This, is the city: Los Angeles, California (-- well, sorta), in the far flung future of 1968. And as the sun rises over an eerily silent and seemingly abandoned city, except for the several dozen corpses littering the landscape and wind-whipped streets, we settle on a sign outside of a community church, which declares, The End Has Come. As to the how and why of this coming end come to pass, we get some answers as we move to the barricaded home of a single solitary man, who drearily answers his alarm clock and checks his makeshift calendar before morosely commenting on how it’s only been a scant three years since he became the sole heir to the planet Earth.
Robert Morgan (Price) is this man’s name and he, as far as he knows, was the only one immune to a nasty global pandemic, which spread quickly and reduced every other infected living thing on the planet into a reasonable facsimile of an undead, vampire-like ghoul in that they expire when exposed to sunlight, and so only move around at night; have an aversion to their own reflection; are repelled by the scent of garlic; have a thirst for blood, which spreads the contagion further; and can only be dispatched by being permanently staked in the heart so their wounds can’t clot and seal and the lethal bacteria is exposed and breaks down. And every night, these ghouls gather around Morgan’s fortified home and try to break in and get him. And with each passing night, as they call for him to come out and end this, the ever isolated Morgan inches a little closer to losing his mind.
This also explains why each and every morning for the last 1095 days Morgan embarks on the same routine of re-fortifying his house -- refilling the generator, replacing broken mirrors near the entrances, reinforcing the boarded up windows, and swapping out old wreaths of garlic for fresher and more pungent newer ones. He also tries his short-wave radio every morning, too, but I don’t think he really expects anyone to answer anymore. In fact, the man appears to be running on automatic as he finishes up inside, using a lathe to carve a few more rudimentary wooden stakes, before rounding up the few dead ghouls scattered around his yard, loading them into his station wagon, and hauling them to the outskirts of town where a large, hellish pit awaits that will seemingly burn forever on the fat and the grease of all those infected bodies tossed into its purifying fire long before and long after Morgan started feeding it.
And when he’s not working on his home defenses, running for supplies, disposing of the dead, and, yes, giving into despair, Morgan goes out on systematic hunts as he works a grid-pattern through the city, staking every ghoul he comes across but always returns home well before the sun goes down, where he drinks himself into oblivion while a record player blares out jazz music in a futile effort to drown out the sound of the others trying to break their way in, longing to feast on his untainted blood. But even in this critical endeavor he is beginning to slip due to mental fatigue as he is constantly haunted by the family he lost; a wife and a young daughter.
And after one particular brutal night of drinking and prolonged assault on his house, a distraught Morgan is clearly no longer thinking straight, forgoes his usual careful routine, ignores the bodies on his property, and heads to a nearby cemetery, where he enters a mausoleum where his late wife has been interred. Twice. Here, he sits and cries while holding vigil until the both mentally and physically exhausted Morgan collapses and passes out over the mounting strain. And when he wakes up several hours later, the sun has already set! Fleeing the cemetery, a panicked and exposed Morgan finds several ghouls waiting for him at his car. And while he is able to handle this knot easily enough to get away, I’m thinking the couple dozen ghouls gathered outside his house waiting for him to return might just prove this blunder will be the last mistake the last man on earth ever makes...
Born in New Jersey but raised in Brooklyn, New York, Richard Matheson caught the writing bug early and was first published at the ripe old age of 8 when some of his stories ran in a local newspaper. His first professional gig came in 1950 when his short story, Born of Man and Woman, saw print in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. An avid fan and reader of fantasy tales, Matheson would spend the next decade spinning highly regarded yarns of horror, paranoia, fantasy and mysteries -- all from a very unique angle:
“I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighborhoods,” said Matheson. “There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighborhood … Even when I did science-fiction I didn't write about foreign planets and distant futures. I had to write about realistic circumstances. That's the way my brain works.” And Matheson followed those instincts from the very beginning when he penned his first novel, I Am Legend in 1954. Finding the idea of Dracula kinda scary, Matheson had a notion of instead of just one vampire what if their were hundreds of them -- heck, why not a whole world of vampires. Now that would be really scary.
