The Omega Man (1971)
Charlton Heston (Robert Neville), Rosalind Cash (Lisa), Anthony Zerbe (Matthias), Paul Koso (Dutch)
World War 3/Plague/Chemical Warfare/Religious Cult
“The entire Los Angeles area. Already hospitals have begin to crack under the strain and civil defense authorities state the situation is much the same across the country. Martial law is now in effect nationwide. Major cities in all parts of the country: New York, Los Angeles, report plague victims falling dead in the streets, in their homes, at their work. The first symptom appears to be severe choking followed y immediate unconsciousness. Death occurs within minutes. Whether a state of war between China and Russia still exists is not important any longer. Our fellow countrymen are dying. The very foundations of civilization are beginning to crumble under the dread assault of that horror long feared, germ warfare.” – Newscaster.
If you ever want to see how Hollywood takes good ideas, chews them up, and spits back something only tangentially related than look no farther than The Omega Man. The Last Man on Earth had some issues but it was a pretty straight adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and I’ll get to the Will Smith version and its sins next month but right here and right now we need to talk about The Omega Man.
For those who haven’t read the source material, the story deals with an ordinary man named Robert Neville who is inexplicably immune to a virus that has killed off the rest of the human population. The kicker is that many of the people who perished from the virus have come back from the dead as vampire-like creatures that inexplicably fear mirrors, crosses, garlic, and the sunlight and can be killed by driving a stake through their heart. Neville goes around Los Angeles, killing sleeping vampires by day and hiding out in his fortified house by night as the vampires try to beckon him outside. The story ends when Neville finds out that there’s a second group of people who are infected with the virus but only suffer mild side-effects and that many of the vampires he has been killing by day are actually innocent members of this group. This new class of people see Neville as a monster himself, their own post-apocalyptic version of a vampire or werewolf of yore. Somebody read this story and went “You know what, we don’t even really need the monsters.”
The Omega Man concerns Robert Neville, government scientist working on the development of a vaccine to stop a virus caused by germ warfare. As Neville gets in a helicopter to test his latest vaccine, the pilot is overcome with symptoms of a virus. Neville tries to land the copter but soon starts showing symptoms himself. The helicopter crashes in a fiery explosion but Neville manages to drag himself from the wreckage. In a last ditch attempt to stave off the virus he injects the vaccine into himself and soon finds himself permanently immune, which is not how vaccines work.
Now Neville lives in a post-apocalyptic hellscape where he drives around all day watching movies, taking shit from department stores, and shooting anything that moves. By night he returns to a fortified apartment building where he keeps vigil as he’s assaulted by “The Family.” Unlike Ben Cortman and his goons from the book or the previous movie, The Family are all perfectly alive. They live off the same canned food as Neville, they die by normal human means, and they have the same physical abilities and intelligence of any human being.
The reason The Family doesn’t just blow up Neville’s minimally fortified home is because their leader Matthias (Steel Dawn’s Anthony Zerbe) has deemed old-world technology blasphemous. Matthias states that man’s technology is what brought about the end times so they spend their nights destroying science and art, decrying Neville as the last of the “people of the wheel” all while happily using wheeled wagons, a trebuchet, flammable fuel, and bows and fletched arrows. One day The Family manages to catch Neville and are about to burn him at the stake when a group of uninfected humans saves his life. The humans are slowly becoming infected by the virus but Neville develops a cure with transfusions of his own blood. What happens next is fairly unimportant.
The entire point of I Am Legend was to establish Neville as a boogeyman to the benign vampires in much the same way that the malefic vampires were to him. The Omega Man removes the vampires from the equation entirely. The Family serves in place of both factions with the uninfected humans serving simply as a drive to action. I Am Legend’s big ending stinger happens at about the forty minute mark but loses all its meaning because the people Neville are oppressing are a group of violent anti-intellectual religious nuts with milked eyes and facial sores. There is a vague attempt to play him as a menace to the uninfected because he shoots whatever moves, but it’s only referenced once in passing and never mentioned again. That’s okay though because the writers of The Omega Man have come up with a better thesis statement: Robert Neville is Jesus! Don’t believe me?
Was that too subtle? Because that’s the third time the movie goes to great lengths to get Neville into the position of Jesus on the cross. Maybe the Jesus allegory would be a little easier to swallow if Neville wasn’t such a ridiculous asshole. Charlton Heston’s performance consists mostly of bitterly talking to himself in a sarcastic tone, arguing with a bust of Caeser, and just generally being unlikable. He spends at least 25% of this movie inexplicably shirtless, and at least 50% of that shirtless time in slacks. I assume that audiences of the early ’70s wanted to see Heston’s sweat-glistening untoned hairy chest but it really just feels like he wants us to believe it’s what we want to see. The love interest, played by Rosalind Cash has no chemistry with Heston and their relationship feels like a reversal of The World, The Flesh, and The Devil where Sarah chooses Ben.
Matthias is a compelling enough villain, and Anthony Zerbe does a far better job here than he did in Steel Dawn. Still, there’s no resolution to the character and we never find out if he lives or dies. Presumably, he lives which is kind of a kick to the teeth considering that his death is thematically necessary for Neville’s arc and resolution of the plot in general. In all honestly the entire ending feels forced and of all the things the filmmakers decided to pay fealty to, I don’t know why Neville’s death is among them. His death serves no purpose, nor holds any meaning. He’s not sacrificing himself for the greater good or to some greater cause, he just dies because he did in the book. And as much as I hate that they barely adapted the book at all, I’m more annoyed that they didn’t do something interesting with their vastly different take.
The Family are really more annoying than scary, their ice-blue eyes are somewhat creepy but they mostly just look ridiculous in their black robes with their all-white skin and hair. The monsters are barely monstrous and honestly more sympathetic than Neville until the third act where they go full-crazy for little to no reason. There’s no rhyme or reason to how people become members of The Family, whether it’s involuntary or a necessity of their physical change. Their characterization is inconsistent, bouncing back and forth between needlessly violent and perfectly reasonable.
The Omega Man manages to actually be thrilling on rare occasions but it’s mostly dull and stupid. The horror, the romance, and the world building all fall absolutely flat and there’s little joy to sitting through this. I’ll address my issues with I Am Legend the movie in a few weeks but even without a rewatch I can absolutely say that The Omega Man is the worst adaptation of I Am Legend by a wide margin and just a crummy film in general. I know this movie has its dedicated audience and more power to you folks, but in my eyes it’s a dud.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“Can’t shoot them this close. You’ll get blood on you.”
Discuss this and other Doomsday Reels columns in the forum.