The Last Man on Earth
It is not surprising that Matheson's highly original premise has served as the basis for two films, The Last Man on Earth (1964, Italian title: L'Ultimo uomo della terra) and The Omega Man (1971), and was a direct influence on the living dead cinema of George Romeo (Night of the Living Dead, 1968) and Lucio Fulci (Zombie, 1979) and their many offspring (Night of the Comet , 28 Days Later ). Yet Matheson has never been pleased with either film adaptation and feels the definitive version has yet to be made. By coincidence, there is another version in the works from director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, 2005) starring Will Smith that is due for release in 2007.
The Last Man on Earth, the first film version of I Am Legend, remains the most faithful adaptation of Matheson's story and enjoys a much better reputation today than it did upon its initial release when it was dismissed by most reviewers as a cheap and ineffective horror film. It's true the film's flaws are hard to ignore - the ultra-low budget, erratic pacing, the inferior post-dubbing - yet they also lend the film a strange, alienating quality that works to its advantage in suggesting a post-apocalyptic world.
Vincent Price was questioned about the making of The Last Man on Earth in Rome by Tom Weaver in Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. He recalled, "The problem doing The Last Man on Earth was that it was supposed to be set in Los Angeles, and if there's a city in the world that doesn't look like Los Angeles, it's Rome. We would get up and drive out at five o'clock in the morning, to beat the police, and try to find something that didn't look like Rome. Rome has flat trees, ancient buildings - we had a terrible time! And I never was so cold in my life as I was in that picture. I had a driver and I used to tip him a big sum to keep the car running, so I could change my clothes in the back seat."
Matheson has often voiced his opinion that Vincent Price was completely wrong for the part of Robert Morgan and many reviewers criticized his performance as lethargic and low-key but a second viewing of the film will convince you otherwise. Morgan is a man who has become desensitized to the death around him. He has watched helplessly while his daughter, wife and closest friends have succumbed to the virus and died. His only reason for living has become a meaningless daily ritual of corpse disposal and fortifying his home against the nightly attacks. Morgan is no heroic survivor but a man who's depressed, exhausted and in danger of losing his own humanity. Price conveys this in a subtle performance that is free of his usual hammy theatrics and just as unexpected as his work in Michael Reeves' The Conqueror Worm (1968).
The Last Man on Earth is also unique for the way it deconstructs vampire folklore in its scientific approach to each widely held belief. We learn why stakes, not bullets, are the most effective means for dispatching vampires or why, for instance, they avoid mirrors. Yet the film is less a vampire thriller than a grim existential drama and it earns extra points for never deviating from its bleak trajectory right up to the appropriately nihilistic ending in a church with Morgan playing the martyr. Undoubtedly, this grim fadeout inspired George Romero's downbeat conclusion to Night of the Living Dead if not the entire concept.
Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Harold E. Knox, Robert L. Lippert
Director: Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow
Screenplay: William Leicester, Richard Matheson, Furio M. Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona
Cinematography: Franco Delli Colli
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero, Franca Silvi
Art Direction: Giorgio Giovannini
Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Cast: Vincent Price (Dr. Robert Morgan), Franca Bettoia (Ruth Collins), Emma Danieli (Virginia Morgan), Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (Ben Cortman), Umberto Raho (Dr. Mercer), Christi Courtland (Kathy Morgan).
by Jeff Stafford
The Horror People by John Brosnan
Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews With 20 Genre Giants by Tom Weaver
Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver