The three films adapted from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend vary widely in scope, story, and distance from the original source material. They are all shaky and mostly forgettable, but The Omega Man maintains a special place in cinema as one of star Charlton Heston’s many 1970s forays into post-apocalyptic science fiction. For that, it is the most interesting of the three adaptations, if not the best, edging The Last Man on Earth by a close margin.
The Last Man on Earth was the first of the adaptations, released in 1964. It was an Italian production following the spaghetti western model, and was credited with two directors, Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow. The film stars Vincent Price, at his Priciest, as it were. Price’s acting style takes some getting used to. He was a consummate professional who was more than capable in most of his roles. In Theatre of Blood, he was excellent. But he was victimized not just by type casting, but his own insistence on becoming a caricature of himself at times. The Last Man on Earth is b-cinema, and unfortunately, Price, playing protagonist Robert Morgan, fits right in. His many solitary scenes all seem to play like the boat deck scene in King Kong, where Robert Armstrong screen tests Fay Wray, giving audible directions for her first off camera encounter with a wild beast, finally yelling for her to “scream, Ann, scream for your life!”
In Last Man, Price has numerous introspective moments where he thinks himself down to the depths of darkest despair. The slow walk across a living room, the sinking down into a chair, pounding fists off of legs, followed by convulsive weeping. The obvious nature of the direction, Price flawlessly hitting his marks, the even, artificial pacing of it all bespeaks the behind the camera presence of Salkow. You can almost hear him as he tells Price, “Move slowly to the sofa. Lower yourself into it, easily now, as if pained by every movement. The weight of your past pushing you down. It’s too much to overcome. That’s it. Now cry, weep. Bring your hands to your face and weep for your dead family, Morgan. More! No, less. It’s been years. Lose yourself a little. Now begin to recover. And…cut!”
It’s not a good sign to be able to apply such predictable cliché to a movie’s direction, even in farce, but much of Last Man is little more than a showcase of all the foibles of ’50s and ’60s low-budget monster fair, the most egregious being whiplash transitions between night and day within the same scene, always a low mark of amateurism. However, despite all that is lacking in technique, Last Man isn’t a bad film, for a bad film.
There is little in the way of scares, but genuine interest in the world in which Robert Morgan finds himself ruler by day, prisoner by night. Morgan, the last man alive, has to succeed, has to survive, because he is not really alone. He is joined by the audience, who want to see him live, overcome his despair, and carry on our legacy for as long as possible.
Standing in his way are vampires, or zombies, or some combination of the two. Filmed prior to Night of the Living Dead, Last Man’s undead bloodsuckers are lumbering, weak creatures like traditional Hollywood zombies, but are repelled by garlic, mirrors and light, and are dispatched with wooden stakes through the heart. At least one of the undead holds onto a grudge against Morgan from pre-vampire days, an indication of more intelligence than zombies. Taunting Morgan by name every night, he and his compatriots are just unable to pound their way into a rather lightly secured compound. The dual nature of the undead in this film, as regards movie precedent, is due to its rather groundbreaking nature. The rules for vampires had long been established when Last Man was produced, but Matheson’s creatures were unique. By remaking vampires, Matheson, and Last Man instead inspired the zombie genre.
Suspension of disbelief is the only real obstacle to enjoying The Last Man on Earth, but only because we’ve been trained by so many films since to expect much more out of zombies and vampires. Taken in the context of its time, the surprising amount of originality does well to surmount its shortcomings.
The Omega Man, Hollywood’s first attempt to bring I Am Legend to the screen, is as much about Charlton Heston as it is about his character, Robert Neville (The Omega Man restores the character’s original last name from the source material). Just as Price competed against himself every time he acted, so did Heston. It’s farcical, at times.
Price was a star of little compare to Heston, who walks among the giants of Hollywood legend. Like Price, Heston is predictable, but replaces Price’s introspection with sweaty machismo that is quite a departure from the novel. In fact, The Omega Man as a whole is such a departure that the opening credits merely state that the film was adapted from “a” novel by Richard Matheson, refusing to name which one.
