And so, thanks to Netflix, I was able to see The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man (1973) with Charlton Heston. Of course, I wasn't the only one with this bright idea, and a months-long delay in acquiring the latter film caused me to forgo the Will Smith vehicle during its theatrical run. Instead, I waited until it hit DVD and immediately plopped it at the top of my queue.
The idea, naturally, was to compare and contrast all three versions. And now that I've seen all three I can do that. So where do they rank?
All in all, I'd have to say that I definitely enjoyed The Last Man on Earth the most, and The Omega Man the least. I Am Legend falls somewhere in the middle.
Maybe it's because Last Man worked the best for me as a pure horror movie. Granted, it couldn't be made today, as in a post-Night of the Living Dead world it would seem far too derivative. But there was something about Vincent Price's classic performance, as well as the zombie-like creatures, that made that picture a very chilling experience. The sequence in which Price watches his daughter and wife slowly succumb to the disease is heartwrenching, and the scene in which he buries his wife, only to have her return home from the grave is downright bloodcurdling. Compare that to the much weaker flashback sequence in which Will Smith's family is summarily wiped out.
As for Omega Man, I just couldn't get into it. I know the film has a much greater cult status, but it didn't compare favorably to me at all. For one, the decision to turn it into an action movie took away a lot of the impact. The creatures are the most human-like of all three versions, speaking, thinking, and even eating regular food. This was a major disappointment. And while the camp value does give the film a certain "guilty pleasure" quality, it doesn't hold up well.
Smith's version is a cut above Heston's, returning some of the emotional impact of Last Man on Earth, as well as some of the horror elements. I may be wrong, but I got the impression that the creatures were depicted the most faithfully to Matheson's novel in this latest version as well. That said, the CGI work was terrible, and took me right out of it. Human facial expressions and movement remains the Achilles heel of CGI--and besides, there was no reason they couldn't have been depicted with mostly practical effects.
Unfortunately, Will Smith is the least memorable of all three leading men, lacking both the chops and the gravitas. Particularly, it speaks volumes to how much our culture has devolved when in The Omega Man we have a Neville who collects rare art masterpieces, plays chess with a bust of Ceasar and quotes T.S. Eliot; and in I Am Legend we have a Neville who hits the video store every day, thinks Bob Marley is the height of Western music, and quotes Shrek.
Still, Smith did a much better job than I expected, and the film was better than I expected it to be. But don't get me started on the pat Hollywood ending. Perhaps I'd have a higher opinion of it all if it had been the first adaptation made.
In closing, it's about time I read I Am Legend. For any book to inspire such a varied series of adaptations is quite a feat, and speaks to a healthy dose of textual richness that is no doubt present in the source material.