WEEK OF GEEK SERIES: I AM LEGEND: PART IV
The Omega Man (1971)
Directed by Boris Sagal
Written by John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington
Adapted from the novel I Am Legend
Starring Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash, Paul Koslo, Eric Laneuville, Lincoln Kilpatrick
Two years after germ warfare exterminates the human population, Robert Neville believes he is the last human on Earth. But the germs have created an entire new race of mutants out of those that were infected but did not die. These creatures, who have taken on the properties of albinos and are extremely light sensitive, are forced to live in total darkness. By night, Robert fortifies himself in his home as he attempts to survive the mutants’ daily assaults. But by day, Robert becomes the hunter, and speeds through the barren streets of Los Angeles looking for their den.
When Robert is captured by the mutants, he fears that this is the end for him. At the last minute, however, he is rescued by a group he never knew of before — an even smaller band of those who have been infected, but have not completely submitted to the alterations of the germ. These infected are still able to walk in daylight and have not been driven to madness. With this new revelation, Robert once again begins to work on a way to use his own immune blood to create a serum that will cure his new friends. But the clock is ticking and the mutants are growing ever stronger!
Richard Matheson‘s book I Am Legend is returned to once again for script material in this 1971 survival action film. While the previous film, The Last Man On Earth, attempted to stay fairly truthful to the horror material, this time around all but the most overt resemblances are completely dropped while completely new aspects are introduced. The first and foremost of these changes is the casting of Charlton Heston as the lead Robert Neville. Now, Charlton “From My Cold Dead Hands” Heston is not going to be anywhere near a character that goes around putting stakes through hearts, and here he is outfitted with an awe-inspiring assortment of sub-machine guns, pistols, rifles with infra red scopes, and a .50 calibur machine gun mounted on the top of his home.
Heston is still in top gritty form here, which mirrors the tough, nihilistic, and take-no-prisoners feel of the film. Even pushing fifty at the time the movie was made, Heston is still carved out of rock (and spends several scenes bare-chested to prove it) and tears through the action sequences like a man half his age. This is certainly not the lanky Vincent Price version of the character, or the slightly slow and rotund version as described in the book. The character, who has been “promoted” to an army colonel and scientist in this version, has been modified to better suit Heston’s acting style. And while diehard fans of the book, and most likely Matheson himself, are probably frothing at the mouth with anger, Heston’s take-charge and kick-ass interpretation of the character is an absolute blast to watch.
While in 1964, when The Last Man On Earth came out, audiences were still innocent enough to enjoy a black and white vampire flick, by 1971 the persistence of the Vietnam War and the continuation of the Cold War arms race had put a much more dark and sinister taste in the palate of the audience. As such, the origin of the virus is changed from some unknown bacteria to the result of germ warfare reaching its apex. Both Neville and the mutant leader Mathias flashback to explosions, burnings, and missile being launched. As such, horror is transformed from that of something that goes bump in the night to the very real horrors of the then-modern times.
With the vampire themes and all their ridiculous and archaic ways of being dispatched completely dropped, the creatures become the aftermath victims of war that were not lucky enough to die right away. They are a much more terrible vision than the stumbling corpses found in the original story and first film adaptation. Here, these white-skinned, white-eyed creatures are smart, organized, and lead by Mathias, who wants to burn away everything that lead to the war. Mathias is so dedicated to his cause that he refuses to use any technology or weapons to fight against Neville, save for the cleansing power of fire. Beneath Mathias’ words is a frightening alliteration to those that want to eradicate anyone who do not live and think exactly as they do, and has the charismatic power to bend others to their will.
The Omega Man is definitely a thematic product of its time. The addition of a black woman as Lisa, one of Neville’s allies allows the film to tap into women empowerment and minority rights. Here, Lisa is not only Neville’s equal, but in many aspects is also a superior. The grave warnings of danger in the face of warfare could not be any greater, but on the flipside the hope and perseverance of those that are trying to stop it or at the very least survive it are equally inspiring. While it may not be the greatest example of an adaptation, with the final product about as far from the source material as possible while still claiming connection to it, it is a great example of ’70s cinema. The tone may be bleak, but damn if it doesn’t at least make you think a little bit even as hails of gunfire are rained down.