Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Last Man on Earth - review

1964 (Italy / USA)

2010 included on Ultimate Horror Classics SD Blu-ray R(All) 

Contains spoilers.

Ok, now. The Last Man on Earth directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow is the closest cinematic adaptation we've got of Richard Mathesons 1954 novel I Am Legend and I know what you're going to say, and yes you're right but I still think there's enough ambiguity for it to warrant a discussion.

Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan has witnessed the end of the world. An apocalyptic plague has swept humanity aside leaving him alone to deal with not only the trials of mundanity and acute loneliness but also the fact that everyone else has returned from the dead as vampires. So, three years on we find Morgan spending his days securing his house, sourcing supplies and methodically working his way through the city staking sleeping vampires and during the nights drowning out his paranoia and the provocation from outside by listening to loud music and drinking heavily. 

Now to the issue. Both in Last Man on Earth and I Am Legend the protagonists are referred to as vampires. They're afraid of mirrors and garlic, can't come out in the sunlight and can be killed by a stake to the heart. So what's the problem? Well the undead are also weak, slow and mindless, and they are cited as one of the biggest influences for the zombies that George Romero created for Night of the Living Dead. They don't have fangs, there's no biting, no mention of crucifixes or damnation and they don't possess any of the supernatural strength or abilities most commonly associated with the prince of darkness. They also tend to gather in packs and Morgan even comments how alone they don't really possess much of a threat and they're easy to manoeuvre around.

As one watches the undead monotonously chant Morgan's name and shamble about outside his house every night pathetically trying to force entry one instantly recalls the siege of the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. They both have a rudimentary use of tools to bash, and can throw stones and turn handles, both are easy to run away from and both hanker for human flesh. For all intents and purposes if it wasn't for the aforementioned vampire shunning paraphernalia their behaviour and mannerisms are zombie as is the viral pandemic manner in which they became infected. I'm really quite torn. Yes, they are vampires, Matheson said so, as does Morgan in the film but as I watched I couldn't help think how important this undead variant was in helping to establish and mould the zombie that's in mainstream consciousness today. It almost comes down to how one defines a zombie and whether the term vampire and zombie have to be mutually exclusive.

As Morgan relives the death of his wife and daughter he can only posit that he alone survived the plague because his body had developed antibodies after he was bitten by a vampire bat in Panama; one he somewhat later proves after he successfully transfers some his blood and cures the enlightened vampire Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia). After coming across Ruth, who Morgan believes, with some trepidation to be another survivor, Morgan learns that a small section of the undead have developed a vaccine that enables them overcome the limitations of the plague and they're planning on rebuilding society. Morgan it comes out has been unwittingly killing many of this new sect's loved ones and is now reviled and hated and Ruth confides that they are coming that night to kill him. The enlightened zombies are interesting in that they're not cured; they're still reanimated dead. It's just now they've regained their higher brain functions they no longer resemble the zombie-esque undead we've seen so far and they're more akin to revenants or vampires.

Whilst it is the closest we've come to an accurate adaptation of I Am Legend;  The Omega Man in 1971, and I Am Legend in 2007, being the other two, it still digresses quite heavily in places, especially at end and the way in which Morgan reaches his fate. For one reason or another the directors felt a more action oriented climax was needed but it feels out of place and Price never seems convincing as the action hero as he fights off dozens of armed vampire soldiers firing guns and throwing smoke grenades, and for all the extra razzmatazz it ultimately ends up missing the subtlety and gravitas of the original climax.

Other than these action sequences Price does a remarkable job portraying the weariness of character that spends the majority of the film alone. His narration perfectly accompanies his acting and his character feels authentic. Whilst the copy I watched felt a little washed out in places it was never distracting and Ragona and Salkow have done a remarkable job painting a believable apocalyptic world which you can see as an influence on many films that came after. I've read since that a colour remaster is now available and I enjoyed it enough I may pick this up at some point.

 So I'm going to leave it for the viewer to ultimately make their own mind up whether they're vampires or zombies, or both, or neither but at least I hope the zombie aficionado will recognise enough to see the heavy influence on the genre. The film is a solid attempt at adapting the book with only a few silly decisions holding it back from fully realising it. It's still a very well put together, engrossing film that has aged extremely well. Like films of its time the make-up and effects are minimal much like that in Night of the Living Dead and like Romero's iconic masterpiece this doesn't detract as the horror and tension are driven by constantly evocative scenes and imagery. A recommendation for the zombie or vampire fan, 8/10. 



  1. I think the inference was that Ruth and the others were infected but hadn't died and the vaccine held death off (or maybe I'm just reading too much of the novel into it) - so they were like living vampires. Those that died and returned were more the shambling dead... so where do we draw the line.

    Clearly Matheson inspired Romero and so vampires can be said to be the progenitor of the modern "Romero" zombie flick. To a degree, then, are zombies just unintelligent (and maybe rotting) vampires? No, not really, as the zombie became a distinctive and valid genre of its own...

    But there are many cross over examples (to one degree or another) and I think the term zompire is rather legitimate.

    As to this film, there is an excellent colourised version - I look at here and, did you know that this was meant to be a Hammer film but the BBFC told Hammer that they wouldn't give it a certificate if they made it. Matheson disliked the final film so much that he had his name changed to an alias, Logan Swanson, in the screenplay credits - a shame as this is the closest anyone has come to actually transferring his novel to film.

  2. Totally agree; I think its influence on Romero and NOTLD can't be overstated enough and as I lay in bed last night putting together what I thought were the most important zombie films of all time I actually concluded this may well be #1 above NOTLD and White Zombie.

    Interesting re. Ruth and the others not actually being dead, I saw it as they'd died with the vaccine holding off the less desirable symptoms of being a zompire. I'll have to take another look!

  3. There are so many variations on zombies from voodoo to flesh eating ghouls, that I've given up trying to really define it, and just go with my gut. My gut says ZOMBIE. But then again, I'm biased. Great review for a great film.



    1. Thanks and totally agree with you. I was even thinking about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the other day and whether that has a place in the whole thing. WTD