In 1964 directors Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow brought us The Last Man on Earth and Vincent Price as Robert Neville, a broken lonely figure forced to deal with the mundane realities of existence and subsistence by day and the real threat of attack by night. Their adaptation Richard Matheson's I Am Legend wasn't without fault; preferring a rather more traditional action packed finale than the more nuanced origin of evil twist of the book and thus rather missing the point, but over-all I found it quite the poignant post-apocalyptic vision. It was also, with its slowing and dumbing down of Matheson's vampires, a rather important part of the cinematic zombie story, with Romero even citing its crucial influence. The 2007 Will Smith blockbuster I Am Legend further blurred the vampire and zombie lines and with its theatrically released ending perhaps even further missed the Legend point; but I unashamedly enjoyed it for the big budget action packed spectacular that it was. In between though there was this other adaptation, and the cover exalting Charlton 'from my cold dead hands' Heston's automatic weapon prowess I think best illustrates the direction I felt it ultimately took.
To be fair Heston paints a performance worthy of Vincent Price's legacy and taken in isolation from its peers director Boris Sagal, and writers John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington, have fashioned quite the accomplished post-apocalyptic yarn. Los Angeles is captured hauntingly empty and Heston is every bit depressed, bereaved, despairing and unhinged as a person would be having to deal with not just the mundanity of surviving during the days, the existential angst and ennui of existing in a world without purpose, but the very real threat to his life every night. The 'family'; the Omega Man's vampires present themselves as an interesting and subversive, if a little incoherent and comically pathetic adversary, and though the infected and new order Ruth, is replaced with Lisa and a gun toting group of disparate survivors, in quite the departure from the book, it does open the way for a traditional and entertaining, if safe, action oriented plot.
And that's primarily what The Omega Man is; a glorious post-apocalyptic promise that doesn't quite deliver. But one that also doesn't actually fail. If anything it's that post-apocalyptic film trap. Set up a destitute, lonely, introvert inspiring world with gorgeous expansive cinematography that leaves the skin tingling, add a struggling hero one can empathise with, then fumble around rather unsuccessfully struggling to maintain all the built-up atmosphere and ambience when it comes to actually doing something with it. Watching Heston stumble and bluster around the city is as funny as it is tragic. Clearly broken from his two year exile, his life now the permanent contradiction of retaining dignity and humanity in a world where there's no accountability or obligation to do so, is perfectly realised; and summed up beautifully with each new bitter and utterly helpless sardonic quip. Then enters the family, Lisa and her gang in a tidal wave of high speed action, explosions and the film becomes something else; that certain je ne sais quoi gone.
Whilst the zombie case could be made with The Last Man on Earth and I Am Legend with their ambiguous vampire and infection fusion; the nocturnal albino protagonists of The Omega Man despite their physical and psychological changes are a more difficult proposition to argue for. Clearly alive, clearly cognisant and clearly rational, does a radical change in world view, a clear over-night about-turn in how one perceives and interacts with reality constitute zombie-esque irrationality, delusion and surrender to a singular hunger? Not at all I'd argue. The theme of The Omega Man, and one it does assume correctly from Matheson's source, is the question as to whether it's the family that's delusional and dangerous, or as they posit actually Neville and the old order that's got it all wrong. A perfectly reasonable and congruent position is still a position even if it's different. A person banging their head and waking up with a different personality is still a person; even if they do now want to set you on fire.
The one thing I would add before dismissing the zombie case all together is perhaps the point that they are infected, and their final change does seem to coincide with loss of empathy, social intelligence and individuality. The family are also driven by a counter-culture dogma, and structured as a cult like with a zealot leader Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) who enforces his new bastardised ideological stance with violence and an inability to compromise. Maybe they're not quite as free-willed in their new state of mind as they intimate? I'll leave it open save that though there's probably enough to argue they're not zombie in any classical sense but there is ambiguity, that zombie discussion in relation to cults, drugs, mental health, and any impairment of the neo cortex doesn't seem to be going away, and the film does come with enough heritage to deserve to be not ignored.
As said, taken for what it is, The Omega Man is a rootin' tootin' post-apocalyptic action film with much to admire. Whether tearing the streets or removing his shirt to single-handedly dominate both because of and despite of the fact, Heston provides the lines, the action and the presence to ensure each sequence and scene is a success. Under scrutiny it may not hold together, nor do justice to Matheson's legacy; why for instance, armed with semi-automatic weaponry and a whole city of devices, technology and information can Neville not deal with a foe who want to tackle the situation as if in the Stone Age? But as said, looked at as an albeit of its time fun, action sci-fi, it holds up well with a coherent and interesting story, solid film making and decent effects. It also should be commended for one of cinemas first interracial romances. So, not really zombies and not the best I Am Legend adaptation it's still worth watching if for Heston alone - 6/10.