is easy to deduce from one final visual.
In a world void of humans, without much hope, and all the other people you have known wiped out of existence, you can still look cute in the empty streets of the city.