The Last Man On Earth (1964)
Director: Sidney Salkow
Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli
Before I Am Legend there was The Omega Man and before that there was The Last Man On Earth, or L’Ultimo Uomo Della Terra if you’d prefer. Maybe you could add I Am Omega to the list but I’d rather you didn’t. Anyway, they keep having a go at the Matheson classic but nobody ever gets it quite right, do they. May contain useless smoke bombs and spoilers…
Robert Morgan (yes, Morgan, no idea why ‘Neville’ got red carded) is the titular ‘last man’ who spends each day preparing for the night and when the night is ended, he crawls out of bed and goes through this whole will-sapping exercise all over again. You see, he’s not alone; there are vampires outside his house. I don’t properly trust that they are vampires, not in the strictest sense, for the plague that has ravaged the world – “Europes’ disease” (their apostrophe, not mine) – has left a trail of the shuffling dead and they just so happen to exhibit one or two vamp-like features. Let’s call them zompires shall we, I feel more comfortable with that term. Whatever they may be, they’re out to get the immune Morgan (he believes a lucky South American bat bite years ago has saved him), to stop him making them deader than they already are (which is fairly dead by the look of it), indeed deader till none of them remain. But there’s something even Morgan hasn’t bargained for… the only film left on at the cinema is Beach Party.
So, yeh – the first go at Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend. If you haven’t read it I suggest you go forth and peruse a copy. Apparently, George Romero cites this flick as an inspiration for Night Of The Living Dead. I can see that, actually. I like the way the film begins. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) narrates a path through the day as he rises in the morning and wearily plods along in his daily routine; he tries the CB radio but no one’s talkin’, inspects his property for damage, sharpens a few stakes on a lathe, matter-of-factly clears the driveway of corpses and fills up his car with petrol. Here, Morgan’s voice-over dutifully informs us that he’s ‘out of gas’ yet barely a minute later we’re again told he’s ‘out of gas’, just in case we weren’t listening the first time. It’s pretty much a sign of the slackness to come. After dumping a couple of dead ‘uns into a vast burning crater, Morgan goes shopping; he needs fresh garlic (the dead don’t like the smell) and new mirrors (they can’t stand their own reflection). Then he goes zompire hunting. Back home before sundown, he sticks some jazz on the turntable and waits for them to arrive, a precursor being the sound of stones thudding against the barricaded windows. But we have joined Bob as he’s starting to lose it; 3 years of solitude, his wife and child gone and his best dead friend, Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), keeps on droning “Come out, Morgan…” every night. For 3 years. This part of the film is suitably atmospheric and conveys well Morgan’s lonely, fraying resilience. But that, I’m afraid, is about as good as it gets.
A key weakness lies with the threat and how it is presented to the audience. The screenplay shrugs off the affected as ‘dumb animals’ in an effort to explain their failure at gaining entry to Morgan’s house, improbably deterred by a few shoddy slats of wood over the ruined windows. Therefore the sight of a stiff and shuffling Cortman ineffectually waving a big stick around outside is utterly bemusing. They’ve been at this for 3 years and still haven’t progressed beyond chucking stones? To be fair, the novel had a similar problem, but Matheson’s vampires were infused with a kind of un-living insanity and therefore lacking logical thought. This reason works on the page but the film, however, is another pan of haddock. Most heinously, all of this is delivered without a shred of mounting panic or tension. Take the sequence when Morgan dozes off in a crypt having gone to visit his wife’s tomb and he wakes to find night has fallen and a zompire army thronging the grounds. No sweat, merely an inconvenience, he easily pushes through them to get to his car and tootles home. Of course Cortman and Co are all over his front lawn so Morgan waves a mirror at them and, after some puffing about, fumbles his way into the house via the front door. The unlocked front door. You’d think Cortman, at least, would try the door in Morgan’s absence (considering that he does open it later on). You might argue that the garlic keeps them from doing so but the scene ends with zompires forcing said door, none too bothered about the garlic hanging there.
The film isn’t helped by some poor audio dubbing in post. The cast is predominantly Italian and though they produce a noble effort to mouth the lines in English, the voices on the soundtrack often appear out of sync (if you’re specifically focusing on their gobs that is). Furthermore, the dubbed in dialogue is perfunctory, exhibiting little in the way of passion and it is difficult summoning a shit to give about anyone in this show. A case in point is Ben Cortman. The bloke playing him, Rossi-Stuart, eradicates any image of the character you may have carried with you from the novel. On the page, Cortman is a haunting presence – even when Neville soundproofs his house you know Cortman is still out there, still eerily taunting him. Here, he’s a standard zombie given a standard zombie-voice, doesn’t matter if he’s cheerily shouting “Card tricks!” at a kid’s party in the flashback (a flashback that fails to establish him as a sympathetic presence and therefore lessening the impact of seeing him doddering around Bob’s garden) or droning “There’s Morgan, get him…” – there’s barely a difference. It’s a criminal representation of the character. I suppose we should at least be thankful Cortman has been included, a character each subsequent adaption has flat-out ignored.
