Synopsis: Vincent Price delivers a tour-de-force performance while his walking-dead co-stars literally chew up the scenery behind him in this terrifying chiller from the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Price plays the sole survivor of a lethal virus that transforms all others into vampire-like zombies. He fights them nightly, until, desperately lonely and at the end of his rope, he makes a startling discovery!
eyelights: Vincent Price. its core plot. its structure.
eyesores: the direction. the post-production audio work.
“Another day to live through. Better get started.”
It’s 1968. For well over three years, the world has been infected with a plague that is killing people and bringing them back to life as vampiric undead. The few that had remained have been murdered by swarms of these mutants, who can’t come out in the day, but who are lethal killers by night.
And you’re the last known man on earth. What do you do?
Such is the big question in 1964’s ‘The Last Man On Earth’, which was the first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’. Starring Vincent Price, this low-budget b+w motion picture fell under the radar at the time of its release, but has gained quite a cult following in the ensuing years.
George Romero himself has even gone on record to say that he had been inspired by its source material in the making of his landmark ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ (truth be told, while looking at ‘The Last Man On Earth’, before even discovering this, I felt that ‘NOTLD’ had surely ripped some of it off).
The movie opens with long shots of a lifeless city. As we take to the city streets, we begin to find corpses strewn about. It’s extremely quiet and a posting on a neighourhood Church warns us that “The End Has Come”. When we first see Dr. Morgan (Price), he appears as dead as everyone else – but he is only sleeping.
His nights are hardly restful: holed up in his house, he wards off marauding undeads. On his barricaded front door are a large braid of garlic and a mirror – enough to keep them away from his door. But not enough to stop them from throwing things at his house and shout in the night. Even so, he manages to sleep somewhat.
His days are even worse: in constant search for remaining human life, he scours the city in his car, kills the sleeping undead he finds and tosses the cadavers in the city’s big bonfire pit – one that has been burning since the beginning of the plague. He must also get provisions during the day, while the undead hide away.
His life is barren since his family has contracted the plague. A scientist, he has tried in vain to find a cure but he has nearly given up. That is, until he suddenly finds signs of life just outside his house: a small dog. And, beyond (after following it desperately), undead corpses – with stakes in them.
He may very well be saved – if not from the plague, then surely from his loneliness and growing madness.
Vincent Price is quite excellent in this picture. Although Matheson felt that he was miscast (he surely must know, having written the character), I like that Price plays Robert Morgan (né Neville): he is an expressive theatre-trained actor and he can easily handle the demands of being alone on screen.
Price makes Morgan’s action and feelings clear without speaking a word, but is helped along by an overdub that expresses his thoughts. Since Price also had one of the most distinguished voice in cinema, it’s a pleasure to hear him recount Morgan’s inner feelings and thoughts for the whole of the first act.
The second act consists of Morgan recollecting his past, before the plague: his family life, his research work and his best friend, Ben – who now hounds him nightly. The use of flashback to give us his backstory was perfect; the picture gave us tension and suspense right from the start instead of building up to it.
The third act consists of Morgan’s action and discoveries after he finds the dog. It’s the lesser of the three parts because it doesn’t contribute to our understanding of the situation; it merely takes us from point A to point B, something that is underwhelming under these extreme and unusual circumstances.
It also puts Price in the role of action hero to some degree – and if Price isn’t something, it’s an action hero. Seeing him run limply instead of in utter haste was barely bearable; had he been any slower he would have been unwatchable. Perhaps this is what Matheson was referring to in his criticism.
And yet I would have to say that this is one of Vincent Price’s most memorable -if not finest- screen roles. He has the somber quality needed for the part on top of the voice and physical presence. He’s also able to broach that fine line between sanity and madness with ease, something not everyone could do well.
The main problem with this picture (aside from apparent changes from the novel), is its obvious low budget: although it was a common practice to dub the sound in post-production in Italy at the time, the producers clearly skimped on the dubbing, because the voice acting and foley work are amateurish at best.
This gives ‘The Last Man On Earth’ a second-rate vibe that is supported by some poor directorial choices (but, thankfully, not too many). Making up for it is the Italian scenery and architecture, which is absolutely gorgeous – discrepant as they may be for a film that supposedly takes place in the United States.
Although Matheson’s book would become the source material for two other pictures, ‘The Omega Man’ and ‘I Am Legend’, I must say that this may be my favourite of them all – despite its many flaws. It shows some cleverness, and captures the desperation and heartbreak of the situation better than the others.
One fully understands what it must be like to be this last man on earth.
Date of viewing: Jan 11, 2015