“Another day to live through. Better get started.”
At least some of you know that I rank Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend among my very favorite books. I read it for the first time when I was 11 or 12 after a chance discovery at a neighborhood library and was immediately hooked.
The story of Robert Neville, who believes he’s the lone survivor after a plague sweeps over humanity in the novel’s “far off” future of 1976 and turns most if not all people into “vampires,” is considered by many to be the first “modern vampire novel.” Additionally, there are those who’ll tell you it’s also a forerunner to the modern genre of “zombie” books, comics, films, and TV series. I long ago lost count of the number of times I reread this book just during my teenage years, and to this day it’s a story I still revisit on occasion when the mood strikes.
In addition to serving as inspiration or just flat out being ripped off for other books, comics, films, and whatnot in the decades since its publication, I Am Legend has itself been “officially” adapted for film three times: 1964’s The Last Man On Earth starring Vincent Price, 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and 2007’s I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Also in 2007, The Asylum, the direct-to-home video powerhouse, released an “unauthorized” version they dubbed I Am Omega which they hoped would cash in on the hype surrounding the Will Smith movie.
But hey! Only one of those flicks is celebrating its 55th birthday today, and that’s why we’re here.
Released on this date in 1964, The Last Man On Earth is, so far as I’m concerned, the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s novel. This, despite Matheson himself not being satisfied with the finished product even though he helped with the screenplay. Produced on a very low budget and filmed in Italy, the film does deviate from the book in several respects, such as Neville being named “Robert Morgan,” and his occupation being changed to that of a scientist. Fans of the novel know that Neville begins the book as a worker at some kind of plant, largely ignorant of things like biology or viruses and related subjects, and much of the story involves him teaching himself these things so he can understand how the plague came to be and (later) to see whether a cure can be found.
Morgan’s encounter with a seemingly uninfected woman, Ruth, is the same in the broad strokes, including her real reason for crossing his path and that she’s been sent as a spy by a group of vampires who’ve learned to live with the plague and control its effects so that they can attempt rebuilding society. The movie’s ending also amps up action of the final confrontation with Morgan/Neville and the vampires as well as how said fight ends up playing out.
These differences work well enough for the film’s version of the story, though the production’s limited budget definitely shows around the edges so far as casting and production design. What does work is thanks largely to the presence of Vincent Price, one of the great genre actors of his generation. He seems miscast here, despite providing a solid if generally subdued performance. Regardless, The Last Man On Earth still feels right at home with other favorite 1950s science fiction and horror movies.
When I was a kid, the film was one of those which would pop up on Saturday afternoons on the local UHF TV channel, which is how I discovered and came to love so many great science fiction and monster movies of the 1950s and 60s. It’s conceivable I’m the only person I know who cared enough to even buy the movie on DVD when it was released by MGM in 2006. I guess it’s because I found it during that “golden age” of childhood fandom that I’m more forgiving of it than I am The Omega Man and the 2007 I Am Legend. Maybe one of these days we’ll get a proper, honest to goodness adaptation but until then? The Last Man On Earth will have to do.
Or, we could all just go and read the book again.