Like in the movie, Matheson’s protagonist, Robert Neville, is also eking out the same lonely existence as Robert Morgan. But in the book, they get into a little more detail on the origin of the plague that killed his family and destroyed the world (-- in the film we get a few vague newspaper clippings about a mystery plague and must extrapolate from there), giving hints to germ warfare, whose contagion was spread on the winds and mosquito bites. And as time passes, Neville, a factory worker, must teach himself the skills he needs to survive this holocaust. And on top of that, in his effort to fight off his alcoholism and despair, he forces himself to keep his mind occupied by learning everything he can about the contagion and the peculiar effect it has on the infected and why he and he alone is immune to it and maybe, just maybe, find a cure.
And here we get to what I’ve always loved about Matheson’s novels and his writing style: how he can explain things ranging from psychic phenomenon to a bacterial infection so the layman can understand them. I mean, I barely survived high school biology and yet I followed everything Neville is able to piece together about the disease and the life cycle of its infection, which starts with a growing weakness and aversion to sunlight, then blindness, then the body wastes away until death; and then, reanimation. And one of the most interesting twists in the book that is pretty much ignored in the movie is how the whole vampire angle is purely psychological and a form of postmortem mass hysteria or mutual psychosis.
See, when this outbreak started and the governments of the world denied any germ-bombs, with tales of the living dead feeding on the living sweeping the globe, people started to believe the infected really were vampires. And so, when these panicked citizens became infected, died, and became reanimated, with not enough oxygen getting to their brains, these walking corpses went insane and actually started to believe they really were vampires, and so, act accordingly -- beautifully illustrated by Matheson in a few sentences where one of the infected thinks he can turn into a bat, jumps off a building, and plummets to the ground. And while the fall and impact would’ve normally killed him, the creature instead kept flapping its arms, trying to fly away.
And that’s another thing I love about Matheson: his efficiency. For with a few simple words and descriptions he can make several months go by as Neville’s painstaking research comes to eventual fruition as he pieces all of this together. And on top of that, the author is also able to bring the reader a sense of dread and foreboding with an economical efficiency of words that a lot of writers could learn from. He handles an action scene in the exact same way, keeping things nice and taught as the reader burns through pages to see what happens next.
But as Neville pushes forward to deal with the now, we also get a series of flashbacks in I Am Legend, which reveal how we all got here in the first place. This same framing device is also used in The Last Man on Earth (1964) -- the first attempt to bring Matheson’s novel to the big screen. In the film, these flashbacks are usually triggered whenever Morgan spools-up some old home movies. And as he watches these flickering images of his family and his eyes well up, we transition to the time of the initial outbreak. Here, our protagonist gets a bit of an upgrade as Morgan appears to be some kind of research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry instead of being some working stiff like Neville in what I assume was an attempt to speed the plot along.
From the beginning, Neville is a bit of skeptic; not believing all the glaring headlines about the dead walking and feeding on the living in Europe, Asia and Africa, but his best friend, Ben Cortman (Rossi-Stuart), a fellow researcher, isn’t so sure -- neither is Morgan’s wife, Virginia (Danieli). But as the deadly plague continues to spread and all efforts to find a cure prove maddeningly elusive, Morgan still doesn’t buy into all the supernatural hysteria about vampires and the government burning bodies since the root cause is a bacterium he can observe under his microscope.
But things continue to deteriorate as martial law is declared as more and more people are infected, and those that die must be surrendered for disposal in that infernal pit -- including the Morgan’s daughter, Kathy (Courtland). And when a distraught Morgan tries to save her, he is wrestled away by a soldier, who bluntly says a lot of people’s daughters are burning in the pit -- including his own.
But it isn’t until his wife is also infected and dies, and Morgan secretly buries her in the cemetery to save her from the pit, only to later hear a knock on his front door and find the reanimated husk of his wife on the other side, calling for him, does Morgan finally accept the horrific truth of the situation as she attacks him and he is forced to kill her -- again.
