When adapted for the big screen, even the finest novels can suffer decidedly mixed fortunes. Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 book, I Am Legend, has been made into a movie no fewer than three times, most recently as a big-budget picture of the same name with Will Smith in the lead, but also in 1971 as The Omega Man, and both of these adaptations took considerable liberties with the novel that inspired them.
The best and most faithful adaptation, though, was undoubtedly the first. Filmed in Italy as L’ultimo Uomo Della Terra and starring Vincent Price, The Last Man On Earth was directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow from a script initially adapted by Matheson himself.
Finished in 1961, but not released in the US until 1964, The Last Man On Earth appears, at first glance, to be just as flawed as the two adaptations that followed it, largely because of its poverty stricken budget. But compared to the dated Omega Man, which imagined Matheson’s vampires as a spooky albino cult, or I Am Legend, which squandered its promising build-up with a botched ending and unconvincing creature effects, this early version of the book holds up extremely well.
Like the book, The Last Man On Earth is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been almost entirely destroyed by plague. Infected victims have been transformed into shuffling, zombie-like creatures with a lust for blood, and lone survivor Robert Morgan (Price) can do nothing but scratch out an existence by day, and cower in his house by night.
Shot in stark, scratchy black and white, the film slowly relates the minutiae of Morgan’s dull existence, disposing of bodies, hanging up wreathes of garlic, or grouchily fashioning wooden stakes on a lathe. “They’re perfect. Just wide enough to keep the flesh apart so their body seal can’t function,” Price intones with lip smacking relish. “But how many more of these will I have to make before they’re all destroyed?”
Price’s melancholy presence is perfect for the film (though, as we’ll see later, this isn’t a view shared by everyone), and his gloomy monologues sound fantastic when heard in the actor’s sonorous voice.
Sadly, the meagre budget is evident throughout. This is an unusually orderly, clean breakdown in society, with empty streets otherwise clean and tidy, and Morgan’s little house is barricaded with little more than a flimsy piece of wood or two and a wreath of garlic. It’s a far cry from Francis Lawrence’s widescreen vision of the end of the world, I Am Legend.
As in the book, we learn in flashback that the droning voice that urges Morgan to come out of his refuge is none other than his former best friend, Ben Cortman. Now stricken by the virus, Cortman becomes a bitter enemy, tormenting Morgan each night with cries of “Come out, come out.”
It was this torment that made the original novel so memorable, and while it lacks the dramatic bite of Matheson’s text, it’s nevertheless an equally important part of this film.
More than just a plague survivor in a horror setting, Robert Morgan is more like a character in a Kafka novel, or Job in the Bible. Not only has society as he knows it collapsed, but the new one that has sprung up so disturbingly in its place appears to be ranked against him.
Last Man is the only adaptation to date that retains the revelation that there are two kinds of vampire. At the conclusion of the film, Morgan learns that there’s a breed of rational vampires who plan to reorganise society and “do away with all those wretched creatures, who are neither alive nor dead.”
Despite its title change, the film also keeps the meaning behind the name of the book. “You are a legend in the city,” one of the lucid vampires tells Morgan, “moving by day instead of night.”
We also learn of the tragic fate of Morgan’s wife and child, who both succumb to the plague sweeping the globe, and the heart-rending sequence where Morgan befriends a stray dog, only to be forced to kill it when it, too, succumbs to disease, is ported across from the novel more or less intact.
It’s remarkable to think that this film came a full four years before George Romero’s seminal Night Of The Living Dead, whose trudging zombies informed a legion of similar films. Romero admitted on a 2008 DVD release of Night Of The Living Dead that he had, indeed, been influenced by Matheson’s novel, saying, “I had written a short story, which I basically had ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend.”
It’s true that The Last Man On Earth‘s poverty-stricken production values rob the film’s gloomy events of some of their power, and the presence of Price, an actor more commonly seen wearing period costume in a Corman film, may seem a little jarring in what is meant to be a contemporary mix of horror and science fiction. (It’s telling that the designers of the film’s poster were compelled to add in the silhouette of the sort of gothic house you’d expect to see in a Poe adaptation.)
Some rather tepid direction also robs the undead of much of their menace, and the fact that the towering Price can shove the creatures aside with the palm of his hand means that moments that were tense in the book are rather less so on screen. There’s also an ineptly handled chase sequence near the film’s conclusion that features one of the lamest dynamite explosions in history.
In spite of its painfully low budget, which results in numerous moments of unintentional comedy, The Last Man On Earth is propelled into brilliance by Vincent Price’s performance. Well known for his grand, larger than life turns in the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of Roger Corman, The Last Man On Earth sees Price at his most restrained, and his work here is among the best of his career, ranking alongside his performance as the evil Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General.
Interestingly, Matheson himself was dissatisfied with The Last Man On Earth, even going so far as to have his name listed as Logan Swanson on the film’s credits after his script was altered, and he disliked the casting of Vincent Price in the lead role.
“I was disappointed in The Last Man On Earth, even though they more or less followed my story,” Matheson said in an interview with Cemetery Dance magazine. “I think Vincent Price, whom I love in every one of his pictures that I wrote, was miscast. I also felt the direction was kind of poor. I just didn’t care for it.”
Popular opinion on The Last Man On Earth appeared to chime with Matheson’s, and even the normally dependable presence of Vincent Price didn’t encourage audiences to see the film in significant numbers. Gradually, however, the film has grown in stature, from a little seen bargain basement oddity to a highly regarded horror classic.
The movie has an eerie, unsettling atmosphere, largely because it’s unafraid to maintain a slow, deliberate pace, but also because it’s brave enough to end in a manner that, while not the same as Matheson’s novel, is similarly downbeat.
Where the more generously budgeted versions of I Am Legend had to temper their more depressing overtones to cater for a wider audience, the makers of The Last Man On Earth were free to remain as faithful to the gloomy tone of the novel as they pleased.
The Last Man On Earth isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s as close an adaptation of I Am Legend as we’re likely to see, and Price’s lonely performance as the last of an extinct breed is unforgettable.