Forget Charlton Heston and Will Smith – Vincent Price is the legend who played the original omega man. Although The Last Man on Earth (1964) is perhaps more notable for what it might have been than for what it is, it remains influential in its own right and is the most faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954).
Remembered today mostly for his work in the science fiction and horror genres, Richard Matheson achieved mainstream success with his third novel I Am Legend (1954) and built upon his reputation with The Shrinking Man (1956), originating in a story pitch to Universal which became his first screenplay. By the time the novel was published, the movie had already been in production for two months, and would be released with the more sensational title The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Hot on the heels of its success, British studio Hammer bought the rights to I Am Legend and commissioned Matheson to write the screenplay, formally announcing the project in 1958. Unfortunately the British censors vetoed the script for domestic release, so Hammer sold on the rights to American producer Robert Lippert. (It’s difficult to understand why this script was considered unsuitable in 1958, the same year Hammer released the original Christopher Lee Dracula, but the censors might have felt the modern setting made it too realistic.)
This is where the fate of the project began to go downhill. Lippert announced the film would be going ahead in 1962 and informed Matheson that he’d secured Fritz Lang to direct it! Whether this was actually the case or just wishful thinking I have no idea, but Lang was already going blind when he made The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), which turned out to be his final film as a director. Although it’s tempting to dwell on what might have been, The Last Man on Earth eventually ended up being filmed in black & white on a small budget in Rome, directed by the workmanlike Sidney Salkow in collaboration with local documentary director Ubaldo Ragona (whose location footage generally looks classier than Salkow’s work). Matheson’s script was rewritten by William Leicester (whose career consists almost entirely of TV westerns), while Ragona wrote the Italian script with Furio Monetti for its release as L’ultimo uomo della Terra. Unhappy with the final result, Matheson chose to be credited under the pseudonym Logan Swanson.
The film opens with a montage of empty city streets, resonating eerily with modern times when many cities have spent at least some time in a similar state due to covid lockdowns. Thankfully, our streets tended not to be sprinkled with bodies, as is the case here. Dr Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) – renamed for some obscure reason from the original novel’s Robert Neville – spends his days making wooden stakes, stocking up on garlic and mirrors, and searching buildings for people to stake. He removes the bodies to a smouldering dumping ground for disposal and returns home before dark to barricade himself inside the house, listening to jazz records while shambling slow-moving people lay siege and call for him to let them in.
The middle third of the movie explains what has happened in flashback. An airborne disease has spread across the Earth, causing people to sicken and go blind shortly before their demise. Morgan is working as part of a team in a research lab desperately searching for a cure. Progress has been non-existent, leading his friend and colleague Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) – previously seen by the audience among the horde banging on Morgan’s door – to become obsessed with the stories about plague victims coming back to life and to rant about blinkered scientists pursuing dead ends (rather than coming up with any constructive alternatives of his own). After Morgan’s sick daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland) is carted off to the pits for burning, he keeps his sick wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) hidden, finally burying her himself, only for her to turn up at his door and attack him.
Back in the distant future of 1968, Morgan encounters Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), the first person he’s seen in three years who is able to move around normally in daylight. Initially overjoyed by his discovery, after realising that she can’t stand the presence of garlic he learns that she is part of an infected community who have learned to function relatively normally, as long as they take regular medication. Ruth also reveals that Morgan has become a legendary figure of evil, the unnatural creature who stalks the streets at day and kills people in their beds… From this point the film races towards the climax in a manner which probably plays better on the screen than the novel’s ending would, but is less satisfying from a character perspective and obscures the author’s intent.
Screen legend Vincent Price is the film’s best asset and he “had a certain fondness” for it, considering it superior to Charlton Heston’s remake The Ωmega Man (1971). Film Threat even went so far as to call it “the best Vincent Price movie ever made”, but that is frankly a massive overstatement. It would be more accurate to say it fits solidly in the middle. Price has given much better performances in his career – he knows how to make a good script sing, but here the original script has been watered down and I tend to agree with Matheson that he wasn’t completely right for the role. The direction of the film is neither inspired nor embarrassing – it’s competent, but little more. I have only vague memories of The Ωmega Man from a 24 hour science fiction festival years ago, but while it’s a less faithful adaptation and not generally thought of as a good film, I suspect I’d find it more enjoyable to revisit for the cheese factor.
The only other member of the cast to stand out for me was Giacomo Rossi Stuart – but to be honest, that’s due more to recognising him from other roles than his performance here (which is difficult to judge accurately due to the awful vocal performance of whoever dubbed his voice). Stuart worked with the great Italian director Mario Bava on SF monster movie Caltiki – The Immortal Monster [Caltiki, il mostro immortale] (1959), Viking revenge movie Knives of the Avenger [I coltelli del vendicatore] (1965) and (most memorably) Gothic horror movie Kill, Baby, Kill [Operazione paura] (1966). I also enjoyed his work in the giallo The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave [La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba] (1971).
One notable difference between The Last Man on Earth and the novel is the nature of the vampires. In the original novel, some vampires displayed an aversion to crosses, an element which is completely absent here. The original vampires could move as quickly as normal people and were capable of climbing, while those seen here shamble slowly about and have poor motor skills. They read to the modern viewer more as zombies than vampires, which is where the most lasting influence of this film comes into play. George A. Romero’s debut The Night of the Living Dead (1968), the ur-text for the modern zombie film, was heavily influenced by both the original novel and this movie. While Romero identifies the novel as the primary inspiration, the concept of slow-moving zombies originates from this film, which can be considered (for better or for worse) as the grandfather of the voodoo-free zombie film.
After Heston’s survivalist take The Ωmega Man (1971), which would be parodied by The Simpsons in Treehouse of Horror VIII: The HΩmega Man (1997), Hollywood made the… interesting choice to show their dedication to the original novel by restoring the title but throwing away most of the rest of the story. I Am Legend (2007) became a Will Smith vehicle which completely undermined the original implication of the title – where the novel intended this to reflect the main character’s realisation that he would be remembered by future generations as a mythic evil, this version reframes it as a call to remember a heroic self-sacrifice which saved the future of the human race. Whatever might be said about the quality of I Am Ωmega (2007) – rushed to DVD a month before the other film’s release to capitalise on its publicity – at least it had no pretensions of being anything more than a low-budget ripoff designed to make a quick buck.
(NB: Whoever put together the trailer deserves an award for making the film look like a work of art – it’s almost good enough to make me revise my memories!)