Speaking of ‘flashback’, the three true adaptations thus far go this route (they also share finding a cure for the virus) but Last Man probably goes the furthest. We are introduced properly to his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) and daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland – who delivers arguably the film’s most unsettling moment, bed-ridden and blindly staring), as well as Cortman and Morgan’s scientist boss, Dr. Mercer (Umberto Rau) – who doesn’t look unlike the goggle-eyed keyboard player from Sparks. While these scenes aren’t terrible they are nowhere near well enough acted to carry the requisite weight. The ‘dead’ wagons are a grim necessity for the infected bodies have to be burned in a mass grave. It is understandable that a grief-stricken Morgan chases after the truck carrying his dead daughter in a crazed effort to recover her body and to be told by a duty-bound guard that his kid too is in the pit. It should be a powerful moment but the guard’s flat delivery in particular kills any hope of a poignant empathy between these two men. The sequence does manage to pull off a creepy moment when Virginia, dead and buried in the middle of nowhere (Morgan couldn’t face another family member going up in flames), returns home. “Let me in… Robert…”
Ironically, The Last Man On Earth is closer to the source material than either The Omega Man or I Am Legend (the latter of which took the title with no intention of delivering the feckin point of the title). However, key moments of the book aren’t played to their potential. For example, when the dog shows up it’s a wrenching passage in the book, it takes a lot of time and patience for Neville to coax a semblance of trust from the nervous pooch. Here, poorly Fido is dispensed with quickly, thus we don’t see any sort of lingering trauma as Morgan gains and then loses a much sought after companionship. The early scenes with fellow survivor Ruth (Franca Bettoia) are pretty much off the page (up to the mad ‘blood transfusion’ stuff) but having her arrive after the flashback kind of diminishes the scale of Morgan’s loneliness; by then we’ve already seen him interacting with a number of other people, therefore his unbridled joy at seeing another living human face doesn’t pack the wallop it should. I can’t help but feel the flashback would have been better served forming the basis of a conversation post-Ruth when he could have imparted his sad story to her.
Then the film starts to off-road. Having stuck so close to events in the novel, Salkow, et al, forgo any attempt at subtlety during the climax and end on an action beat. But Price isn’t an action hero; here he flits from shadow to shadow almost like the Phantom Of The Opera, all he needs is a cape held up to his eyes, furtively peering hither and thither. Well, I mean one look at the standard poster – gothic mansion, phantom lady, Vince’s looming shadowed visage… clearly screaming ‘Poe adaption!’ to hook in the Hammer crowd that is. His casting is an odd choice (Matheson flat-out called him miscast), it just doesn’t suit his flamboyant ‘Hammer’ style of acting and fruity line delivery (granted, he’s not meant to be flamboyant here) – though I did like, “You’re all freaks! I’m a man!” But Price does give it a good go and still manages to pull off one or two moments of emotional muscle. Also, I’ve got to say fair play to everyone for at least attempting the book’s denouement, the striking role reversal of the protagonist, because neither The Omega Man nor I Am Legend bothers trying.
Is there anything good about the flick? There are a few atmospheric interludes (DP is Franco Delli Colli – cousin of the more famous Tonino…) but apart from the trip through Morgan’s day at the beginning I’m struggling to recommend it. We don’t see him doing much hunting/ staking and what there is gets clumsily edited and is totally bloodless. Nah, I’m struggling; I can only think of the daft things, like Morgan breaking into an armoury store room. You’re thinking, ‘here we go, full scale zombie assault – whoo-hoo!’ He helps himself to a handful of smoke bombs. Really? Smoke bombs? And he lets those off after it is obvious where he’s going – so no bloody use at covering his escape whatsoever then. And this bloke’s a legend?
Richard Matheson wrote the original screenplay for The Last Man On Earth for Hammer in 1957 but they sold the project to producer Robert L. Lippert who had Matheson’s screenplay drastically re-written by writer William P. Leicester. Unhappy with the result, Matheson used his pen name in the credits, Logan Swanson. Tells you all you need to know really.
I’m giving this 2 Horrified Morgan Junior’s out of 5
ThereWolf, February 2014