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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Last Man On Earth

Based on Richard Matheson's 1954 story, "I Am Legend," Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow's Last Man On Earth" (LMoE) is the first of many movie adaptations. Vincent Price stars and lends a dignity to this otherwise low-budget Italian-American production. LMoE is a pivotal link between the familiar 50s post-apocalypse genre and the nascent zombie genre of the 60s and beyond. Told in a grim, spare style, it is the story of a man who witnesses the world he knew fall apart around him, yet leave him untouched.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dawn breaks over a rambling italian city. Bodies lie in streets, doorways and stairs. A super germ has infected the world. Only Dr. Robert Morgan survives as a normal human. Others turn into vampire zombies. Morgan hunts and kills the zombies by day. They surround and bang on his fortress house by night. Morgan goes into mental flashback to relive the coming of the plague, the loss of his daughter and wife, and her turning into a zombie. Morgan finds a lost non-zombie dog which gives him hope for companionship, but the dog dies. While burying the dog, Morgan spots a normal woman out in the day. She runs, but he convinces her to come to his house. He is pleased to find another survivor, but suspects Ruth is infected. She is, but she takes a drug developed by other survivors (yet still night-people) that let her tolerate the day. She pulls a gun. Her job was to keep him there until the night men could come get him. Without her drug, she passes out. While unconscious, Morgan gives her a transfusion of his immune blood. She recovers, so his antibodies were effective. The zombies attack. The night soldiers come. Morgan flees, but they corner him inside a church. Wounded and surrounded, he rails at them, shouting that he is the last man. A night soldier hurls a spear that kills Morgan. Ruth comforts him in his last moment, then walks out through the ring of night people. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Price turns in a quality performance as the "last man". The directors maintained a dark and claustrophobic mood. The understated use of Rome cityscapes gives visual variety.

Cold War Angle
Matheson's story is a classic example of 50s post-apocalyptic angst. Something big gets out of control and wipes out the world as we know it. The germ, like radiation, kills most of the population outright. The few survivors become monsters.

Based on the Book -- LMoE follows Matheson's story reasonably well. There were many omissions and compressings, as is typical for books turned into 90 minute movies. Many of the novel's elements show up in William Leicester's screenplay: the home fortress, the little dog, the spy woman, the new society, etc. At the end of both movie and book, the main character utters the title words. In the novel, Neville, realizing that he was the monster, says "I am legend." In the movie, Morgan shouts to the surrounding night-people. "I am the last man!"

Zombies Rising -- Zombie movies began with White Zombie in 1932, with scattered appearances in the 40s and 50s. Often, the zombies were living people under a voodoo trance, not the "living dead." Curt Siodmak's Creature with the Atomic Brain ('55) featured a gang of reanimated dead bodies. They were science-zombies, not the supernatural spooky kind. Ed Wood featured a couple of the risen un-dead in his Plan 9 From Outer Space ('59). The mindless shambling vampire-zombies in LMoE were closer to the classic movie zombie, but predating Romero's Night of the Living Dead by four years. Zombies were going to be hot, but LMoE was ahead of that curve.

Social Commentary -- Elevating the story from just a cheesy zombie horror film, is Matheson's study of human society and the dynamics of change. A 20th century version of the Black Plague topples the society we knew. A new civilization, a new world order develops from within the ashes and rubble of the old. What moves this story beyond a mere plague apocalypse is that many of the victims don't die so much as change into something new. The last man of the old order -- zealously fighting the change -- is the hunted enemy of the new order. The old order's martial law (troops hauling the dead to The Pit) is replaced by the new order's martial law (troops killing off the zombies and hunting Morgan). New boss same as the old boss.

Fascist Reflections -- Filmed in Italy, with an italian director and screenwriter, parts of LMoE take on a political commentary. The new people (especially the soldiers), dressed all in black are too close of a parallel to Mussolini's "Black Shrits" in the 1920s and 30s. This adds a political parallel to the plague story -- the adults worrying about news reports of something new and deadly sweeping the continent, how many die, but many more become brutish mobs, the new order being ruthless and efficient in eliminating opposition. LMoE has a political subtext to it.

Remake One -- In 1971, Matheson's story was turned into a film again, but also drawing on LMoE. This second version was titled, The Omega Man, which was a fancy way of still saying "the last man" Charlton Heston plays the main character, using Matheson's character name: Robert Neville. Curiously, he is a macho Army doctor and more screen time is spent on his zombie hunting. He dies in the end, from a spear, just like Vincent Price did. Where Ruth, carrying Morgan's blood in her veins was a more subtle hint at hope, the '71 version was more upbeat and reassuring with a whole bottle of his blood being driven away in a van full of singing children.

Remake Two -- In 2007, the third version came out under Matheson's original title, I Am Legend, but also keying off the previous two movie versions more than going back to the novel. Will Smith stars as the main character, an army scientist named Robert Neville. He has a companion dog rather than finds a lost one. He captures an infected woman, rather than her come to him as a spy. Like LMoE, it is her blood that is the hope. Neville dies, but in a more 1990s manner -- a massive explosion. Like OM, there were other normal human survivors. Expanding on the upbeat ending of Omega Man The uninfected woman and boy drive off to a safe commune/enclave in rural Vermont. Here, it is Neville's work that makes him a "good" legend.

Bottom line? LMoE is a B classic. It is far more than a zombie apocalypse movie. Sci-fi fans won't find a lot of science in the story, but there is more than enough depth to the story to make it a must-see classic.


Lex said...

If you were to reccomend 10-15 must see films from the 50's-60's what would they be? I've been exploring sci-fi/horror from this time period for some months now and I'm reaching dead ends at my local indie rental shops. Netflix has an intimidating number of classic sci-fi flicks and a little direction would be great. I've already seen some of the more common titles such as Forbidden Planet, the Creature series, The Time Machine, Journey and Voyage. What else would you suggest?

Nightowl said...

Good Question Lex,
I'll post my own picks for 10 Best and 10 "Worst" as a regular post. Thanks for reading.