The Last Man On Earth (1964) dir. Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona
Starring: Vincent Price
Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw
Let’s get this out of the way – Richard Matheson is one of the great American writers of the 20th century and his impact upon popular culture, literature and the art of writing is, perhaps, as insurmountable and important as the impact of someone like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Raymond Carver. The difference between Matheson and the aforementioned scribes is that he gets very little in the way of egghead (academic) respect (save, no doubt, for the likes of screenwriter extraordinaire George Toles and uber-menschian-pop-culture-guru Will Straw) – probably because his genres of choice were horror, sci-fi and fantasy and much of his writing was at the (supposedly lowly) level of screenplays and teleplays. There are, however, few great living and working filmmakers who do not owe a lot to the ground broken by Matheson. His genres of choice are pulp and it is pulp that often does not get the reverence it truly deserves.
That said, Matheson not only wrote some of the best movies and television (the monumental “Incredible Shrinking Man”, classic episodes of the original Rod Serling “Twilight Zone” series, and a number of the Roger Corman big-screen Poe adaptations – among many others), but his astounding novel “I Am Legend”, first published in 1954, still has the power to chill and provoke. Matheson’s terse prose style captures the voice of his central protagonist so expertly that the horrifying, lonely journey taken by Robert Neville, the last man on an Earth populated by vampires, is so simple, yet so complex in its exploration of life in an apocalypse – an apocalypse that can be seen as both the end and a new beginning for mankind.
It’s a great book, and has spawned three film versions. The most recent is the execrable Will Smith action vehicle that takes the novel’s title and premise and does little besides providing a handful of visceral shocks. 1971 brought us Boris Sagal’s supremely entertaining and seriously, almost-hilariously dated Chuck Heston vehicle. And then there is “The Last Man On Earth” – an oddball 1964 film adaptation produced by schlockmeister Robert Lippert and made in Italy with a cast of dubbed-in-English Italians and a very odd, but also very compelling Vincent Price in the title role.
While the picture veers, on a number of fronts, from Matheson’s novel, it manages – more than the other versions – to come the closest to the spirit of this strange, terrifying tale of one man battling post-apocalyptic vampires. Moodily shot in black and white, we watch as Robert Morgan (inexplicably renamed as such in the movie, and played by Price) spends his days bombing around the city in a station wagon, killing vampires and burning their corpses while alternately taking care of mundane errands like shopping (in eerily-empty shops).
As dusk approaches, our hero locks himself in his secured suburban dwelling to calmly sip wine and listen to jazz LPs while roaming hordes of vampires call tauntingly to him from outside, threatening to kill him before he kills more vampires. Luckily, his home is secured with all the anti-vampire accoutrements including clusters of fresh garlic hanging on every possible entrance – the smell of which repels the vampires. (I must admit this particular bit of lore always confused me when it came to Eastern European vampires – you’d think all those bloodsucking Bohunks would be attracted to the aroma of garlic. But, I digress.)
Matheson himself wrote much of the screenplay adaptation for “The Last Man On Earth” and I suspect this is why the picture feels very close to the tone of the source material. In spite of this, Matheson was not satisfied that his script was rewritten by a number of other writers at the behest of Lippert and his pasta-slurping co-producers and he removed his name and had it replaced with the nom-de-plume of Logan Swanson. Oddly enough, looking back over all the film adaptations of his novel, this is still the best of the lot.
In spite of this, the picture is not perfect. The Italian locations look great, but are weirdly masked in the dialogue to be American instead of European. This is especially disconcerting since the locations contribute so much to the eerie quality of the movie. The standard dubbing into English of actors who are clearly not speaking English was de rigeur in the 60s, but seems a bit wonky in a contemporary context. The flashbacks employed feel shoehorned in rather than wended expertly and seamlessly into the narrative (Sagal’s “Omega Man” actually did this rather well – in spite of the kitsch factor of most everything else in the picture).
These are minor quibbles, however. “The Last Man On Earth” captures Matheson’s dark, nasty tone and for much of the picture’s running time, it is a truly creepy and scary sci-fi horror thriller. Especially worth regarding is how this version captures the whole notion of how vampires (creatures of legend) become the new mundane humanity and how the mere mortal becomes the legend. It is this very thematic layer that takes Matheson’s “pulp” into the realm of worthy literature and thankfully, this particular picture is respectful of the theme.
“The Last Man On Earth” is as fine an adaptation of Matheson’s novel that we’re likely to see for some time. Sadly, the Will Smith version will put the kibosh on any future attempts to remake the film. In the meantime, see this version and be sure to read Matheson’s original “I Am Legend” and then you, like I, can dream of a remake in a generation or two that tackles this classic and universal work with EVERYTHING it deserves.
“The Last Man On Earth” is available on many DVD labels, but the best ones are the Legend Films release (that includes an odd, but rather pointlessly colorized version in addition the B/W original) and MGM’s terrific version that is double-billed with “Panic in Year Zero” and appears to be re-mastered from truly pristine elements.