I was originally planning to do some murder mysteries to continue mourning the unceremonious slaying of FilmStruck, the film streaming service that has provided a lot of films for this blog, and also retweeted quite a few of my posts on twitter, which definitely increased my exposure. But as I’m still in Amsterdam for one more week, I discovered that my internet connection wasn’t super reliable when it was time to watch films, so I had to go with a different service. So I decided to watch two sci-fi cult movies from the 1980s. This week’s films are:
Thom Eberhart – Night of the Comet (1984)
W.D. Richter – The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984)
Both have survived in memory not necessarily because of the high quality of film making and storytelling, but because of their quirky sensibilities.
Let’s get into it.
Night of the Comet (1984)
The entire world is having a massive party to celebrate the comet that will pass by Earth. However, when the planet slips into the tail of the comet, most of the population is immediately vaporized, and many others exposed are turned into flesh-hungry zombies. Only a few people survived. How will they make it through the next few days and remake civilization?
The film is written and directed by Thom Eberhart who had a pretty consistent career through the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The film stars Catherine Mary Stewart, who had a lot of very visible roles in this era in films like The Last Starfighter, and Weekend and Bernies, among others. Also in the cast is Robert Beltran, who’d gain some fame later on for his role on Star Trek: Voyager.
It might be hard to remember, but in the mid-1980s, comets were a source of fascination for Americans. The famous Halley’s Comet was due for a trip by earth in 1986, and people were generally interested in comets, and how they might interact with the planet. Halley’s Comet only passes by earth every 76 years or so, and it’s the only one that passes with regularity. So it’s appearance in the 1980s was a big event. A sci-fi horror movie about the big item in the news made a lot of sense.
This was also the era of low-budget slasher movies. After Friday the 13th came out in 1980, there was a big glut of horror movies about teenagers behaving badly and getting killed by some unknown assassin. These movies turned up the gore and makeup effects, leading to a little sub-genre of films during the 80s. The films mostly died out by the 90s, but they were hugely popular genre at the time.
Night of the Comet presents itself as this kind of teen horror film with lots of gore, but then it begins subverting expectations. We start out meeting Regina, a movie theater usher who’s obsessed with the arcade game Tempest. She’s dating the projectionist, who is running some shady business on the side, lending out rare prints that come through the theater to a bootlegger.
The two spend the night together in the projection booth, which her boyfriend Larry tells her has steel walls. We also get some background on Regina. She has a sister Samantha, and her father is a soldier, fighting in a war. They have a stepmother Doris, who openly cheats on their father, and hates them both. As the comet passes, we begin to see things go wrong.
The next morning, we get some glimpses of the city. We don’t see any people, but we see piles of clothes with large amounts of some kind of dust surrounding them. It seems that everyone has been vaporized. But inside the projection booth, Regina and Larry seem fine. Larry is upset that his bootlegger contact hasn’t returned with the film.
But when he hears someone outside the door he opens it and is immediately attacked with a pipe wrench and dragged away. Regina comes down sometime later, and discovers the abandoned city. At first, she doesn’t seem to find anything wrong. It’s early, and everyone was up late partying.
But when she heads around back she discovers the zombie who has just finished eating her boyfriend. She is able to fight it off with some well-practiced self-defense moves and escapes on his motorcycle.
As she moves through the streets on her way back home, we see the same scenes we saw before. When she gets home, she finds her sister, still alive, and oblivious. She planned to run away to teach her step mother a lesson, but just stayed in the metal storage shed in the backyard as she had nowhere to go. She has no idea what’s happened to the world. Regina finally convinces Samantha that the world is over, and they both turn to the radio where a DJ is still cheerily counting down the hits. They go to the radio station hoping to find another survivor.
Throughout the film, there is a heavy theme of automation. Even when all the people in the world are gone, the automated machines still work. Stoplights and walk signs still change, sprinkler systems still obediently water the grass, and as Regina and Samantha find out, the radio station is mostly automated, playing songs and giving weather updates.
At the radio station, they meet Hector, another survivor. He tells them he stayed in the back of his truck the night before with a woman who ran away after realizing what happened to the world and was killed by the zombies.
The film hasn’t used much gore up to this point, it’s been much more introspective about how these characters would react to the end of the world. Regina seems fairly resigned to the fact that the world is just over. This same thing has happened everywhere. Hector is more optimistic that they’ll find more survivors. But Samantha is not taking it well. the film takes us through a dream sequence in which she’s driving through the empty city at night, when two police officers on motorcycles begin chasing her. She stops for them, trying to talk her way out of a ticket, but the two police officers are zombies and attack her. The film leans heavily on the gore here, as we see the officers fingers come apart as she fights.
