Based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, The Omega Man (1971) stars Charlton Heston as (seemingly) the last man on earth after an apocalyptic plague, born of biological warfare between the Soviet Union and China. It wipes out most of the human race, leaving only half-human survivors determined to kill him. The Omega Man was the second of three problematic adaptations: the new Will Smith I Am Legend is the latest, of course, and doubtlessly prompted this high-def release. Both were preceded by The Last Man on Earth (1964), an American-Italian co-production starring Vincent Price.
The film is set in the summer of 1977 - two years after the decimation of mankind. Heston plays Robert Neville, an army scientist whose experimental vaccine is developed too late to save anyone except himself. Determined to live on in his penthouse apartment, his only companion is a bust of Julius Caesar (a reference to the actor's pet project, released the year before this) whom he talks to and plays chess with. During the daylight hours he combs the empty streets of downtown Los Angeles, searching for the hiding place of The Family, a group of half-dead plague survivors, mutated by the killer germ into crazed albinos unable to walk about in the daytime. Led by former newscaster-turned-prophet Mathias (Anthony Zerbe) into a quasi-religious sect, they're determined to forsake all technology and return to a tradition comparable to the Middle Ages.
In the meantime, beyond the night-long taunting of Mathias and his band, Neville battles extreme loneliness as the Last Man on Earth, but later he spots an unmutated woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), and he becomes obsessed with finding her.
The major difference between the novel I Am Legend and The Omega Man is that in the novel the half-human characters are explicitly zombie-like, scientifically rationalized vampires. In this sense the 1964 film with Vincent Price is truer to the spirit of the book, with Price hanging garlic all over his house and staking the vampires and burning their corpses during the day. That film was compromised in other ways - the casting of AIP star Price, shooting in Italy - the project was originally planned by Britain's Hammer Films, but fell through after its script was deemed unfilmable by the prudish government censors. Between the Price and Heston film George Romero made Night of the Living Dead (1968), which liberally lifts elements from Matheson's book, but overall it's more effective and far scarier than the other two pictures.
The Omega Man is a very flawed movie, most of the problems having to do with budget-conscious cost-cutting, a badly reworked menace and, especially, a screenplay by John William and Joyce H. Corrington that dumbs down the material while adding some incredibly clumsy messianic pretentiousness.
Produced at a time when the major studios were retrenching after many big-budget flops and trying to put a cap on budgets, The Omega Man looks cheap for a major studio production. Nearly all of the exteriors were shot in downtown Los Angeles or the Warner Bros. backlot and nearby ranch. Even Heston's short helicopter ride is over the nearby Hollywood Hills, above Forest Lawn, and one scene was shot on an unopened stretch of the 210 Freeway. With its extreme long shots of Heston alone in newspaper-strewn, canyon-like streets, the downtown L.A. footage is generally quite effective. Unfortunately, starting with just the second shot in the movie, moving cars are occasionally visible in the background, and because of the limited budget, other issues crop up, such as the fact that all the traffic lights still work, even though there's supposed to be no electricity.
For interiors, art director Walter Simonds and set decorator William Kuehl do good job covering everything with dust, cobwebs and the occasional rotted corpse, but on the streets of L.A. we also see shiny new cars and buildings, working water fountains and neatly mowed landscapes. (In Day of the Triffids it's supposed, much more realistically, that within a few years of an apocalypse high-rise buildings would actually start toppling down for lack of maintenance.)
The over-reliance on the Warner backlot and ranch is problematic, most notably because Heston's European-style apartment building looks like nothing that exists in Los Angeles, nor is any attempt made to identify his neighborhood. But even if you aren't familiar with L.A., the visual mismatching of the downtown and backlot footage is quite obvious.
The screenplay is a mess, seemingly borrowing bits from The Searchers, Spartacus, and blaxploitation movies while at times the film threatens to descend into Dirty Harry style action with its mad motorcycle chase through Los Angeles Coliseum, not helped by use of a stunt double for Heston that looks nothing like him. That Heston's Neville would have an explicitly sexual relationship with an African-American was rather brave, but her jive-talking dialogue is embarrassing, later outdone by some incredibly obvious allusions to Neville as a Christ-like Savior of Mankind. Early scenes resort to some clunkily positioned flashbacks, including a montage of the dead that isn't a tenth as believable or haunting as similar footage in The Andromeda Strain, released that same year.
The Corringtons' original concepts of The Family and their accompanying make-ups come close to ruining the film. Changing the menace from zombie-like vampires to culture- and technophobic albinos in black, monk-like robes was truly stupid. They're introduced in a slam-bang, dramatically justified action scene that's pretty suspenseful precisely because at this point in the film they haven't been defined, but once Mathias begins articulating their desire to wipe man's old ways off the map in favor of a goofy new religious order rife with heavy wooden furniture, catapults and candles, it becomes quite absurd.
Complaints aside, the movie is still extremely effective in other ways. Most of the best scenes are long silent stretches without dialogue early in the film, following Neville as he roams the desolate streets and cobweb-filled buildings downtown. There's a long, wonderful sequence where he prowls around an ornately-decorated hotel, rifle in hand, occasionally stumbling upon corpses still in their beds. One especially inspired sequence has him running (for the umpteenth time, it's implied) the movie Woodstock at a downtown movie house. Though Woodstock was a recent Warner release and therefore something like product placement, its impact is both funny and profound: straight arrow Charlton Heston obsessively watching a movie he'd never sit through in a normal world, and as the last man on earth watching a movie choking with tens of thousands of people having the time of their lives.
