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Shock-O-Rama: A Legendary Pedigree
I am Omega
By Chuck Francisco
August 25, 2012
This film wasn't a huge success upon release, but is now very well regarded, partially because of George Romero's frank admission that he was directly inspired by it in making Night of the Living Dead. If you watch the Price film, it's pretty obvious that he carbon copied the vampires, reinventing them as the zombies we know and love today. The Last Man on Earth is easily available for viewing, since it's lapsed into public domain. Of course, that means it's particularly difficult to find a quality transfer of it (the market is flooded with cheap cash in attempts).
I Am Legend (1954, Richard Matheson)
The novel in question spins the yarn of survivor Robert Neville. As the only person immune to a world wide pandemic, Neville spends his days scavenging for supplies and hunting the "vampiric" monsters which resulted from the disease, while surviving nightly sieges from the monsters in his fortified home. Several years pass, with our protagonist going through waves of depression, alcoholism and isolation. Deciding to finally take action, Neville begins studying the disease, which it turns out revives both living and dead bodies into this world's vampires. Ah, but there's a catch.
After he figures this out, our stalwart hero finds a living woman, whom he brings back to his home. A little post apocalyptic bonding action later (by that I mean Neville tests some of her blood), it's revealed that all of those who were living when infected have eventually overcome the disease naturally. They've begun rebuilding society anew, but harbor great fear of Neville, who has been indiscriminately killing both the revived living and dead when they sleep (the dead become the incurable version). They capture him, with plans to put him to death. In those last moments, he realizes that he's become to these people as Dracula was in his, pre-pandemic society: legend.
The story is very well written but is more important for another reason: it's considered to be the first time that vampirism is given a pseudoscientific rationalization. This influence can be felt in so much of vampire and zombie fiction, where what was once considered a supernatural affliction, is now a communicable disease. This is a great read, I highly recommend it.
The Last Man on Earth (1964, Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow)
This Italian film, produced by legendary, low budget productioneer, Robert Lippert, for American International Pictures (AIP), is the first film adaption of Richard Matheson's novel. It also happens to be the most faithful film adaption of the source material, and is fueled by the cinematic star power of Vincent Price in his prime. Major differences from the novel include the main character's name being different (Robert Morgan instead of Robert Neville), less physically imposing infected (in the novel they're fast and strong; in this film they're slow and not very smart), and with a unique take on the living vampires. Here, while taking a vaccine, the new society members are free of the vampirism; they must stay on the drug, though, to avoid reverting. The Last Man on Earth also includes a run and gun action sequence when the new society attempts to capture Morgan (with wacky Vincent Price grenade action).
This film wasn't a huge success upon release, but is now very well regarded, partially because of George Romero's frank admission that he was directly inspired by it in making Night of the Living Dead. If you watch the Price film, it's pretty obvious that he carbon copied the vampires, reinventing them as the zombies we know and love today. The Last Man on Earth is easily available for viewing, since it's lapsed into public domain. Of course, that means it's particularly difficult to find a quality transfer of i t(the market is flooded with cheap cash in attempts).
The Omega Man (1971, Boris Sagal)
Yes, this Charlton Heston actioner is descendant from the same source! In this distant cousin (twice removed), civilization has collapse after a biological war erupts between The Soviet Union and China. Those that don't die are transformed into albino mutants with a serious allergy to the sun. "The Family" have it in for Robert Neville (Heston) because they see him as the last remnant of a diseased culture. He only just eluded becoming one of them by injecting an experimental vaccine into himself, as he lay dying. He spends days picking over the pop culture refuse of the 70's and his evenings in pitched combat against the Family.
Joining up with a group of young survivors, Neville concocts a cure derived from his own blood. The family kills one of the group and assaults his bunker home. An all out confrontation leaves our hero bleeding to death in a fountain; which I suppose could now be called a fountain of life. Overall this is a marvelous dose of action over a backdrop of apocalypse. It deviates greatly from the story, only marginally related, but makes great use of the pieces taken.
I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence)
It took three film adaptions and fifty years before they actually used the original title. Truly, it's a shame though, as the titular realization is completely reworked for this film. Instead of becoming a legendary monster to the infected society, Neville becomes a legend for this fight to cure the affliction (here a virus that was designed to fight cancer). Even given the strong hints that there's more going on behind the eyes of the vampire like creatures here, the filmmakers seemed to shy away from realizing the novel's promised potential. Our hero instead actually finds uninflected humans trying to reach an encampment of similarly spared people in Vermont.
There's actually a lot to love here, including the striking scenes of an abandoned New York City, a well developed and emotionally strong relationship between Smith and his German Shepherd companion, and the well realized sense of daily isolation faced by our protagonist. At the same time, the punches are pulled in order to meet a mainstream audience's box office approval.
As you begin to get a sense of just how much this one story has propagated itself, we've got to swing back around to a point made earlier: the first film incarnation, The Last Man on Earth, directly influenced George Romero's ground breaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead. Without NOTLD, the world might never have become quite so enamored with the zombie, who would likely have faded into relative obscurity as a voodoo island delicacy. This multibillion dollar undead industry of comics, video games, board games, zombie walks, films, and toys can directly trace it's lineage back to Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, just as Christopher Lee is descendant from Charemagne (no lie!). It's a winding path; luckily all the stops along the way are entertaining. So the next time someone asks you to present your list of top something or other, take them on a tangent, walk another path, and dig a little deeper into the how's rather than the why's.
Saturday Shock-O-Rama Streaming Suggestions
Want to watch something schlocky right now? Try on a few of these suggestions, available right now from the listed service (most of which are FREE!).
Netflix - Slugs - Horror (1987)
YouTube - The Last Man on Earth - Horror (1964)
And if you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll). Chuck Francisco is a columnist for Mania writing Saturday Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a horror co-host of two monthly film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA (home of 1958's 'The Blob'): First Friday Fright Nights and Colonial Cult Cinema.You can delve further into his love of all things weird and campy on his blog, The Midnight Cheese or hear him occasionally guesting on eminent podcast You've Got Geek.