Fifty years after its publication, Richard Matheson’s short novel “I Am Legend”, a chilling, apocalyptic blend of science fiction and horror, is rightly hailed as a classic of fantastic literature. It’s arguably the best American vampire story of the 20th Century, and has been cited as a major influence by such popular authors as Stephen King and Dean Koontz. In a recent interview director George A. Romero stated that it’s tone and theme influenced his seminal zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead”. A fan of both Matheson’s novel and cult cinema, I find it fascinating that “I Am Legend” inspired two very disparate film adaptations, made only seven years apart – “The Last Man On Earth” (1964), starring horror film legend Vincent Price, and “The Omega Man” (1971), with Oscar-winning actor Charlton Heston (“Ben-Hur”, “Planet of the Apes”) in the lead role. Truly, it’s a rare thing when an excellent book results in two very different motion pictures that can stand on their own individual merits. Despite having their genesis in the same source material the films are so diffe rent it’s like comparing apples and oranges.
Matheson’s novel, set in the then-future of the 1970s, begins two years after a deadly plague has wiped out virtually all of humanity. As far as he knows, only one man, former factory worker Robert Neville, is the last surviving human being in the Los Angeles area, if not the entire world. But he is not alone. He is surrounded by bloodthirsty vampires – plague victims who have been transformed by the virus into monsters. (The recent hit film “28 Days Later” seems to have borrowed this idea to some extent, substituting psycho-zombies for the undead.) Neville barricades himself in his house by night, under seige by the noctural creatures who seek his blood, while during the day he attends to the checklist of activities that keep him alive gathering supplies and hunting down his vampire enemies wherever he can find them. Methodically he searches out their daylight resting places and destroys them by driving wooden stakes through their hearts. An Average Joe of above-average intelligence, Neville also uses his time to research science texts, developing non-supernatural theories for the vampires’ existence and why he, out of all Mankind, was spared. Eventually he encounters a woman, who like him, seems to have survived the plague and the army of bloodsuckers who rule the night. She reveals that there are others like her, other survivors, but is she – are they – really normal?
The Italian-American co-production “The Last Man On Earth” is certainly the most faithful cinematic version of “I Am Legend”, adhering quite closely to the plot. As in Matheson’s novel, victims of the plague rise again to walk the earth as vampire-like zombies. Only the blood of the last normal human will slake their thirst. Our hero uses garlic and mirrors to keep them at bay during the night; in the daytime he hunts them down and stakes them using the tried-and-true Van Helsing method. In comparison to “The Omega Man” the alterations made by “The Last Man On Earth” are relatively minor. The name of the main character is changed from ‘Neville’ to ‘Morgan’, as is his pre-apocalypse occupation from factory worker to scientist. The climax is beefed up to be more visually dramatic. But because it lacks the detailed interior monologue of the novel – in which much about the nature of the vampires is scientifically explained – “Last Man” comes off as less believable than its 1971 successor. For example, while watching it one may well ask, “Why don’t the vampires just burn down Morgan’s house?” This is explained in the book, but not in the Price film.
In contrast, “The Omega Man” retains the literary character’s name but jettisons just about everything else. It is not a horror film in any sense of the word. Vampirism plays no role in the plot whatsoever. Befitting its star, Charlton Heston, it’s a sci-fi action movie with a big dose of tough guy testosterone. Here Neville is a colonel in the U.S. Army, skilled with weapons, who was a military scientist researching biological warfare when the end came. He survived the plague by injecting himself with the only existing dose of an experimental vaccine. Instead of vampires, his enemies are mutants – a black-robed cult of light-sensitive albinos called The Family led by their charismatic guru, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). A former newscaster, Matthias insanely believes he and his fellow mutants were chosen by Providence to complete the ‘cleansing’ of the world – destroying the machines, art and science that ultimately brought Man’s downfall. The last living reminder of the world as it once was, before ‘the punishment’, is Neville, who stubbornly refuses to leave the city. The Family wants him dead. Hunting the mutants by day, Neville hunkers down in his swanky but well-fortified townhouse by night. He wouldn’t stand a chance against The Family if not for the cult’s quasi-religious ban on using modern weapons and machines. (Neville, of course, doesn’t operate under such restrictions. He’s always armed and ready for action.) This ongoing war is what he’s come to live for. It at least gives him purpose. However, the strain of his nightmare existence is finally starting to take a toll on his psyche, and he’s drinking a lot. Yet the Neville of “The Omega Man” is much less subject to depression and self-pity. He’s a soldier with a mission, defending his turf. You sure as hell won’t see Heston breaking down and weeping in abject despair over his cruel, lonely plight.
Vincent Price, on the other hand, is anything but the stoic, square-jawed action hero. His very human protagonist suffers a range of psychological distress, evoking our heartfelt sympathy at his anguish. Balanced precariously on the edge of sanity, he swings from moments of cynical black humor to drunken despair. The most chilling moments in “Last Man” come during a lengthy flashback sequence, when we see Morgan lose first his daughter and then his wife to the plague. (The return of the dead Mrs. Morgan, now a zombie-vampire, would seem to be a direct inspiration for the similar scene in Stephen King’s novel “Pet Sematary”.) Heston’s Neville has no family, no life outside his work in the flashbacks that detail his particular end of the world scenario. (These are mostly conveyed via newscasts of the deteriorating situation.) Thus, of the two screen adaptations, “Last Man On Earth” is the more emotionally resonant. As played by Price, you really come to empathize with the Morgan character and care about his fate. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the superior movie, however. Price is excellent and the stark black and white cinematography lends a documentary feel, enhancing the grim mood, but it’s a cheap-looking production which unsuccessfully tries to pass off conspicuously European locales as American. “Omega Man” does a much better job of realizing a dystopian future in a dead city. Its script, alas, is uneven and shortchanges the period before Neville encounters other normal humans, when he thinks he’s truly the last man alive. Like Price, Heston is a good enough actor to carry a film when he’s the only person on the screen for long stretches. The pacing is brisk, we get some decent action scenes and there are literally reams of instantly quotable dialog, and it’s got a pretty groovy music score too.
So if you want gunplay and motorcycle escapes, go the action route with Colonel Neville. If you want a grim sci-fi/horror yarn grounded in the bleakest aspects of the human condition, spend some time with Robert Morgan. The poor soul could really use the company.
Note: As of this writing, Matheson’s “I Am Legend” remains in print; both films are currently available on Region 1 DVD. “The Omega Man” received a long-overdue widescreen release in August 2003, while “Last Man Man On Earth” – apparently a public domain title – has been issued in a number of different bargain bin editions, mostly of dubious quality. The best of these is the version released by Madacy in 2003, using a transfer ‘borrowed’ from an out-of-print laserdisc.