Why Boris Sagal’s 1971 pulse-pounder is a terrible adaptation of a perfect book, but still a great movie.
I got to know iconic author and genre-lit icon Richard Matheson during the last stretch of his life and, while I’m forever grateful for that 11th hour connection, the version of Matheson I met was anything but cheerful in regards to his work. And really, he had many reasons to be irate. When Matheson first began self-adapting his stories for Rod Serling in THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Serling left the author alone to transpose his own tales to fit the show’s format. Later, TV horror hero Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS) also ensured Matheson’s many scripts remained untouched (THE NIGHT STALKER, DRACULA etc.) and the resulting pictures speak for themselves. The reason guys like Serling and Curtis did this was because they fully understood just how good a scribe Matheson was and how well he was able to bring his words to simple, cinematic life.
Among that trove of tales and tomes penned by the late, great Matheson, its his terrifying, cerebral and existential 1954 novella I AM LEGEND that has perhaps most greatly defined his legacy. I AM LEGEND pioneered a gap-bridging between science fiction and Gothic fantasy, with its lurid, skin-crawling story of a plague that eliminates the living, only to resurrect them as blood-hungry vampires. In it, only one human has inexplicably remained immune to this apocalypse, a suburbanite named Robert Neville, who boards himself up at night with mirrors and garlic to ward off the monsters who want to drain him, while sifting through the city by day and staking the ghouls in their lairs. It’s a sparse set up for a book, but at its core its an epic tale of one man’s journey into his own soul, a personal, harrowing, meditation on loss, love, loneliness and what it is to truly be “alive”.
The novella (my favorite book of all time, incidentally) is written, in typical Serling fashion, practically, with a few key locations and characters (both living and undead); a packaged gift to Hollywood, elemental to adapt, economical to produce. Really, all one needs to make a proper screen version of I AM LEGEND is faithfulness to the story, a sense of style and mood and one helluva a central actor to embody Neville and his exhausting evolution.
Matheson knew this.
“So why does Hollywood keep fucking it up?!” he said to me back in 2003.
That’s the eternal question. The answer is anybody’s guess.
Britain’s Hammer studio hired Matheson to adapt his text as NIGHT CREATURES in the early ’60s, but the project died after the UK censor pre-banned it for being too violent in concept alone. Annoyed by this, Matheson took his script to producer Robert L. Lippert who took it to American International Pictures and mounted a low budget Italian/American picture called THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. Matheson was told Fritz Lang would direct, but instead he got Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona, with AIP standby Vincent Price starring as Neville, who was inexplicably renamed Robert Morgan during re-write. More changes were made to the script against Matheson’s wishes, causing the exasperated writer to slap his pen name Logan Swanson on the credits. The resulting film is – despite Matheson’s sneering – an excellent little horror drama and embodies much of the soul of the source book. But the changes that ARE made are so odd and pointless, one wonders why they were done at all.
George A, Romero loved both the book and the first film enough to admittedly “rip Matheson off” (George’s words, not mine) for his groundbreaking 1968 shocker NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, turning vampires into zombies and altering horror history in the process. Decades later, writer Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich took a sledgehammer to the book and penned the screenplay for a mammoth budgeted Will Smith vehicle that retained the novella’s title and the name of its lead character, but totally missed the point of the story (tying the sting of the title to a Bob Marley greatest hits album is unforgivable) and turned it into a muscular action thriller. As far as muscular action thrillers go, it’s well done with a good Smith performance but it’s savaged by a tone deaf final act and vampire-ghouls that look like CGI hemorrhoids come to cartoonish life.
Sandwiched in the center of these dual “authorized” adaptations sits director Boris Sagal’s THE OMEGA MAN, a film “suggested” by the novel I AM LEGEND and following the set-up and basic psychology of Matheson’s work, but bearing little narrative resemblance to it. Needless to say, outside of the presumed healthy payday, the writer was NOT a fan of THE OMEGA MAN. But while on the surface the 1971 film is yet further evidence in the ongoing case as to why the good-Goddamn Hollywood can’t get I AM LEGEND right, THE OMEGA MAN is, in spite of itself, a kind of masterpiece.
Oh hell, it’s not a KIND of masterpiece, it IS a masterpiece. Full stop.
Sagal’s updated, post-hippie riff on Matheson’s material casts the great Charlton Heston as Neville, this time re-invented as a military scientist, the sole – or so he thinks – surviving man on earth after biochemical warfare has annihilated the populace from coast to coast. In the book, Neville becomes a self-made scientist after years of ennui and obsession while in the Price version, his Neville/Morgan is already a scientist, feverishly working on a cure for the vampiric plague. Husband and wife writers John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington’s urgent remix of the tale follows this variation on Neville while jettisoning the undead virus and replacing it with specific man-made death. As the world withers, Heston’s Neville seemingly invents the antidote but the helicopter carrying him to headquarters crashes, leaving the wounded MD with no other option but to inject himself with the serum, thus explicitly explaining his immunity.
