This 1964 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal novel I AM LEGEND has been accorded classic status in some quarters, presumably due to many viewers’ nostalgic memories of seeing it as a child (a weakness I’ll confess to myself, though not with this film), or maybe just because it’s old. Don’t believe the hype, though, as this is a lackluster effort in every respect.
I AM LEGEND, which first appeared back in 1954, is not only a great yarn that still holds up over fifty years after its initial publication, but one of the key modern horror novels. Stephen King has singled the book out as an important inspiration in the way it lifted the genre out of the old-dark-castle school and into modern-day suburbia with its nightmarish narrative about an ordinary man who finds himself alone in a neighborhood–and an entire world–overrun by vampires. Matheson further showcased his talent in innumerable short stories, as well as novels like THE SHRINKING MAN, A STIR OF ECHOES, HELL HOUSE and HUNTED PAST REASON, fourteen scripts for the original TWILIGHT ZONE series (including classic episodes like “Little Girl Lost” and “Nightmare At 30,000 Feet”) and screenplays for films such as BURN, WITCH, BURN!, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and Steven Spielberg’s DUEL.
I AM LEGEND is widely acknowledged as the key inspiration behind George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and was the source, unfortunately, for the bad Charlton Heston movie THE OMEGA MAN. The book was originally set to be filmed by England’s Hammer Films, but that proposed adaptation fell through after British censors turned down Matheson’s script. The adaptation did eventually happen, but in tawdry low budget form as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, shot entirely in Italy (though set in America) under the auspices of American International Pictures. Matheson understandably had his name removed from the credits, replacing it with the pseudonym Logan Swanson, a name Matheson has since used whenever he’s unhappy about a publication or screenplay (the original edition of his novel EARTHBOUND was accredited to Logan Swanson, and the screenwriting credit for the 1986 TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Button, Button” was also Swanson’s).
Neville, once a hard-working scientist, now finds himself the last man on Earth—the last living man, that is, as everyone else has been turned into vampires. They all, it seems, are after Neville, who barricades himself inside his once-ordinary home each night, in the daytime going from house to house and staking the undead occupants.
A lengthy flashback fills us in on Neville’s earlier life, when he laughed off the mysterious contagion that would eventually wipe out the human race. His wife is struck down, however, as are all his neighbors, and Neville is forced to face the facts of this horrible disease, especially when his beloved shows up on his doorstep one night…after he’s buried her!
Back in the present things seem to be looking up, as an attractive young woman has apparently decided to move in with Neville. He thinks he’s found happiness until he learns the truth: the woman has been sent to spy on him by members of the new ruling class, a band of genetically evolved vampires who view Neville as a freak. Around this time his house is infiltrated by a vampire army and Neville escapes into a church for a final confrontation with his new overlords.
Although this film follows the narrative of I AM LEGEND reasonably closely, it departs from the text in a number of crucial ways. Events that were important in the book, such as the protagonist’s discovery of a dog and his final encounter with the woman, are dealt with in extremely perfunctory and plain lazy fashion here–in one scene the woman is screaming and running away from Neville, yet in the next is inexplicably seen with him in his house. And don’t even get me started on the awful “blood transfusion” climax, a BIG departure from the book; I hated the same device when it was used years later in the otherwise brilliant NEAR DARK, and like it even less here.
The book would seem to present a filmmaker with innumerable opportunities for striking imagery, but this film, which had two directors, makes do with a lot of schlocky vampires presented in flat, TV-styled compositions, giving the whole thing a cheap B-movie feel. Vincent Price does what he can in the lead role, but is miscast as an everyman faced with unspeakable horror–Price may have been one of the genre’s great screen personalities, but an everyman he most definitely was not, and anyway, he can’t overcome the ennui of this terminally uninspired production.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH
American International Pictures
Director: Sidney Salkow, Ubaldo B. Ragona
Producer: Robert L. Lippert
Screenplay: “Logan Swanson” (Richard Matheson), William F. Leichester
(Based on a novel by Richard Matheson)
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Editing: Gene Ruggiero, Franca Silvi
Cast: Vincent Price, Franca Bettonia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Umberto Raho, Christi Courtland, Antonio Corevi, Ettore Ribotta, Rolando De Rossi