Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan in this, the first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Dr. Morgan is the last man on earth—a survivor of a viral pandemic that has wiped out the worlds population—the twist is that those who have fallen victim to the disease don’t die outright, they return in some kind of vampire/zombie hybrid state.
The story begins three years after a deadly outbreak and Dr. Morgan spends his days cleaning up the fallen victims, shopping for supplies and stalking the city, slaughtering any sleeping undead he uncovers. As the sun sets, Morgan barricades himself into his home, drinking, listening to records and fending off attacks from hordes of nightwalkers; including his former colleague Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart of KILL…BABY, KILL). Later—while burying a poodle that he befriends, only to realize it too is infected—Morgan discovers the beautiful Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia)—a survivor who, like a small band of others, have staved off the effects of the virus with a crude cocktail of drugs. With the aid of Collins, Morgan discovers the cure to the plague. But, will there be enough time to save the remaining infected?
The story behind this adaptation is fascinating. England’s legendary Hammer studios optioned the film from Matheson and hired the author to adapt the script for production. When Hammer could not elicit the British Board of Film Censors to clear the film for production, Hammer solicited American Producer Robert L. Lippert (CURSE OF THE FLY) to make the film. Lippert in turn approached American International Pictures head Sam Arkoff to Exec on the project and production was begun in Italy. Re-writes on the script caused Matheson to demand his name be removed from the production—instead, so as to retain residuals on the film, Matheson amended his credit to the pseudonym Logan Swanson. With even a cursory glance, it’s not hard to see where the producers deviated from the source material. The ending of the film is a full-blown cinematic invention—rife with just the right amount of cynicism and irony to make it biting (no pun intended). Amazingly, the only part of the movie that really works well is the new ending.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH really only stands the test of time because it served as the template and inspiration for George Romero’s masterwork NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. In fact, viewed out of context from its production date it might be difficult for many un-indoctrinated movie fans to understand that this is not a zombie film. The undead/vampires of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH might be susceptible to sunlight, garlic and stakes through the heart, but they have none of the grace and style of Bram Stoker’s children of the night. In fact, their semi-lucid state, disheveled clothing, shuffling, slothful motions and ravenous craving for human flesh is the template for the modern zombie persona—the catch is that Romero wouldn’t make that fact a reality for a further 5-years.
Truthfully, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is tedious—often as slow as the hobbling corpses that populate it. It’s saddled with a flashback sequence that goes on forever—establishing the history of the plague and the plight of Dr. Morgan. This removal from the action of the story is so prolonged that it’s apt to cause the viewer to forget exactly what the point of the movie was to begin with. Tragically, the most affecting performance in the film is wrapped up inside this extended backstory. Christi Courtland’s portrayal of Dr. Morgan’s ill-fated daughter Kathy is heartbreaking. She only has a few lines as the ravages of the infection take their toll on her helpless body— but it’s easily enough to define Dr. Morgan’s character motivations forever.
Running under an hour and a half, the measured pacing makes the film feel much longer but as it begins to build toward the climactic final moments, you can’t help but perk up and begin rooting for Price’s character. The epic dénouement is Shakespearian in all its glory. Cinematically it’s equivalent of PLANET OF THE APES or literally comparable to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In each of those instances and in the case of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, the protagonist was destined to this outcome. It’s satisfying and poignant and elevates the film beyond most of the Drive-In features of its day.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH might not be required viewing by everyone who manages to make it to the theater to see the upcoming Will Smith version of Matheson’s novel. But fans of the authors work should check out the production for both its similarities and its dissimilarities to the source. Obviously fans of Vincent Price won’t want to miss his tour-de-force performance as Dr. Morgan. But ultimately, it’s the legions of genre mavens that bow down to George Romero’s vision of a zombie Armageddon that should see the film that set up those stakes.