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When DVD made its debut in 1997, the already marginalized laser disc format took a precipitous dive. One of the last discs out from MGM through its Image Entertainment deal was this double bill of interesting American-International pictures. It's easy to find public domain graymarket DVDs of The Last Man on Earth but fans of the fantastic will love this disc's new enhanced 2:35 transfers. Ironically, they've come out just in time for the end of MGM as we know it; as I write these words the entire MGM library has been turned over to Sony Pictures.
Actually, this review will be somewhat of a tease for DVD fans as the disc was recalled before too many copies had been distributed, either through Canadian sales or Best Buy stores in the U.S. Some online message board customers reported finding misfiled copies on Best Buy store shelves, rushing with them to the checkout counter -- only to have them confiscated after coming up 'withdrawn' in the store's computers. What a time for an inventory system to start working properly! (Note: This disc is now available in Region One, as of October 2005.)
One of the key Cold War atom-scare films, Panic in Year Zero! goes the logical next step beyond On the Beach's simple acknowledgement that the world could be annihilated by a nuclear war: It attempts to depict the actual conditions after a nuclear strike. After a decade of public service films depicting order and optimism after a nuclear exchange,1 this American-International film was one of the first to suggest that an attack would precipitate an immediate breakdown of society. Carefully framing its story within the experience of an average family like those seen in complacent1950s shows, John Morton and Jay Simms' story can't wait to suggest that civilized law would boil down to one simple rule: Every Man For Himself.
Panic In Year Zero! tries for a hysterical tone and would do a lot better if its script and acting were a bit smoother -- the film is just too cheap-looking to last as any kind of classic. Just the same, the grabber premise is as gripping now as it was in 1962 when the undertaker living on Savant's street was building a fallout shelter in his back yard. The Baldwins' station wagon and trailer endlessly crisscross the same narrow roads north of Los Angeles, and the same five or six cars have to suffice to represent a flow of panicky Angelenos heading for the hills. In one supremely unconvincing setup, the station wagon is stopped at a rural intersection because of the unbroken flow of traffic zooming by - represented by mismatched grainy shots taken of an L.A. freeway!
But even if the visuals sag, actor-director Ray Milland keeps the dramatic tension high. Jean Hagen (Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain) is fine as a mother slow on accepting the idea that old rules no longer apply and survival is now the name of the game. Frankie Avalon is an unconvincing teenager but handles fairly well the business of literally riding shotgun for his pistol-toting father. As the original Variety review pointed out, sister Mary Mitchel and pretty refugee Joan Freeman (of Tower of London and Roustabout) share a first for a mainstream American release - both are raped.
Survivalism as a major industry really didn't start until a little later, with magazines dedicated to helping one store food and ammo for the impending (desired?) apocalypse. Panic In Year Zero! must have seemed like a primer for millions of wide-eyed young males wondering how they'd protect Ma and Sis in a landscape of universal hostility. There's not too much moral distance from guarding one's own bomb shelter with a shotgun, to the marauding scavenger-rapists of movies like No Blade of Grass. 2 Harry Baldwin takes advantage of one gas station owner unaware of the crisis. At his next gas stop, a greedy proprietor tries to enforce a price hike -- to $3 a gallon, up from 34 cents! 3 Harry buys out a greedy grocer (O.Z. Whitehead - good casting) and then is forced to rob decent hardware retailer Ed Johnson, who figures later in the story as another unfortunate refugee. Honest man Milland holds a gun on Johnson, a shocking act for an 'average American father' in a 1963 movie. Even more ironic is the fact that Johnson is played by Richard Garland, the reformed sniper spared by Quaker Gary Cooper in Friendly Persuasion.
As with most low-budget AIP filmmaking, Panic In Year Zero! develops its premise only so far and then wraps things up in a less than satisfactory manner. Most exposition about the atom war is delivered through the Conelrad radio station (the voice is said to be that of Hugh Marlowe). With all the human scum supposedly prowling the roads, we're given only a few hints of the kinds of trouble that could occur. A township puts up a roadblock against all outsiders, a development with precedents in towns overrun by motorcycle 'clubs' in the early '50s - the Brando film The Wild One was based on such an incident. But the limitless possibilities of lawlessness are distilled into three minor-league punks who murder and rape on a small scale. Their leader is played by perennial juvenile delinquent Richard Bakalyan. Our family encounters the hoodlums twice and it is inferred that the Baldwins (especially his ravaged daughter) would have been better off had they been executed on the spot. Jean Hagen ends up counseling not one but two rape victims when they pick up Joan Freeman's Marilyn Hayes ... who becomes a romantic possibility for young Rick, of course.
The picture ends with at least some hope in the form of harsh martial law. The overall attitude, delivered by Willis Bouchey's doctor/author's spokesman, is that America needs martial law now. Bouchey fills the Baldwins in on what's been going on while they were hidden in the hills. It seems that drug addicts have been running wild! I guess that's the worst thing the writers can think of. I'm sure the atom war was started by those darn junkies, right?
Panic In Year Zero! scrupulously avoids scenes requiring more than minimalist production values yet still delivers on its promise, allowing audience imagination to expand upon the narrow scope of what's actually on the screen. It sure seemed shocking in 1962, and easily trumped other more pacifistic efforts. The Day the Earth Caught Fire was for budding flower people; Panic In Year Zero! could have been made as a sales booster for the gun industry.
MGM's copy of Panic In Year Zero! is a flawless enhanced transfer from prime elements. Half the enjoyment will be seeing this title in its proper 'scope aspect ratio - I have an old pan-scanned Orion VHS and it looks simply terrible. The sound track properly replicates Les Baxter's overstated, blaring music score. The one extra is a trailer with text titles in an exaggerated font that might be called 'Hysteria.'
