“The Last Man on Earth,” released in 1964 and starring the epic and legendary Vincent Price, was the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend”. Nearly every generation since has seen fit to make it their own from the 1970s version, “Omega Man” starring Charlton Heston to the 2007 version “I Am Legend” starring Will Smith. What every sibling, if you will, of the 1964 version has in common is a vision of the world in which a man, a solitary man, is left custodian of the world entire. Cursed, if you will, to live the remainder of his days in the singular truth of being forever alone.
The year is 1968. It’s been four years since a devastating plague ravaged the human race and reduced the populace to vampiric zombies. For Dr. Robert Morgan, played by Vincent Price, every day is pretty much the same. Wake. Collect weapons. Kill vampire zombies. Retreat. Sleep. And every night, they come. They pound on his doors and windows, relentless in their attempt to claim the last man on Earth as one of their own. As Morgan hunkers down in his house, all doors and windows blocked and covered, you can barely breathe. The director, Sidney Salkow, creates a world so small, so suffocating you wonder if Dr. Morgan was lucky or truly damned to survive the plague.
Matheson’s vision of the incredibly fast, incredibly agile vampire/zombie is somewhat more tame in the film than in the novel, but some of their tenacity is restored in future versions of the story.
There is a perfect desolation to the film, one that plays beautifully within the confines of black and white cinema. The ambiance, crafted carefully and made possible by the chilling and effectual cinematography of Franco Delli Colli, is quite simply genre-making. George Romero has often been quoted giving credit to “The Last Man on Earth” for inspiring the look/feel of “Night of the Living Dead”. After (re)watching both films, the relationship seems clear.
This adaptation of Matheson’s 1954 cult classic is arguably the most faithful to the author’s original plot line, and rightfully so. After all, Matheson was a screenwriter on the project. Unfortunately, he must have still been ultimately displeased with the treatment in the film, because he chose to be credited under a pseudonym (Logan Swanson). Rumors swirled that Matheson didn’t agree with the casting of Price in the role of Dr. Morgan. Although, after almost fifty years, it seems difficult, in retrospect, imagining anyone else in the role.
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