WEEK OF GEEK SERIES: I AM LEGEND: PART III
The Last Man On Earth (1964)
Directed by Ubaldo Ragona
Written by William Leicester, Richard Matheson, Furio Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona
Starring Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Umberto Raho, Christi Courtland
After a mysterious plague decimates the entire planet and wipes out the entire human race, Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) literally believes he is the last man on Earth. But he is certainly not alone, for the plague has turned all those who are infected into mindless zombie-like vampires who sleep during the day and at night call for Robert’s blood. During the day, Robert kills as many of the vampires as he can with homemade stakes and collects the goods he needs to survive. By night, he barricades himself into his home in order to see the next sunrise. But while out on his daily errands one day, he comes across vampires that have been killed by someone other than himself, and more importantly, comes across a rather mysterious woman that is able to walk in the sun! Cautiously, Robert brings the woman back to his house, not sure of just where this newfound revelation of information will lead.
Based on the 1954 novel I Am Legend, author Richard Matheson‘s story of isolation and survival horror is given a 1960’s b-movie horror makeover and throws the reigning champion of such films, Vincent Price, into the leading role. If you have not yet read Matheson’s story, I urge you to read it post-haste. It is one of finest horror stories to come out in the past century, and with its chronicled inspiration on the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, it is a must-read piece of literature.
The book provides some excellent themes and sequences that Italian director and co-screenwriter Ubaldo Ragona transforms into some great atmospheric set-pieces and ups the action ante for the then-horror crowds’ taste for the macabre and monstrous. The script here is a “reader’s digest” version of the original story, that condenses many of the key sequences of the book while deviating quite a bit in other aspects, including the characterization of Morgan and a much more “exciting” conclusion.
Vincent Price brings to the screen a much more melodramatic (and skinny) version of Robert, who was originally named Robert Neville, than seen in the book. Almost completely gone here in the movie is the crushing isolation and desperation that Robert deals with on a day to day basis, as is his alcoholism and enslavement to daily routine to keep from going insane. There are slight glimpses of this, and the first half hour of the movie is dedicated to how Robert survives. This first third is the strongest part of the movie, but it is still a hollow representation of what the book offers. Price simply is Price, and any fans of his will surely be delighted by his unique mannerisms and his wonderful voice, which provide much of the story via voice-overs. His over-emphasis of emotion and sometimes rather hammy delivery, which would make a poor choice as the original story flows, works perfectly here in the low-budget sci-fi/horror trappings that Ragona employs.
The vampires here, which are criminally robbed of their deserved screen time, are stumbling, mindless, and even cannibalistic corpses that crave the blood of humans but will even eat their own to survive. They are still fought against with the classic vampire weapons, which Robert dutifully uses throughout the movie, though how they act is anything but regal. The myth and legend of vampires play an important part to the narrative, and how perception of what a monster is, is merely in the eyes of the beholder.
It is clear from the few scenes of the vampire attacks on Robert’s house that George Romero was influenced for his own ghoul movie. If Romero had not made his original horror classic, there is no doubt in my mind that horror fans would now be saturated with a hundred variations on the vampire presented here rather than the zombie we all know and love. Buried in a much shallower grave here than Romero’s allegory to race relations is a parallel to role reversals as power is shifted from majority to minority.
The Last Man On Earth has collected a cult following in its forty-plus years since its original release, and despite its lackluster transfer from the source material, still remains a solid and campy “midnight movie” in its own right. Matheson’s material was visited again in 1971 with The Omega Man. Did Charlton Heston and director Boris Sagal hit the nail on this head this time around? Find out tomorrow when I review The Omega Man!