And in the three years since his world fell apart, in perhaps the most morbid rendition of “I told you so” of ever, an infected Ben Cortman leads the nightly attack and shouts the loudest for Morgan to come out of his spider-hole. (And perhaps it’s lingering guilt as to why Morgan hasn’t staked Cortman yet.) And Cortman is there again as Morgan manages to fight the horde off after he tarried to long at the cemetery. Luckily, the undead are weak an extremely uncoordinated, so if Morgan keeps moving and doesn’t let them overwhelm him with numbers, he will have a fighting chance -- and it doesn’t hurt that he runs several of them over, destroying his car in the process. And so, while a bit harrowing, Morgan makes it safely inside his house for another night.
Come the dawn, as he works to clean up the carnage, Morgan spots a dog moving in the daylight. (The bacteria infected everything and so it shouldn't be able to do this.) An excited Morgan eventually coaxes the dog into trusting him with some food. (This is one of my favorite passages from the book as Neville is able, over time, to capture the mongrel.) Alas, turns out the dog was indeed infected. And when it dies Morgan stakes it, too, making one wonder if there is vampire wildlife also running amok at night? Anyhoo, while he buries the dog, to his sudden surprise, Morgan then spots a woman wandering in the park in broad daylight! And if you think finding the dog got him excited, well, guess what?
At first the frightened woman tries to flee but Morgan is able to catch and convince her that he isn’t one of the vampires and means her no harm. She agrees to come to his home and introduces herself as Ruth Collins (Bettoia), and her story of survival echoes Morgan’s rather closely -- only it wasn’t until recently that she lost her husband. Still, Morgan is curious as to how she could be immune to the disease like he is -- something he credits to being bitten by an infected bat in the tropics. Surely the same type of immunizing bat didn’t bite her, too? And as his suspicions grow, a paranoid Morgan forces her to look into a mirror and take a whiff of his garlic. This, doesn’t go very well at all, proving Ruth is also infected. However, Ruth reveals she has been inoculated by a serum that isn’t a cure-all but does prevent the infected from dying, and so, keeps them from converting over, as long as she takes a regular injection -- and she’s not alone as there are many others in the city who are also surviving on the serum.
And here we get to the big twist of both the novel and the film. Unaware of these other survivors, turns out Morgan was accidentally staking some of them as they slept in his daily search and destroy missions (-- including Ruth's husband). And it’s gotten so bad these people actually fear him more than the totally infected. Therefore, Morgan has essentially become an ersatz Bogeyman -- a legendary monster, who comes out in the daylight to kill you if you’re not careful. And turns out Ruth was sent in as a Trojan Horse to gather intel on his layout for a proposed raid to eliminate this deadly daytime stalker once and for all. But now, with a mixture of Ruth’s serum and his own blood, Morgan has managed to concoct a full cure, which he test on an unconscious Ruth. And while this proves a success, it’s already too late as the half-infected went ahead and launched their commando raid when the girl failed to report back. And while they deal with undead outside, finally destroying Cortman, Ruth encourages Morgan to escape while he can despite his desire to stay and cure all of them, knowing they won’t listen. And so, at last, Morgan finally comes out to meet his ultimate fate.
As I mentioned earlier, The Last Man on Earth was the first film to adapt I Am Legend to the big screen in 1964. However, this was not the first attempt to adapt the novel to film. Seems back in 1957 producer Anthony Hinds purchased the film rights to the novel for Hammer Productions, who brought Matheson to London to adapt it into a screenplay. At the time, Hammer was breaking out with their Gothic horror hits, Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), and had hoped to strike again with the Matheson adaptation, currently being sold as Night Creatures, with Stanley Baker, Paul Massie, and Laurence Harvey being considered for the role of Robert Neville.
