Dissecting the most faithful adaption to date of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND
Dr. Robert Morgan is not a well man. A mysterious airborne, plague-bearing dust storm has smothered the world, killing every man, woman and child and reviving them as sluggish, dull witted and eternally ravenous vampires. And yet, somehow, someway, Morgan has remained immune, completely unscathed…well, physically, anyway. He lives his life like a machine, by day rising early, clearing the streets of comatose, emaciated ghouls and throwing their barely living bodies into an eternally burning tar pit, tracking the sleeping stronger ones to their lairs and driving his specially made stakes through their hearts.
But by night, when the sun sinks below the horizon, the fanged echoes of mankind come-a-crawling out of their hiding spots, stumbling towards Morgan’s garlic and mirror fortified bungalow, clawing at his windows, screaming for his flesh and his blood. Such nerve shredding conditions might drive a weaker man to madness but, though he skirts insanity often, Morgan instead opts to play his jazz records loud, pour scotch, crawl into bed, squish a pillow against his head and wait, always wait, for the break of day when he’ll get up and start the horrible cycle all over again. Unbeknownst to Morgan however, he’s being watched by something other than the monsters, something that views him as an even bigger threat than the red-eyed viral vampires themselves.
This is the story charted in directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona’s 1964 Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, the first (and to date, best) stab at adapting influential dark fantasy author Richard Matheson’s still blistering existential 1954 vampire novella I AM LEGEND to screen. Written, then disowned, by the notoriously cranky author, the low budget Robert Lippert (THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING) Italian/US co-production had often been dismissed as a failed attempt to capture the psyche-destroying , bloodsucker-staking exploits of Matheson’s eternally put upon virus survivor, Robert Neville. Thankfully, that perception has changed through the years. Because although it inexplicably changes its hero’s name from Neville to Morgan, and tweaks the ending somewhat, it otherwise seldom strays from the novella’s narrative and perfectly captures it’s bleaker than bleak tone, downbeat mood and broken heart.
The history of I AM LEGEND and its checkered journey to screen is rather fascinating. Matheson’s gripping, intelligent and horrifying novella became a hit in sci-fi /dark fantasy/pulp fiction circles upon release, eventually landing squarely on the radar of fledgling UK studio Hammer Films. The lads at Hammer commissioned Matheson to self-adapt a screenplay, which he did, reportedly brilliantly and faithfully from a straightforward text that almost read like a script to begin with. But, when the British censor skimmed that script, they were disgusted, promising that the downbeat, violent and depressing film would never, ever get passed. Hammer, still in their relative infancy, were terrified of the all- powerful board and released Matheson from his contract, his screenplay left untouched and un-filmed.
The property floated around for years before American born, British based B-movie producer Robert Lippert got his mitts on it, finally inking an Italian co-production deal, oddly altering the script, hiring a fresh from Roger Corman-ville Vincent Price to play the lead and shooting the whole affair on a shoestring in Rome. When Matheson heard of the changes and rewrites to his script, and the casting of the larger than life Price as his reluctant working class hero Robert Neville, he balked and demanded his name be removed from the credits, instead sticking his often used pseudonym Logan Swanson on the final print. The movie was dumped into drive-ins, dismissed by critics and almost completely forgotten.
But what makes THE LAST MAN ON EARTH the superior cinematic vision of Matheson’s somber, frightening text is the profound way it handles Morgan/Neville’s search for grim purpose. His is a life pushed to the brink and beyond and yet, as his heroic, defiant nature dictates, he fights back; through his terrifying nights, his blood-drenched days and his bittersweet dawns, Morgan refuses to succumb to his hopeless situation, refuses to even abandon his ramshackle bungalow. He becomes a kind of lone wolf, a vigilante, and then a kind of prophet, finally a martyr but always he’s a caretaker, one whose life’s work is to dispose of the sub-human monsters that have insidiously infested what was once a bright and beautiful world and have so cruelly cannibalized any fond memories he may have once had anything resembling a happy life. And though they come to scrape at his windows like clockwork and though the rotting females pout and slink in a vulgar attempt to arouse him, he accepts the vampires, he adapts. To quote Matheson from an interview I conducted with him many years ago, it’s the ultimate “portrait of an everyday Joe confronted with the arcane and emerging somewhat triumphant.”