She wakes up, revealing the dream, and goes to the bathroom to wash up. She undresses, making herself vulnerable, and one of the police officers comes up behind her attacking her again. She wakes up again.
This is a really effective technique. As the first loop was fairly obviously a dream, but by doing another dream inside of it, the film is able to fake out the audience and get some more mileage out of a fairly standard horror film trope.
As all this is going on, we start to get small scenes with some kind of shadowy organization that has planned ahead for the disaster. They locked themselves in a vault, and are trying to create a serum to reverse the effects of the comet. We never learn the name of this organization, but they don’t seem to have the world’s best interests in mind. They are working to rescue survivors, and at least one of the members of the team, a woman named White, doesn’t seem to be totally on board. In addition, she’s clearly beginning to show affects of the comet, having mental issues.
At the radio station, when Samantha decides to play with the equipment, she reads off the phone number for the station, and gets a call from the organization. They agree to come and ‘rescue’ the trio.
While this happens, Hector and Regina begin a little flirtation, and Hector tells her he has to check on his mother in San Diego. We learn that Regina has learned weapon skills from her soldier father, and is very comfortable with a machine gun, and even knows where to find them.
The film begins to move from introspection to action as Hector drives off to San Diego, and Regina and Samantha are left alone to quite capably defend themselves. Both sides are placed in danger. Hector is attacked by a child zombie as he searches his mother’s home, and Regina and Samantha are attacked at a clothing store where they’re having a shopping spree. There a gang of former shop clerks have claimed it. Things get very over the top here as the actor playing the lead gang member is a very bad actor with very bad dialogue. But the shootout in the store is pretty effective at showing how capable Regina and Samantha are, even if they eventually lose.
The film shifts more into action and revelation as we start to learn about the shadowy organization. They aren’t trying to save the world, just themselves, and they’re willing to sacrifice anyone to do it. We discover that they left their vents and fans to the outside world open as the comet passed, and they’re all infected. It smacks of the automated world theme that we’ve been presented with throughout the film.
We learn all of this through the woman named White, who arrives to rescue the sisters and Hector. They take Regina with them, but they assume that Samantha is already infected as she’s showing signs, breaking out in a rash. White gives her a drug which we assume kills her, but later we find out she was just trying to misdirect the other members of her organization. She leaves the whole story in a letter for Hector, who arrives, grabs Samantha, and heads out to the organizations compound.
In the end, they all escape, along with two children who were captured by the organization. In the final scene, Regina, Hector and the two children have formed a new family unit while Samantha sulks, until another survivor rolls by in his fancy car, taking her for a ride. A happy ending for everyone.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
Buckaroo Banzai has a Japanese father and an American mother. He’s also a world-renowned neurosurgeon, particle physicist, and has a successful band. He and his crew, Team Banzai are world-famous. During a routine rocket car test, Banzai and his team have a test of their own planned. Banzai goes off-track and uses a special device to drive into the 8th dimension to begin exploring it. This alerts nearby aliens who are monitoring them, and a rival set of aliens who are already on planet, making plans of their own. Will Team Banzai be able to stop the evil aliens before the others intervene?
The film is directed by W.D. Richter who is better known as a writer of films like Big Trouble in Little China. The film stars Peter Weller and a ton of other actors that would go on to gain a lot of fame or already were famous, like John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd and Ellen Barkin, along with a ton of recognizable character actors like Clancy Brown, Carl Lumbly, Dan Hedaya, Vincent Schiavelli, and a bit part from Jonathan Banks, long before he would gain fame.
The film plays like a strange sci-fi fantasy, even a wish-fulfillment fantasy, where Buckaroo is capable of essentially anything, just short of super powers. Everyone recognizes him as the unquestioned leader, and he has an amazing set of skills. He seems to be able to master anything he likes. But at the same time, he is kind and thoughtful, eager to give credit to others, and take care of people in need. In fan-fiction parlance, he would be considered a Mary Sue.
The film starts with his rocket car being prepared for a test. But he’s not there, as he’s assisting another neurosurgeon with a brain surgery, which he just can’t figure out. He’s completely in awe of Buckaroo and hangs on his every word. Finally, Buckaroo arrives at the test site and calmly gets in the rocket car, like it’s something he does every day. Some of the people helping are part of Banzai’s team, others are just part of the rocket car team.
