Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The new Will Smith version of I Am Legend is by far the most expensive and elaborate film done from a Richard Matheson story; here's hoping that the venerated author is still in the profits loop on this one. Matheson's tale of a non-supernatural vampire plague has been filmed twice before. The first effort is this 1964 Italian co-production The Last Man on Earth, a picture that 'gets a lot of things right' and is a definite precursor of the highly influential Night of the Living Dead. Largely ignored for forty years, it's odd to see newspapers and magazines writing up the movie, which has some baffling production choices. On the plus side, Vincent Price appears in an unusual 'everyman' role, as the last survivor of the human race, and the B&W 'scope cinematography is very good.
In his interview extra, author Richard Matheson explains that his screen adaptation 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. Filmed by the celebrated cinematographer Tonino Della Colli, it 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 remind us of the eerie ending of L'eclisse, an intuition supported by a shot of the same futuristic 'mushroom house' featured in Michelangelo Antonioni's art film. Last Man is also about alienation and loneliness in the modern world, but told in Science Fiction terms: one human struggles to survive in a morbid post-apocalyptic environment populated by mindless zombie vampires.
Medical researcher Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the last person alive in his city after a horrible plague has robbed him of his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) and child. He's forced to live a nightmarish existence fending off hordes of zombie-like plague victims that behave much like vampires. He hunts them down by day and burns the bodies of those that fall lifeless at his doorstep. Morgan also scavenges for necessities - mirrors and garlic to keep the zombies away and gasoline to power his generator. Then he makes contact with Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), one of a group of plague victims who have found a way to stay alive and human. The problem is, this new breed considers Morgan a dangerous man, and wants him destroyed.
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 eventually became the just-opened Will Smith vehicle. Everyone including the original author once agreed that the 1964 version of I Am Legend was a dud, an unfair judgment that has changed now that it can be seen in its full aspect ratio. The Last Man on Earth was dismissed by Variety as "plodding" and "poor." 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 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 Will Smith. We expect that pair to make all the right moves, kill the zombies and be back in time for lunch. Vincent Price is the kind of guy that we can believe would be distracted at his wife's grave and get caught outside after sunset, when the ghouls come out.
The nightly onslaught of slow-walking zombies that lays siege to Morgan's house is an 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 makes us think he'd be better off living in a high-rise apartment 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 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 directory Sidney Salkow did a heck of a lot beyond let Franco 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 occasional traffic can be seen moving in the background of this supposedly dead world.
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 that his own blood can cure the world. Unfortunately, he is Public Enemy #1 on the new tribe's hit list. He's been unknowingly killing their members as well as the real vampires, and the black-clad vigilantes want him dead. After eighty minutes of interesting developments, the film opts for a hurried chase to a symbolic finale in a church. Morgan gave his life for us, you see ... The Last Man on Earth is no timeless classic, but it is definitely a unique little chiller with progressive ideas.
MGM's new The Last Man on Earth has come back from the dead ... twice. As most genre fans are already aware, this repackaging is the same excellent transfer and encoding of an earlier 2004-2005 release. For forty years the film was viewable only in dark, pan-scanned TV prints and will be a wide-screen revelation for many. The audio track is one of those studio re-dub jobs that sounds 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.
The one extra is a brief, disorganized but nevertheless intriguing interview with author Richard Matheson, who talks about writing the treatment for Hammer in the late 1950s and being upset when it was eventually produced on the cheap. When the script was rewritten he asked to have his name removed, but to secure his residuals took the alias Logan Swanson. Taped several years back, Matheson doesn't mention the later Charlton Heston version and opines that Hollywood will never commit major production money to a story like this!
Although most shoppers won't realize it, the original release is still available, often at bargain prices. It's a Midnite Movies double bill with the excellent Panic in Year Zero!, which means that buying this new disc with the "I Am Legend" sticker gives the buyer half the entertainment for the same if not more money. MGM is very much appreciated for their Midnite Movies branded line that caters to the wants of horror and Sci-Fi collectors. But we can see the attitude shift between courting the fans of fantastic films and selling to the general public -- the older Vincent Price movie was an unimportant trifle, until the Will Smith remake suddenly transformed it into a 'serious' title worthy of a full release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Man On Earth rates:
Movie: Good Genre interest: Excellent
Supplements: Interview docu with author Richard Matheson
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 19, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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