Prolific television director Boris Sagal was the wrong choice for the material; his matter-of-fact direction doesn't sustain the fitful post-apocalyptic atmosphere of other footage that was probably the work of the second unit. Ron Grainer, the busy composer of myriad British TV shows like The Prisoner and Doctor Who was an interesting choice to write the film's score. It's very inconsistent, at times wonderful and at others weirdly inappropriate to what's onscreen, but overall it's memorable and worthy of a soundtrack album.
The movie was apparently quite successful during its original release, and in those pre-home video/cable TV days a ratings smash when it premiered on network TV. Looking at The Omega Man now I see all its many flaws, but for my generation experiencing 1970s network airings of Heston's '60s historical and religious epics, his sci-fi films of the late-1960s/early-'70s, and as the headliner of all-star disaster films after that, he was a hero like no other and his movies were almost indescribably exciting. It was possible then to watch pictures like Planet of the Apes and its first sequel, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man with a suspension of disbelief, to ignore their flaws and accept their stories at face value. In each of those films Heston functioned as both an everyman and as a cynical, violent loner. His performance in Planet of the Apes is arguably the best of his career: as much as people tout the breakthrough make-ups created for that film it was Heston's performance that sells the material more than anything else. In his historical and religious epics, Heston favored meticulously researched recreations in which he attempted to infuse a psychological portrait. These performances were always engaging but oftentimes the end result was something lacking in approachable humanity, like the "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" exhibit at Disneyland. With Planet of the Apes, however, Heston had evolved into a genuinely original, iconic (and iconoclastic) movie hero.
Most of his subsequent films (for which the powerful star earned and exerted his influence over scripts, directors, and casting, for better and in the case of The Omega Man for the worse) cashed in on this newfound persona. Soylent Green impressively added new and unexpected layers but The Omega Man has Heston playing Astronaut George Taylor from the Apes films in all but name.
By the 1980s, after his starring career in movies had petered out, Heston became something of a joke for his actorly tics and theatrical approach to most of his characterizations. Stand-up and sketch comedians began imitating him and parodying his movies, with typically Hestonian lines from movies like Planet of the Apes taking on a life all their own. What they didn't take into consideration was that from the earliest days of his career he had a great talent for adapting his larger-than-life stage presence (buttressed by that great Romanesque nose and 6'3" Scottish build) to larger-than-life historical and religious characters: Moses, Andrew Jackson, Michelangelo, etc. Marlon Brando may have been a better actor, but Heston was better-suited to play the charismatic, emotionally torn Marc Antony. Director Kenneth Branagh recognized this when he cast Heston as the Player King in his film of Hamlet. It was ingenious casting: the actor who so excelled at playing kings playing an actor playing a king.
Heston's later association with the National Rifle Association must have seemed odd to those who knew him back in the early-1960s, when Heston was a fairly liberal Democrat active in the Civil Rights movement. I suspect he was wooed into the fold to satisfy his own vanity; when movie roles and the high-profile touring to promote them dried up, the NRA afforded him the chance to appear before appreciative crowds who lapped up his "from my cold dead hands" speeches. Conservatives (and even some liberals) decried Michael Moore's treatment of Heston during an interview about gun control in Moore's Bowling for Columbine, but as the public face of the NRA Heston had all but invited trouble, even hosting Moore and his crew at the actor's cherished Coldwater Canyon estate.
Of course, few if anyone knew at the time that Heston was beginning to show the early symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. I met Heston several times over the years, for the last time at a March 2001 appearance at the American Cinematheque, at a special screening of Planet of the Apes. He did a Q&A after the movie, and his answers to some of the questions were, to put it mildly, confused. By all murky accounts Heston has been fading fast since going public with his illness in August 2002. When he's gone some will remember him only as the contentious spokesman/president of the NRA, but for my generation he'll always be that popular if under-respected actor whose characters made such a strong impression during our youth.
Video & Audio
The Omega Man is a generally fine presentation on HD DVD. Filmed in Panavision, the image is bright with strong colors for the daytime scenes while the night-for-night footage holds up well. Around the 30-minute mark there are several minutes of noticeable speckling, but overall the image holds up well given its age. The disc is in 1080p at 2.40:1, with audio in its original mono, here Dolby Digital 1.0 in English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian. There's a similar luxury of subtitle options, in English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish, with the special features in English only with optional English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, and Portuguese.
The supplements, all in 480i/p standard definition, disappointingly are all carryovers from the standard DVD: an introduction by co-stars Eric Laneuville and Paul Koslo, and co-screenwriter Joyce Corrington, a trailer, and a vintage featurette, The Last Man Alive: The Omega Man.
Conversely, those interested in the Will Smith film will be delighted to find a $7 dollar coupon toward one's ticket price redeemable at selected theaters (the AMC chain is not honoring it, however).
I confess to a biased nostalgia for The Omega Man, warts and all. It's an imperfect movie full of problems and I like it a lot. I'm delighted that it's out on HD DVD, even if that's only to cash in on the Will Smith adaptation. It's not for everyone, but for my generation anyway it and Heston's towering screen presence make it a must have in high-def. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.