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Movie Review: The Last Man on Earth

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The Last Man on Earth (American International Pictures, 1964)
Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow
Written by Ragona, Furio M. Monetti, William F. Leicester, and Richard Matheson (as Logan Swanson) from the novel I Am Legend by Matheson

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is one of the essential horror novels of the 20th century. It details an apocalyptic universe in which one man has survived a universal plague that has turned most everyone else into corpses or something much worse; call them zombies or vampires, they’re some bad motherfuckers that you don’t want to be around. A new big budget adaptation starring Will Smith will be in theaters on Dec. 14th, and so I thought I would go back and review the first two attempts at bringing the novel to the big screen. The first one is the 1964 version entitled The Last Man on Earth.

Vincent Price stars as Robert Neville, the last man on Earth. In this version, Neville was one of the scientists trying to find a cure for the plague that wiped everyone else out. The ones that didn’t get burned after death after turned into the living dead. In this film, they are referred to as vampires, but they act a lot more like zombies. Plus, since this is the sixties, there’s not a lot of bloodshed. When they attack they just kind of stumble into you and we get to see Vincent Price push them away; like I said, these are pretty much zombies.

The hardest part in adapting a story like this is you are pretty much left with only one character that has to basically talk to himself. In the book he has a dog as well, which a dog does show up at one point in this version as well. But if you’re going to have an actor interacting with himself for an hour and a half, you will find few more up to the task than Mr. Price.

They do circumvent some of this problem by showing a long flashback sequence that details what happened leading up to the virus. This makes up the middle portion of the film.

Later on in the story, Robert discovers that he might not be completely isolated when a young woman that shows no signs of having the virus shows up. She is not exactly what she appears however, and Robert soon learns that he is well known among the undead crowd, and if they are ever going to be able to start a world of their own, Mr. Neville might not be able to be a part of it.

The Last Man on Earth isn’t a bad film, per se, but it’s kind of blah when all is said and done. There was obviously very little in the form of a budget here, and it shows. We don’t get to see much of the destruction that the world has come to since they probably couldn’t afford to show it. So, most of the film is set in two or three places; all of which are indoors.

They also don’t really add anything in the department of makeup to make the undead look any different from Price. They all have bags under their eyes, which make them seem more tired than scary.

Actually if you take out the middle portion of the film which is for the most part the least engaging aspect, you would have a tight 45 minute episode of The Twilight Zone which is what most of this film feels like.

Still, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation when you break it down to the essentials. And I have to give them credit for a fairly dour ending that I wasn’t expecting. It’s been so long since I’ve read the original source, I can’t remember how faithful this aspect is. Still, if I remember correctly, it’s close enough.

So, if you like the story or are looking forward to the Will Smith film and don’t feel like reading first, this will give you a decent idea of what you can expect. Just remember it will be a much bigger budget and Will Smith will probably utter some clever one-liners. Next up, Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. Damn you, dirty creatures of the night!!! 

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Sam Loomis

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