We find out that Team Banzai is running their own test, as Banzai runs off course, taking a car that’s going 500 mph on a 90 degree turn, and straight into a mountain, which actually sends him to the 8th dimension. He exits on the other side of the mountain, finding a small lifeform attached to his rocket car.
As news breaks of this, we’re introduced to Dr. Lizardo, who now calls himself John Whorfin, currently in an insane asylum. He sees the news, and uses some kind of device to have a flashback to when he made his own trip into the 8th dimension, working with Dr. Hikita, the same scientist working with Banzai. their experiment only partially worked, and when Lizardo came back, he had been possessed by one of the beings in the 8th dimension. He escapes from the mental institution to go meet up with the evil aliens.
There are two rival alien factions here, the Red Lectroids, and the Black Lectroids. The Reds have been on earth for years. They landed during Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast, and then hypnotized him into saying it was all fake. Since then, they have been working to get back to the 8th dimension. Their current plan is to build a ship capable of doing it under the guise of a government contract. But when they discover that Buckaroo Banzai has already created a way to travel there, they decide to steal it.
The Black Lectroids contact Banzai directly in order to help him identify the aliens and warn him that they will destroy the planet rather than let the Red Lectroids escape.
There’s a subplot here with Ellen Barkin’s character, Penny Purdy. After he successfully navigates the 8th dimension, he and his band go out to perform a gig. During the show, Buckaroo stops the entire thing to call out to someone not having a good time. It turns out a woman is crying in the crowd. He comforts her from the stage and she tries to kill herself in the club. Later it’s revealed that she looks exactly like his former wife, and Banzai believes she is her long lost twin sister.
The film starts jumping around, giving the upper hand to various parties. The Black Lectroids give Banzai the ability to see the Red Lectroids through their human suits and send a representative to help him. The Black Lectroids attack Banzai and kidnap Penny, holding her for ransom. Meanwhile, the President of the US is involved, who is in some kind of giant back brace throughout the film.
In the end, Buckaroo manages to save the day, as expected. The closing credits promise a sequel that was never produced.
The Double Feature
We have two films here that are fondly remembered by various people, reaching cult status. But do they hold up?
Night of the Comet isn’t the greatest film, but it’s watchable, and even engaging at times. During the first half, it really works as a zombie film, able to make us think about mortality. Eventually it devolves into campy madness, but in the early part of the film, it tries to make a statement about how the automated world doesn’t need us.
Buckaroo Banzai on the other hand just doesn’t work. I tried to look at it from several angles, but I just couldn’t find a way to appreciate this movie. As a straight sci-fi movie it doesn’t work, because it tries to go in half a dozen different directions. I thought maybe it was meant to be a parody, but that didn’t really make it work either. The main problem is the character of Buckaroo Banzai himself. By trying to make him everything to everyone, he completely fails as a character. Everytime he switches to a different type of person or profession it throws the audience for a loop, and we have to catch back up. He just devolves into nothingness. In one scene he’s the confident test pilot, driving through the 8th dimension, then he’s a famous rock star, then he’s in his Japanese themed dojo, in a kimono and taking care of his samurai sword. Then he’s a scientist, giving a press conference to impressed reporters. It just goes on and on.
The arc of the film feels like a child at play. New elements keep getting thrown in because the child either can’t remember the direction his story was going, or because he keeps thinking up new cool things to make up. In that way, I suppose there is some charm to it, but it doesn’t really deliver as an adult.
I can imagine someone as a child seeing this movie and really getting into it, but I can’t imagine anyone watching the film today who had never seen it before and finding a lot of value there. If you’re looking for campy 80s classics, we have films like Big Trouble In Little China. If you wanted an 80s sci-fi film to capture your imagination with clever storytelling, you could watch Back To The Future. There are lots of other examples. I’m just struggling to figure out which niche of pop culture Buckaroo Banzai fits into that has elevated it to cult status to the point that a film like Ready Player One, a film that is entirely pop culture references, uses the film as a touchstone for it’s characters. I don’t personally get it.
This is my last week in Amsterdam and it’s been a wonderful trip. I came here for research, and I didn’t get anywhere near the amount of data that I wanted to get, but it will have to do. I also wanted to do more writing while I was here on my dissertation, but I didn’t do much of any writing. It’s a little disappointing for me, but I’ll have new data and I’ll be able to hit the ground running when I get back. I expect to be refreshed after a long break here in Amsterdam.
Because I’ll be traveling and jet lagged next week, I plan on skipping next week’s post. I might feel differently once I get there, but for now, I expect to take next week off.
See you soon.