The Last Man On Earth (1964)
Ubaldo B. Ragona/Sidney Salkow
Vincent Price (Robert Morgan), Franca Bettoia (Ruth Collins), Emma Danieli (Virginia Morgan), Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Ben Cortman)
“December 1965. Is that all it has been since I inherited the world? Only three years. It seems like a hundred million. Yeah, I own the world. An empty, dead, silent world.” – Robert Morgan, opening narration.
Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend is probably one of the most celebrated works of post-apocalyptic fiction to ever exist. The simple tale of a man alone in a world filled with bloodthirsty undead is such a simple high-concept premise that is easily adaptable to various interpretations and adaptations. It’s no wonder that it inspired the likes of Stephen King, George A. Romero, and countless others. And it’s no wonder that it has been adapted to film three and a half times (we’ll get to the half.) While Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man is the most famous adaptation of this film and Will Smith’s I Am Legend is the most recent one in our collective memory, the first film was the one that came closest to getting it right.
The Last Man on Earth is an almost paragraph by paragraph adaptation of Matheson’s story with a few deviations along the way. For one, the main character’s name has inexplicably been changed from Robert Neville to Robert Morgan. Most of the changes occur at the ending but they’re mostly a change of venue rather than meaning.
Vincent Price plays a rare subdued character, an everyman type of sense and reasonability. Perhaps this is why it just doesn’t quite work. There’s a reason Price always tended to go for arch and campy performances and that’s because the man was largely not a very good actor. Price does a passable job here and it’s clear that he was very passionate about this role and this movie, but “natural” is not in the Vincent Price wheelhouse. He long stated his pride for this movie that he thought it was far superior to The Omega Man, and he’s right, but Richard Matheson was also right in saying that Price was miscast as Morgan.
Much of I Am Legend dealt with Robert Neville’s feelings of loneliness and isolation as he dealt with his post-apocalyptic existence. The Last Man on Earth lacks such depths, but it pretends it has them anyway. Other than missing his dead wife and daughter we get no insight into Morgan’s loneliness until he becomes obsessed with Ruth Collins, the infected human sent to spy on him. In the final confrontation, he begins screaming out and calling the infected humans freaks and monsters apropos of nothing. He’s aware that they’re chasing him because he’s a monster to them but rather than try to reason with them he begins hurling insults.
Much as I’m sure that Star Wars was a much more spectacular experience if one had seen it on the big screen in 1977, I imagine that The Last Man on Earth had a great deal more impact in 1964 than it does now. The shambling vampires are largely ineffectual aside from Robert Morgan’s wife fresh out of the grave. But in 1964 audiences didn’t have the far superior Night of the Living Dead to show them how to do the shambling undead right, so it was probably terrifying. There is a certain eeriness to the film but it never becomes anything close to scary except in the scene where his wife comes home.
It’s clear that the budget on this film wasn’t high and it came as no surprise to me that every other actor in this movie was Italian. This certainly goes toward explaining the poorly ADR’d lines. Also, while The Last Man on Earth isn’t bad it’s actually fairly dull. The film is split up into three acts of about thirty minutes or less. Act one introduces us to Morgan’s routine, act two tells his backstory, and act three involves Morgan coming to conflict with the infected humans who see him as a boogeyman. None of the acts quite live up to their potential.
The Last Man on Earth spends a lot of time with seemingly nothing happening. To be fair, the story has this problem too, but its peaks are much higher than its valleys while The Last Man on Earth is mostly a wobbly series of minor rises and minor falls. Even the big chase scene at the film’s climax feels devoid of thrills.
The Last Man on Earth is not a bad movie by any stretch and it’s the best adaptation of I Am Legend that exists. We have a long unpleasant ride ahead of us over the next several weeks. Unfortunately, it’s not a great movie and while it’s certainly watchable, one can go through several years without seeing it again and not miss its absence. It is still Vincent Price’s finest serious role and film, but it’s not a cornerstone of post-apocalyptic cinema as it should be.
The Last Man on Earth is available on DVD and Amazon Instant, and on Blu-Ray as part of Scream Factory’s Vincent Price Collection II. But since the film is in the public domain you can just watch the whole thing right now on Youtube if you like.
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