This week’s B-Movie Enema is going to take a look at 1964’s The Last Man on Earth starring the great Vincent Price.
Based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, this film puts a new spin on the post-apocalyptic wasteland type of story by featuring a man who is trying to stay alive not against zombies or crazed bad guys (see any post-Romero zombie movie or Mad Max for reference), and not strictly mutants of that wasteland (see… Judge Dredd… I guess? And not the good one either). Instead, our hero is fighting off people who have mutated into vampires.
That’s a crazy idea if you ask me. It’s not that they aren’t just mutants or crazy people gone mad from the end of the world. No no no… Nothing so mundane. They are fucking Draculas!
This film was made in Italy and is an America-Italian co-production. The exterior shots oddly don’t look like they were filmed outside of Hollywood and that’s kinda interesting itself. Matheson would have several of his novels turned into movies (What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, though that is not the original title of the book, and A Stir of Echoes to name just a few). He also had a short story called Duel adapted into a television movie that launched the career of Steven Spielberg, though I have no idea why that is noteworthy. I’ve never heard of that guy. Matheson ALSO write sixteen episodes of Twilight Zone including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner.
I Am Legend, though, would be the crown jewel in terms of his adapted works – being made at least three times into movies (explanation for “at least” at the end of the paragraph). After The Last Man on Earth, it was made into the 1971 Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man (though the adaptation is much looser), and the 2007 I Am Legend starring Will Smith. I suppose it should also be said that 2008 found The Asylum producing the mockbuster I Am Omega to capitalize on the Will Smith production and so I guess it counts as an adapted piece.
But for The Last Man on Earth, our synopsis comes from the 50-pack Horror Classics DVD set: “The film opens on Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) awakening to another bleak day of existence. It’s been three years since a world-wide plague has changed Earth’s population into zombie-like vampires and Dr. Morgan is the only man to survive due to an immunity he acquired working in Central America years before. Finding food and fuel and looking for other possible survivors is his only existence all the while battling hordes of blood thirsty vampires. Hope springs to life for Dr. Morgan when he is able to cure a young woman of her vampirism through a transfusion of his own blood. Can Dr. Morgan create a cure for the human race before the vampires get him?”
Let’s dive in, shall we?
The film begins much like what the synopsis says. The world is pretty bleak and lifeless with abandoned cars and bodies strewn all over the road. Dr. Morgan, it should be stated, is none too optimistic. He’s been alone for three years and laments at it feeling like so much longer since he “inherited the world”. He goes about his mundane life taking care of himself but also gathering up dead bodies to toss them in the pit.
It’s interesting here that there’s a hierarchy within the vampire society. Morgan mentions that the weak ones are fed upon and left for him to clean up. So the fittest of the vampires feed on the weaker and then expect him to clean up after them. That’s really interesting how he’s basically relegated to that of a lesser creature that has to clean up after the superior species. Also, he keeps himself safe by hanging garlic on his door. In a movie that spins the vampire story on its head, the use of garlic for protection and sunlight and wooden stakes for weapons keeps us grounded in the old folklore of how vampires operate.
So with a bag full of stakes, Morgan goes to get rid of the bodies left in his yard, but first he has to stop and get gas. He can only travel so far because he needs to fuel up when and where he can and only that will be available to him for only so long. He dumps the bodies into a ditch that is perpetually on fire (another use for gasoline that only limits him that much more). His day is like so many others – he checks to make sure his generator is properly fueled, he gathers up bodies to take them to the pit, he searches the city (which in three years, he’s only managed to search half of) to find where the vampires are hiding, he goes to the supermarket for supplies, and so on. I find it really interesting that he’s still living in the conventions of what society was. He cleans up the bodies and makes it seem like he’s doing it to keep everything clean and livable. But who is that for if not simply for himself?
In his travels and searches, he stakes a few more vamps and dumps them in the pit. He only finds a few individuals. He doesn’t find the main nest he’s been looking for before the sun sets and he needs to get back home. That night, Morgan relaxes to some tunage on his turntable while some vampires shamble up to his house. They shamble something like zombies and wave 2x4s around like they don’t have any sense about them, but they can also speak calling for Morgan to come out and using the wood to try to break into Morgan’s house. At first, Morgan seems to laugh at their attempts, but as the attack continues, he starts to get a bit uneasy as I would suspect any of us would when hungry vampire zombies are beating in your windows.
The next morning, Morgan is awoken by a nightmare of a woman screaming. He heads out and goes to the church and visits his wife’s tomb. He falls asleep there and wakes after the sun has gone down. When he tries to get back to his car, it is surrounded by vampires. He fights them off and is able to get to the car to speed away. When he gets him, the vampires have laid siege to the place again. He’s able fight off the vampires using a mirror. Unlike usual vampire lore, they are only scared of mirrors, their reflections are still seen. He’s able to fight his way into the house.
At home, he watches home movies of his wife and daughter. Morgan breaks down crying when overcome with grief of their loss. He flashes back to when the bacteria was first discovered. Ultimately, the plague becomes more and more widespread and it claims his daughter and wife. He was immune to it thanks to being bitten by a vampire bat in Central America some years before. However, there has been no cure yet found and it is claiming more and more lives each day. At first, Morgan is suspect of stories that are being circulated of the infected being scared of sunlight, coming back to life, and so on. His brother-in-law, Ben, is a little more open-minded.
Each day, the plague gets worse and martial law goes into effect as he watches a neighbor who died and his body is taken away by the army despite his wife’s pleas to let her bury him as he wished. Ben is growing more paranoid and refuses to leave his home (I guess the joke’s on him because he’s the head vampire who keeps terrorizing Morgan each night). At the lab where Morgan has been working on a way to stop the plague, all but a single colleague has left or caught the plague. When he comes home that night, he finds that his daughter has been taken. He tried to keep his family’s infection quiet but his wife had to call when the little girl complained of not being able to see and then suddenly passed away. Despite trying to reclaim her body from the army, they burn her.
