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The end of the world and the annihilation of the human race has been a frequent subject of science fiction literature and cinema ever since the creation of the atom bomb but Richard Matheson's seminal novel I Am Legend puts a unique spin on its Doomsday scenario, incorporating vampire mythology with political allegory. Written in 1953, the novel could easily be seen as a paranoid fantasy inspired by the HUAC-McCarthy trials of the same period not unlike Don Siegel's 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Matheson's protagonist, Robert Morgan, is the only survivor of a post-apocalyptic plague that has eradicated mankind and transformed the living into vampires. Every night the undead besiege Morgan in his fortress-like home where he attempts to repel their attacks with garlic, mirrors and crucifixes. And each day Morgan arises to do his grim work of hunting down his tormentors, staking them and burning their bodies in the city dump.
It is not surprising that Matheson's highly original premise has served as the basis for two films, The Last Man on Earth (1964, Italian title: L'Ultimo uomo della terra) and The Omega Man (1971), and was a direct influence on the living dead cinema of George Romeo (Night of the Living Dead, 1968) and Lucio Fulci (Zombie, 1979) and their many offspring (Night of the Comet , 28 Days Later ). Yet Matheson has never been pleased with either film adaptation and feels the definitive version has yet to be made. By coincidence, there is another version in the works from director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, 2005) starring Will Smith that is due for release in 2007.
The Last Man on Earth, the first film version of I Am Legend, remains the most faithful adaptation of Matheson's story and enjoys a much better reputation today than it did upon its initial release when it was dismissed by most reviewers as a cheap and ineffective horror film. It's true the film's flaws are hard to ignore - the ultra-low budget, erratic pacing, the inferior post-dubbing - yet they also lend the film a strange, alienating quality that works to its advantage in suggesting a post-apocalyptic world.
Matheson has often voiced his opinion that Vincent Price was completely wrong for the part of Robert Morgan and many reviewers criticized his performance as lethargic and low-key but a second viewing of the film will convince you otherwise. Morgan is a man who has become desensitized to the death around him. He has watched helplessly while his daughter, wife and closest friends have succumbed to the virus and died. His only reason for living has become a meaningless daily ritual of corpse disposal and fortifying his home against the nightly attacks. Morgan is no heroic survivor but a man who's depressed, exhausted and in danger of losing his own humanity. Price conveys this in a subtle performance that is free of his usual hammy theatrics and just as unexpected as his work in Michael Reeves' The Conqueror Worm (1968).
The Last Man on Earth is also unique for the way it deconstructs vampire folklore in its scientific approach to each widely held belief. We learn why stakes, not bullets, are the most effective means for dispatching vampires or why, for instance, they avoid mirrors. Yet the film is less a vampire thriller than a grim existential drama and it earns extra points for never deviating from its bleak trajectory right up to the appropriately nihilistic ending in a church with Morgan playing the martyr. Undoubtedly, this grim fadeout inspired George Romero's downbeat conclusion to Night of the Living Dead if not the entire concept.— Jeff Stafford, TCM Underground
Wed February 4, 2009, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, 1964, English, B&W, 86 min, unrated, 35mm (2.35:1)