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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Retro Review: The Last Man on Earth

Screw Will Smith. Screw him in his giant Dumbo ear. In honor of Vincent Price's birthday yesterday, I'm taking a look at what I consider the finest adaptation of Richard Matheson's yet-to-be perfectly adapted novel I Am Legend. With all due respect to the great Chuck Heston, Omega Man is just not a really good film either, despite the glories of Heston chewing up the scenery in frilly '70s attire.

No, if you want to see the original undead apocalypse movie, this is where you need to go. Because without The Last Man on Earth, there would have been no Night of the Living Dead. Don't believe me? Just ask George Romero, he's said it himself on many on occasion. I've also always felt that this film version was greatly influenced by the Twilight Zone, yet presented in a more intense and brooding way that only a feature-length film can allow.

Originally intended to be a Hammer production, the film instead fell under the auspices of B-movie distributor extraordinaire American International Pictures, and was produced in Italy, of all places. Price is at his earnest, tortured best as Dr. Robert Morgan, the lone scientist driven to eliminate as many vampires as he can during the day while trying to to formulate a cure at night. That's one of the things I love about this version that was completely overlooked in the new one--he's actively out there wiping out these bloodsuckers. That's what I'm talkin' about!

Much more of the traditional vampire lore is maintained in this version, with Morgan staking the creatures through the heart, protecting himself with garlic, etc. And yet the seminal influence on zombie cinema is absolutely undeniable. We have the desperate guy seeking refuge in his boarded-up house. We have hordes of undead trying to get in and feast upon him. We have a worldwide epidemic. We have the fear of loved ones turning against you as they fall victim to the plague. It's all here. Just add a dash of Hitchcock's The Birds, and you have Romero's brainchild.

Speaking of loved ones turning, without question the film's most powerful and bone-chilling sequence occurs when Morgan recalls what happened to his own wife. After her death, Morgan, unable to bring himself to burn her body, instead buries it far from the house, even though he knows deep down she's coming back. This knowledge, however, takes nothing away from his abject dread--and the dread shared by the viewer--when she does indeed return, clawing at the front door, and moaning for him to let her in. And when he does... Let's just say it's hard to understate the terror in this scene, particularly for a pre-Romero audience.

The external location shooting in Rome adds to the film's feeling of realism--yes, Price's melodramatic hamminess is part of his charm, but it only makes for that much more of a jarring juxtaposition against the grim imagery of eerily empty city streets and fire pits filled with flaming corpses. If anything, it's a testament to Price's versatility that he fits in just as well in this scenario as in the classic Gothic visions of Roger Corman and the like.

Not quite the articulate anarchists of Omega Man, but also not the unthinking demons of Smith's version, these creatures are definitely proto-zombies, shambling about their post-apocalyptic landscape, moaning in their limited vocabulary for Morgan to come out so they can drink his blood. From a visual standpoint, the resemblance of some of these scenes to NOTLD (made only four years later) is remarkable.

And like NOTLD, The Last Man on Earth has a stark, uncompromising downer of an ending. Much more so than either of the subsequent versions. It's well known that Matheson has never been satisfied with any filmed version of his book, including this one, and yet this one is probably the most faithful of the three. There might be some major deviations, but if you judge it without loyalty to the novel in mind, on its own merits, I think you'll find it to be a highly effective little horror flick.

The film rarely gets the credit it deserves for being one of the earliest "modern" horror movies, often being completely overshadowed by the much more flamboyant Omega Man of ten years later. But if anything, the shameless Hollywood-ization of the property that occurred with I Am Legend should draw even more attention to this overlooked 1960s gem. Seek it out--in fact, thanks to a lapsed copyright, you can actually watch it right now!


Anonymous said...

Amen brother! I freakin' love this movie.

Anonymous said...

OHHHH. you can't forget the version Sci Fi put out not too long ago. making four versions :D

it's not great at all. it's not worthy of being thrown in.. but its out there.

Wayne Hipley said...

ALWAYS one of my all-time faves. If you're lucky, you can pick up a DVD copy in the dollar store. It also is almost always included in those DVD collections of out-of-copyright horror flicks that can be picked up 50 films for $20 at places like Best Buy.

Another flick I'd nominate as an early precursor to the NOTLD franchise would be "Invisible Invaders" from 1959. The premise is an alien menace that inhabits the bodies of the recently dead and proceeds to wreck murderous havoc on the living (gee, where have we heard that before?). It features the always-fun John Carradine.

RayRay said...

Upon your recommendation I just finished watching this film, and I want to thank you. I loved it.

While I also enjoyed I Am Legend [sorry, I like Will Smith] I felt The Last Man On Earth was generally superior. It was far darker, even though the zombies are much less terrifying. He even didn't get a chance to enjoy any companionship with a dog! And to the ending, just as he is curing the disease, is a tragic turn of events.

More of these retro reviews are in order to educate the public about what they are missing.

Anonymous said...

It shows that only an accomplished well rounded actor of stage and screen can carry a film on his/her shoulders. This is a very grim and depressing film that definitely echo's into films such as " Night of the Living Dead " & " Omega Man " but where this one succeeds is in the viewers feeling of dread and hopelessness which is the product of a great actor named .. Vincent Price .. He has always been way underrated and under-appreciated by the film world. This is still the best of the three Last Man movies and shows a large budget is not the most important aspect to movie making, but shows that competent actors will make a film more believable without the need for CGI goodies that distract the film viewer from the terrible acting skills of current so-called actors. I personally will take a great script & fine acting over CGI any day of the week.

B-Sol said...

Agreed! Last Man on Earth is the best of the cinematic adaptations of I Am Legend. It's also the clearest, most direct inspiration for NOTLD.

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