Even more resonant is the fact that THE LAST MAN ON EARTH retains the absolutely pivotal character of Ben Cortman (though Anthony Zerbe’s mentally unbalanced mutant albino cult leader Mathias in the second and strangest version of the story, the stunning ’70s future-shock thriller THE OMEGA MAN, is certainly a loose variation on him). If you’ve read the novel, you’ll recall that Ben Cortman was a friend, neighbor and colleague to Robert Neville who, post plague, became his chief vampiric adversary. Along with his tireless pack of drooling undead, Cortman is really Neville’s perverted connection to his former humanity, a distorted nightmare logic vision of the man he once was. Over the span of time that the action in Matheson’s story unfolds in, the presence of Ben Cortman is both horrific and hopeful, distilling our hero’s misery and re-focusing it as anger, as a need, a divine mission to kill Cortman, a desire that almost single-handedly saves him from suicide. Cortman is in essence Neville’s ‘El Dorado’ his quest, his reason for waking, yet the kind of quest in which the searcher secretly pines to never complete, lest he be left with nothing to chase. LAST MAN keeps this disturbing dichotomy and mutually corrosive relationship wholly intact. In flashback, the film shows Ben Cortman (here played by Giacomo Rossi-Stuart from Mario Bava’s KILL BABY, KILL) and Morgan socializing at their children’s birthday parties, then trying to develop a cure for the plague, before finally emerging as otherworldly enemies, as a constantly reversing of the hunter/prey dynamic.
It’s a crucial narrative element that’s deftly handled and is both appropriately unsettling and almost overwhelmingly tragic.
Just as beautifully rendered are the final days in the lives of Morgan’s wife and daughter. As the rapidly disintegrating government insists on incineration of the deceased plague victims remains, Morgan, in a temporary fit of unbearable grief and searing madness, goes after the federal body burners in a vain attempt to rescue his little girl’s corpse from the fire. When he returns home, morally beaten and empty handed to find his wife dead, he takes her corpse to a nearby field for a proper burial. Later that night, while Morgan reclines in a chair and waits for the inevitable, a la ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, his spouses’ now gurgled voice chants ‘Robert, Robert…”, her unseen dirty and bloodless hands twisting the door handle, as she grins and moves in to give her still living husband the kiss of death.
And what of poor Vincent Price, the chief reason Richard Matheson turned up his nose at the film to begin with? How does this hammy, wonderfully theatrical icon of horror fare as the haunted, tortured last living man on the planet? In the context of the film, fucking great, I’d say. Price’s hangdog, wounded face and melancholy internal monologue voice-overs are amazing and, if not quite the blue collar Neville of the book, his Robert Morgan is never anything but believable and sympathetic.
Ultimately however, the three (four if you count Romero’s 1968 self-proclaimed LEGEND rip off NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) filmed versions of Matheson’s soul-destroying masterwork fail to translate his unpretentious majesty verbatim, but really why would you want them too? Movies are dreams. They should be visions of their inspirations, not duplicates. I love THE OMEGA MAN for its action movie bravado, affecting Charlton Heston performance, its then topical sexual/racial politics and of course, that brilliant Ron Grainer score. I really like the 2007 Will Smith version for its haunting urban decay tableaux, its wrenching isolation and magnification of the heart sinking Neville/dog incident and relentlessly sad tone (though the film falls apart in the final reel). But thus far, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is the only one that has managed to exist as an aggressively depressing and lyrical nightmare, taking all that was profound and painful in the source text and re-presenting it as a low-budget but evocative and funereal slice of semi-cerebral pulp.
Flawed but unforgettable, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH deserves multiple viewings and a secure place in the annals of classic horror cinema.