LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE
(director: Sidney Salkow; screenwriters: William Leicester/from the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend; cinematographer: Franco Delli Colli; editors: Gene Ruggiero/Franca Silvi; music: Paul Sawtell/Bert Shefter; cast: Vincent Price (Robert Morgan), Franca Bettoia (Ruth Collins), Emma Danieli (Virginia Morgan), Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (Ben Cortman), Christi Courtland (Kathy Morgan); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert L. Lippert; AIP/MGM; 1964)
“If you are a fan of the way Vincent engages such tacky post-apocalypse fantasy subjects, this one should catch your fancy.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A cheapie sci-fi/horror film that sets a creepy atmosphere and has Vincent Price as both a horrid and pitiful figure hamming it up for close to 90 minutes. If you are a fan of the way Vincent engages such tacky post-apocalypse fantasy subjects, this one should catch your fancy. It is based on Richard Matheson’s thriller I Am Legend and was remade in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, but director Sidney Salkow keeps his version more faithful to the spirit of the novel. But it should be noted that Matheson didn’t care for the way the film treated his book and wanted his name removed from the credits as a screenwriter.
Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is a respected scientist and the only survivor of a world-wide plague originating in Europe that has transported airborne a mysterious germ that has infected the world’s population. It’s December of 1965 and Morgan has lived alone in the States for three years, but it has not been easy. At night he’s subject to attacks by vampire ghouls, whom he holds off by mirrors and garlic. These are humans infected by the unknown viral germ. The only perks he gets from living alone in the world, is that everything is free. He prowls the supermarkets for food (especially fresh garlic kept in the freezer) and chooses any car he wants (a hearse-like stationwagon suits him fine). After a half-hour into his desolation row experience, of watching him sharpen his wooden stakes on a lathe and replace his glazed mirrors with brand new ones from a city store and a visit to his family’s gravesite, the film goes into a flashback and Morgan’s shown with his loving wife Virginia and young daughter Kathy before the plague hit home. We watch them get infected and die, as does his best friend and work colleague Ben Cortman. The scientist team headed by Dr. Mercer are trying to come up with a vaccine but are stymied, even though Dr. Mercer is optimistic that they eventually will before it’s too late. Science and not religion is viewed as given humanity cause to be optimistic about the fallen world.
Morgan didn’t listen to Ben’s warnings that this a vampire thing, and Ben becomes his enemy in death–he bangs the loudest on his door at night. Ben’s not the only zombie trying to break into Morgan’s house at night, there are many other infected beings trying to get his blood. But they’re all too weak and irrational to accomplish that mission, which takes the scares out of the action.
The Vincent Price character is going through his heavy daily routine of walking the deserted big city streets during daylight looking for anyone else who might be alive, while he wood-stakes to death those infected weaklings lying around and then burning them in a pit. Sometimes he can’t tell the dead from the living, and thereby wood-stakes even those innocent ones. The point made is that he has turned into the same monster he’s fighting. At night he emotionally watches home movies of his wife and daughter, and becomes human again.
An hour into the thriller, Morgan meets his first live human being. She runs away from him, but he runs her down and takes the pretty woman named Ruth Collins back to his safe house. Things get nasty when he discovers she’s also infected–no vampire can stand the smell of garlic, and Morgan is now a firm believer he’s dealing with vampires and has no scruples in testing her. But she spills the beans that she’s been sent by a group she’s living with to spy on him, because they consider him a one-man killing machine (not only staking their common enemy zombies but the live ones from their group). They want to attack tonight and remove him from their wonderful ‘new world’ they are planning to create with only members from their group. Ruth lets on that they discovered a way to mix their blood with a serum and thereby contain the disease. Though not a cure, it nevertheless keeps them strong and alive. But Morgan is not to be outdone by such scientific neophytes, as he gets back to his science experiments and discovers a vaccine that acts as a cure. It seems Morgan was bitten by an infected bat a while ago in Panama and has developed an immunity to the mysterious disease, and by using his blood has discovered an antidote.
But if you think that means a happy ending, well the 1960s was a time of paranoia and fear of a nuclear war destroying the world. Everything was built around the fear of the unknown, and targeting those you don’t know as enemies. The storyline plays with those Cold War fears, but Vincent’s overwrought performance takes us too far away from believing that he’s a rational scientist working to save the world. The film also fails us by Sidney Salkow’s unimaginative direction, as the zombie attack scenes provided no thrills or chills. Too much time was wasted on the Vincent character alone onscreen carrying on a hokey conversation with himself. That plays well in a book, but in a film it’s not cinematic. But to the film’s credit, it does keep the book’s urgent thought-provoking symbolical ending intact–but it is more pessimistic than the book’s more hopeful one. The Last Man on Earth influenced George Romero’s classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead, which might be another reason for fans of this horror genre to catch this flick.
REVIEWED ON 9/30/2003 GRADE: C+