As to why the adaptation never happened, well, you have to remember Hammer was kind of thumbing their noses as the British Board of Film Censors at the time, flaunting the X-ratings they’d been getting for their sci-fi and horror pictures -- even putting the letter in their titles, like The Quatermass X-periment (1955) and X: The Unknown (1956, which we’ll be getting to in a couple weeks). But after the release of their first wave of technicolor gore and cleavage fests, the British Censors were facing a bit of backlash by those in charge of public morals. And so, they only took one look at Matheson’s script and told Hinds it was unfilmable and if he tried the film would be banned outright. (The fact the vampire women lurking outside his house in the novel know Neville is sexually frustrated by his situation and parade in front of his boarded up windows, striking lewd poses in the buff had a lot to do with this reaction, I’d wager.) And so, Night Creatures was quietly shifted out of Hammer’s production schedule and Matheson’s unused script was sold off to their American partner, Robert L. Lippert, who had no compunctions over the lurid content.
Still, it took Lippert almost six years to get the financing through American International Pictures to finally get The Last Man on Earth shot and in theaters in 1964. And while he had promised Matheson that Fritz Lang was set to direct his well-traveled script, that apparently fell through -- as did most of the money as the whole production was shifted to Italy to save costs, where Lang was replaced by the two-punch combo of Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona and was shot with mostly an Italian cast and crew. And even Matheson’s script went through a massive overhaul by Ragona, William Leicester and Furio Monetti before filming commenced. And when it got to the point where he no longer really recognized it, Matheson asked to have his name removed from the credits until his agent convinced him to use an alias, Logan Swanson, so he could maintain any residuals.
As for the film itself, Matheson didn’t much care for it -- but to be fair, he didn’t really care for any of the film adaptations of his novels; even the ones he wrote. "I was disappointed in the film,” he said. “Even though they more or less followed my story. I think Vincent Price, whom I love in every one of his pictures that I wrote, was miscast. I also felt the direction was kind of poor. I just didn’t care for it." With this assessment, I mostly disagree -- especially about Price, whom I feel is the film’s best asset, and who actually brings some emotions to the role instead of hamming it up as usual.
As for Salkow and Ragona’s direction, while it comes off kind of industrial at times they still manage a few haunting images and sequences. The massing of the shambling dead outside Morgan’s house proved highly influential to George Romero and John Russo’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). And the whole sequence where Virginia comes back from the dead is some top-notch stuff and you kinda wish the rest of the film matched up to it. And while it’s supposed to be set in a future Los Angeles it’s not hard to tell this was shot in Rome. Still, the production managed to use several sparse locations and some odd architecture and avant garde buildings to give everything a bit of a displacement, making things rather timeless. Also, the apocalyptic scenes of corpses littered all over and every inch of film dealing with the burning pit of the dead is the stuff of freakin’ nightmares. Add it all up, and the only thing, to me, that causes the film to suffer is one horrific dub job.
Of course, The Last Man on Earth wasn’t the only adaptation of I Am Legend, as it was adapted again as a vehicle for Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (1971), which swaps out the vampires for a cult of Manson-like Luddites, and another for Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007), which, to me, is probably the worst of the lot. And I do find it funny that Heston commented on the Price film, saying it was "Incredibly botched, totally un-frightening, ill-acted, sloppily written and photographed." Now that’s funny coming from a guy who knows a thing or two about spitting the bit and leaving a few teeth marks in the furniture. And while I do find The Omega Man to still be entertaining in good-bad-good way it has not aged well at all and remains permanently grounded in the era that sprung it, giving The Last Man on Earth yet another advantage over it. As for the third feature, well, it was just awful and we’ll leave it at that.
Truthfully, all three adaptations essentially fail as a true interpretation of the book that sprung them -- though I think The Last Man on Earth definitely came the closest, especially when it comes to the novel’s somewhat existential ending, which is still kinda botched -- as opposed to being completely chucked-out of the Heston version, and then completely butchered in Smith’s as a sacrifice for an asinine happy ending. And while there is no happy ending in The Last Man on Earth either, their still remains a glimmer of hope for a post-plague world.
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The Last Man on Earth (1964) Produzioni La Regina :: Associated Producers :: American International Pictures / EP: Samuel Z. Arkoff / P: Robert L. Lippert / AP: Harold E. Knox / D: Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow / W: William F. Leicester, Furio M. Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona, Richard Matheson (Novel) / C: Franco Delli Colli / E: Gene Ruggiero, Franca Silvi / M: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter / S: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Christi Courtland