As in the book and other adaptations, Neville is NOT alone in this atrophied anti-Eden. But instead of Matheson’s grunting, ravenous ghouls, we get articulate, counter-culture mutants slinking through the streets; a pack of alabaster monks who hole themselves up in a hive during the day and emerge and night, sporting glittery black robes and Roy Orbison-esque sunglasses, coming en masse to Neville’s fortified brownstone, not to drink his blood to execute him. Led by Anthony (KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK) Zerbe’s preening Matthias (who, as we see in pre-war flashback, was an on-air newscaster), the “family” as they call themselves, see Neville as quite literally “The Man”, a totem of a modern age that destroyed itself. In their warped, diseased minds, Neville is the abomination, with the family being the rightful inheritors of the planet, a new tribe of sickly citizens who sneer at technology and seek to bulldoze the future back to the stone age. After sunset, Neville defends his fortress from these screaming, sanctimonious holy men and come morning, he spends his hours screeching around San Francisco is fast cars, shooting his machine gun at anything that moves while searching for the family’s nest.
Vampires or not, the concept and themes behind THE OMEGA MAN are kin to I AM LEGEND. In the book, Robert Neville refuses to leave his home. The vampires that crawl around his yard chanting his name and calling for his fluids become, in a sense, his only companions. His quest to kill them becomes his sole purpose. Heston’s Neville, despite his machismo and self-assurance, follows the same pattern. The cat and mouse dance between himself and the family defines his current life. He even “accidentally” comes home late, too close to sundown, just to test himself, just to have some kind of interaction with the only other sentient creatures on earth, no matter how deadly.
In both variations, Neville’s antagonists scream his name at night, hurling objects at his windows and trying to burn and break down his walls. In I AM LEGEND and THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, our hero opts to bury his head and turn up his record player. In THE OMEGA MAN, Heston’s Neville chooses to open fire on the scurrying fiends below. But seeing as THE OMEGA MAN was indeed developed as a project for the Hollywood superstar, a companion to his career resurgence as a Sci-Fi/action blockbuster hero in 1968’s PLANET OF THE APES, this swaggering, trigger-happy version of Neville makes sense. In fact, THE OMEGA MAN’s family has much DNA in common with the APES sequel, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, with its post-apocalyptic mutants living a monastic existence while worshiping the nuclear bomb that made them. Further to that, the Corrington’s would 2 years later write the final PLANET OF THE APES picture, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, a movie whose messages are heavily linked to THE OMEGA MAN’s.
In I AM LEGEND’s final act, Robert Neville discovers that he is indeed NOT the only living human being on the planet, rather the vampire plague has created a strain of peaceful people that teeter between both states. Neville is astonished to learn that his acts of extermination have been in fact cold-blooded murders of these terrified wretches. The title refers to the truth that, among these survivors, HE is the boogeyman, he is the threat; Neville has become their myth, their “legend”. THE OMEGA MAN takes this idea and moves it to the middle of the movie, with a gaggle of survivors led by Rosalind Cash’s Lisa and Paul Koslo’s Dutch rescuing Neville from the clutches of the family with the hope that he might save them before they too turn into ghastly, demented albinos. Instead of a threat, Neville becomes the new messiah, the world’s last and only hope. This biblical riff suits the man who played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS well and, while admittedly heavy handed, gives the film a real sense of gravitas and grace and a kind of optimism that dystopian movies like this – and the source book itself – often lacked. There’s a dash of socio-political daring here too, with Heston and Cash embarking on a love affair, itself one of the first interracial couplings in Hollywood history, a neo-Adam and Eve, immune to the stigmas of the “old world”.
But outside of these twists on Matheson’s text, what truly pushes THE OMEGA MAN to the heights it reaches is Sagal’s direction, Russell Metty’s shiny, sharp cinematography, Heston’s solid, strong and square-jawed presence and perhaps most effectively, composer Ron (DOCTOR WHO) Grainer’s haunting, groovy, unforgettable original score. Combining orchestra, jazz and a progressive rock/funk groove, Grainer’s deftly designed music pushes every image forward, blanketing long passages of dialogue between Zerbe and his right-hand man Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick) with the throbbing excitement of an action movie and then stripping down the sound during actual shootouts and leaving in only lonely organs and vibraphones. The composer also employs the dreamy sound of a water chime to add a sort of liquid beauty to eerie scenes of dead roads and decimated buildings. It’s certainly one of the finest scores made for any sort of genre film and it turns much of the movie into a kind of tone poem about life, death, society and salvation.
Matheson didn’t like THE OMEGA MAN as an adaptation of what might very well be his finest literary achievement. And I’m with him. The film s a pretty terrible direct translation of what is, again, one of the easiest-to-adapt-to-screen books I’ve ever read. But it doesn’t want to be the novel. It has something else on its mind and seen as a moody, musical, intelligent, stylish and powerful piece of post-60s Sci-Fi horror with theological undercurrents, THE OMEGA MAN has few peers.