The following morning his wife says she is unable to see but by the time he gets to the bedroom she’s died. Morgan refuses to let the army take her and burn her in the pit so he takes her to body to a secluded field to bury her himself. That night, he hears someone saying “Let me in” and when he sees someone trying to get in through the door, he discovers his wife has crawled out of her grave and came back to life as vampire zombie things.
When he finishes the flashback, the horde of vampires outside are destroying his car. He goes to the dealership and gets a new car. When he gets back home, he sees a dog approach but it’s hurt and runs away from Morgan. He’s surprised to find anything still living besides him. While searching for the dog, he finds some more dead vampires who were staked by wrought iron stakes. So he knows there is at least one other person like him still alive. While he tries to get a response on the HAM radio, he hears the dog outside and brings it in.
Morgan is not just curious about it living, but he is also craving companionship. He does see the dog has a wound on it and he does what he can to patch it up. Sadly, Morgan realizes the poor dog. The next day, he is seen burying the staked dog and resigned that there is no use to be hopeful and that he’s truly alone.
But! Like a goddamn oasis, he sees a pretty lady walking toward him. She runs from him despite him saying he isn’t going to hurt her. He finally catches her and convinces her that he is not one of the vampires because he couldn’t be out in the daylight if that was the case. He takes her back to his home where she tells Morgan that her name is Ruth, and she lost her husband to the plague. She learns that he was married and had a daughter as well.
Suddenly he realizes something about her that doesn’t sit well with him. He grabs a bunch of his garlic and she reacts negatively to it as if she was infected. She begs for him to understand that she saw her husband get ripped apart in their front yard and he chased her down and brought her to his house and she’s always had a sensitive stomach to start with so she’s not taking all that well to this guy accusing her of being one of those monsters. When he goes to make dinner, she still acts kind of weird and won’t eat when served. He explains that his friend Ben is outside trying to get him and how he thinks he’s immune. He wants to do a blood test on Ruth to find out if she is also immune. She thinks he will kill her if she is indeed infected. He hopes that he would be able to contain the virus and prevent it from spreading.
She goes into the bedroom where he catches her injecting herself with a serum that prevents her from being one of the vampires. If she doesn’t take the serum, she’ll devolve. Morgan finds out that there is a whole group of people like Ruth. She tells him that he is a legend in the city because some of the people he killed weren’t actual vampires but people in her group. She says she was sent to keep him there so her people could come and get him and make him pay for his crimes against them. He tells her to go ahead and use the gun she has to kill him and end it but she won’t.
She passes out and Morgan decides he will still try to cure her to see if there is indeed a solution to this whole mess after all. He performs a transfusion and gives her some of his blood. This does actually cure her of the plague. He tells her that together they can save all the others so they don’t have to be alone again. All the tests he performs on her, holding a mirror up to her, handing her the garlic that scared her earlier, works and proves to her she’s cured. She tries to escape anyway because her people are coming for him and when they realize she’s cured, they will not be pleased.
When her people come they are too busy killing the vampires around Morgan’s home so he is able to escape. They do spot him and they chase after him despite Ruth begging them that they don’t understand. Morgan makes it to the church before getting wounded. Ruth’s people corner him and she tries to tell them that he’s found a cure, but it’s too late. He calls them all freaks out of anger and they spear him with one of their iron stakes. He claims they were afraid of him and that he was truly the last man on Earth. He dies and with him the cure for humanity.
While this film is a classic, there are some parts that feel a little disjointed. The final act devolves a bit too much from the tone and narrative at the beginning. For most of the movie, Morgan is in a stalemate against the vampires and it would have been more logical that he die fighting them off instead of introducing a third party so late in the movie. Literally, Ruth is introduced with twenty minutes to go and the whole concept that there is another party that she’s from is first mentioned with only about ten or fifteen minutes remaining. This is part of the original novel but not introduced so late in the narrative.
As is the case with many movies from the sci-fi era, the final act also suffers from the need of there being an action sequence. The novel ends with him being executed for his crimes, much like what the new society wanted to do in the movie, but it actually succeeds in explaining that this new society has started and many of these infected people have overcome their feral natures seen by the more vampiric creatures Morgan dispatched previously. But here, they had to finish with a chase and being much, much more obvious about Morgan now being the true last remnant of an old society that needs to pass into legend so the new one can truly emerge. It’s just a clumsy final act.
And, yes, I know that is the way the original story of the novel plays out. Maybe it just doesn’t translate well to film.
That said, the first two acts are very well done and Vincent Price is spectacular. The structure of the film itself is quite different than what most would expect. It’s almost as if it plays out like we see so often in comic books. You start by showing the world as it is, then flashback to see how the world became what it is. Most movies of that time would have started by switching the first and second acts so that people would see how the world went down hill, then show him living his life alone, then having the third act still as it always was. However, it’s pretty plain to see that, on an emotional level, the film is best structured in the way that it was.
When all said and done, some may say this like this better than either The Omega Man or I Am Legend. I like them all for different reasons. This one is maybe the closest adaptation because it does keep that whole societal aspect in the final moments. The Omega Man was certainly in the vein of Planet of the Apes by having Chuck Heston running around a world no longer fit for humans. I Am Legend benefits from all the money and present day effects one can throw at the story. They all have emotional stuff, exciting stuff, and ultimately keeps the sense of loneliness as the main underlying theme.
All that said, watch The Last Man on Earth for no other reason than to see a great like Vincent Price just killing it.