In his interview extra, author Richard Matheson explains that the screenplay adaptation of his frightening book I Am Legend bounced around Hammer for a while before being abandoned in a censorship clampdown -- surely the one that followed the shocked reception to The Stranglers of Bombay and Peeping Tom). Hammer handed off the property to onetime production partner Robert Lippert, who eventually filmed it as an Italian co-production.
The Last Man on Earth was therefore not an AIP original; it was distributed in Europe by 20th Fox. It's a handsome production which could have been a classic if it didn't try to make Italian locations stand in for the San Francisco area. Vampire hunter Robert Morgan asks a soldier on an army truck (marked simply, 'USA') if he's been to Market Street, but everything we see looks like urban-suburban Rome: Signage, motorcycle cops, etc. The montages of deserted streets littered with corpses look like a conscious attempt to imitate the eerie ending of L'eclisse, an intuition that's supported by a shot of the same futuristic 'mushroom house' featured in Michaelangelo Antonioni's art film.
What we get is an atypically morbid account of one man's struggle for survival in a different kind of post-apocalyptic environment - one human eking out living in a world of mindless zombie vampires.
Warners and Charlton Heston remade this story as The Omega Man, and through the 80s and 90s we heard of a planned Arnold Schwarzenegger remake that hasn't yet happened (although California is starting to look a lot like this picture). Everyone including the original author once agreed that the 1964 version of I Am Legend was a dud, but I think that unfair judgment will change now that it can be seen in its full aspect ratio. The Last Man on Earth was dismissed by Variety as "plodding" and "poor," when the words "prophetic" and "atmospheric" now seem more appropriate.
The film is quite deliberate in building up the grim routine of the last man on Earth: Fill the generator, check on the garlic, sharpen some new wooden stakes, dump corpses into the landfill -- every day the same old grind. Vincent Price is often criticized as bad casting for such a physical role, which overlooks the fact that he's much more vulnerable than would be an action-man type like Heston or Der Governor. We expect those guys to make all the right moves, whereas we understand when Price goofs on things like not putting the car away before the sun sets and the ghouls come out.
The nightly onslaught of slow-walking zombies that lays siege to Morgan's house is a chilling precursor (and obvious inspiration) for George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. "Morgan ... Come OUT!" the creatures wail as they try to break down doors or pry open windows. Lucky for Morgan, none of the monsters has the strength to lift a heavy object, or the intelligence to outwit the house's sole occupant.
Morgan's daily routine mostly makes us think he'd be better off in some kind of high-rise where he need only block a heavy door or two to lock out the undead rabble - city folk call this 'exclusivity.' After it has been established that Morgan is systematically staking the vampire-like creatures by day, we get an extended flashback showing how the disease took the world by surprise. A movie with less exploitative aims might have tried to intersperse these flashbacks along the way, but the direct method used here spares us from that arty approach. The flashback supplies the background of loss and dislocation that makes Morgan such a morose character; Price handles it all quite well.
I doubt that Sidney Salkow did a heck of a lot beyond let ace cameraman Tonino Delli Colli loose and watch the good footage roll in. Delli Colli's lighting is always interesting and some interiors during the nighttime sieges are excellent. The 'scope lensing keeps the cramped Morgan household from becoming boring. The only flaws come in some exteriors, where traffic can be seen moving around the background of this supposedly dead world.
As with Panic In Year Zero!, The Last Man on Earth spins to a rushed climax just as things are starting to become interesting. Morgan makes contact with a member of a new tribe of plague victims who have suppressed the zombie side-effects through the use of an intravenous serum - in this picture, the world is saved by drug addicts! A little late in the game, Morgan realizes that he is immune for a reason (a mysterious bat-bite in his past) and his own blood can cure the world. Unfortunately, he is number one on the new tribe's hit list. His name is Legend mainly as a vampire killer, and the black-clad vigilantes want him dead. After eighty minutes of interesting developments, the film winds up in a hurried chase to a symbolic finale in a church. Morgan gave his life for us, you see ...
MGM's new The Last Man on Earth is on the flipper side of this double-bill disc. The transfer is once again a thing of beauty; we can conclude that neither picture was subjected to much reprinting. The audio track is one of those studio redub jobs that makes good tracks sound false simply because every line is 100% on-mike and there are no background presences. The Sawtell/Shefter score is okay but not particularly memorable.
This title has no trailer but does have a short Richard Matheson interview that covers his participation in the development of the film. Keep in mind that Matheson was always deeply negative about films made from his books; in 1972 he spoke before a LA County Museum screening of The Incredible Shrinking Man to say how terrible it was. He's since seen it and changed his mind. The Last Man on Earth is no timeless classic, but it is definitely a unique little chiller with progressive ideas and it deserves recognition.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: April 8, 2005
1. For the funny and intelligence-insulting 'public information' films of Cold War mollycoddling, see The Atomic Cafe and the extras on
the discs of Invasion U.S.A. and
Atomic War Bride/This is Only a Test.
2. The subgenre eventually turned into escapist mythmaking, with the Road
3. Younger people may find this hard to believe, but the price of a gallon of gas held
steady through much of the 1960s, hovering between thirty and forty cents. I once bought some cheap stuff for
25 cents per ... and my father knew exactly what I'd done when my Volkswagen sputtered its way back home. Of
course, if gas really neared $3 a gallon, we could be certain that civilization as we know it was coming to an end,