In The Omega Man, Neville is at war with a post-apocalyptic death cult which blames technology and the recently deceased civilizations of the world for all the woes that have befallen mankind. Unlike the zombie/vampires of Last Man, these antagonists maintain their old intelligence and strength, if not their compassion and reason, and suffer from wicked skin conditions. They would make easy work of Neville, what with all the guns that would be lying around after most of the people in the world have died, were it not for their firm adherence to the anti-technology tenets of their cult.
Neville stands above it all in a role tailor-made for Heston. Or maybe he made the role his own. Either way, there is no nuance, much testosterone, and the principal villain, Matthias, played ably by Anthony Zerbe, makes a convincing case that it is not he, but Neville, that is the monster. This was a theme that the novel tried only meekly to explore as a way to wrap up the story, and that Last Man tried to cram into a final act, but is present throughout much of The Omega Man. However, like Last Man, the difficult task of creating sympathy for the undead is hard to overcome. Add to that the cult’s unreasonable intolerance, its modern day return to medievalism, and there isn’t any reason for Neville to show them any kindnesses.
Neville eventually joins forces with Lisa, played by Rosalind Cash. Her first lines are woefully drawn from shameless stereotype, but thankfully that nonsense stops quickly.
Neville’s war against Matthias and his followers eventually wraps up Lisa and a group of stragglers she’s a part of, climaxing in an effective ending, even though Heston hams it up. That man sure knew how to save his best for last. The affectations of celluloid tragedy were done to overbaked perfection by Heston, and no one could touch him when he was on a roll. When Heston characters die, or reaches denouement, as in Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green, it is an event.
As raucous as The Omega Man can be, it is dated and ridiculous. It was largely filmed on a back lot, and looks it. Fans of Heston should appreciate it, but there was a reason the latter part of his career was spent in residence among such weirdness. The Omega Man is Heston as Heston, what the world would be like if Heston were the last man on earth.
So, how does one follow up Vincent Price and Charlton Heston? With Will Smith, of course. I Am Legend, the latest adaptation of the novel, is the quintessential example of early 21st century blockbuster cinema. Big on budget, full of CGI, and starring one of Hollywood’s most reliable recent draws, its success depends not on an audience’s suspension of disbelief, but on its gullibility and stupidity. Only in today’s overwrought cinema would a filmmaker, in this case director Francis Lawrence, prefer poorly rendered CGI creatures to real actors. In a common update to the genre, the monsters in I Am Legend are fast, strong, and deadly, but they look like cartoons. The special effects, from the monsters, to rabid dogs, to lions stalking an abandoned Times Square, look awful. They are cheap, destroying a film that under other circumstances, could have been worth watching.
Smith has come a long way from Independence Day, but even he can’t save this film. Lawrence managed to put together two passable acts before things fall apart, but boy, I Am Legend unravels at lightning speed once the dog dies (sorry, kids).
As a side note, as a resident of New York City, seeing the metropolis destroyed every year in the theater, as it is in I Am Legend, is rotten. Sometimes, it feels as if the subconscious desire of moviegoers must be to see this city die, otherwise Hollywood wouldn’t continue to turn out movies everywhere that display this bizarre snuff fantasy. Enough already. Someone in Hollywood, please, for one year, blow up Milwaukee.
Of the three adaptations of I Am Legend, Last Man retains the most faith to the source material. This is not surprising, as Matheson was one of the screenwriters. Last Man is also the most engaging, in a strange way. Because of its modernist Italian locales, it resides in a strange limbo, making it almost timeless. It’s also short, which is good for b-cinema.
The Omega Man is one of those films that has to be viewed at least once, just so one can pick it apart at cocktail parties.
I Am Legend, the film, is McDonald’s cinema. There is just no way to get past the terrible CGI. Were this a singular review of I Am Legend, it would be under the Shitty Movie Sundays banner. As such, it gets a rating. Luckily for Francis Lawrence, I Am Legend is a better film than Alien: Resurrection. Congratulations.