by Mel Valentin
Richard Matheson's seminal science-fiction/horror novel, "I Am Legend," first published in 1954, takes as its subject matter the last survivor of a biological plague struggling for survival against modern-day vampires. "I Am Legend," has been adapted for film twice, first in 1964 and only seven years later, in 1971. At least one other adaptation never made it to the screen. A fourth adaptation, with first Arnold Schwarzenegger and later Will Smith attached as stars, has been stuck in development for the better of a decade (the Schwarzenegger version came closest to actually filming, but the film studio eventually balked at a special-effects heavy budget and Schwarzenegger's asking price).That leaves us with the two earlier adaptations. Neither adaptation has satisfied fans of the novel, although the 1964 film, an American-Italian co-production with Vincent Price in the lead role, came closest to the novel. Matheson wrote an early draft of the screenplay, but later disavowed the final result. That version suffered from low production values, funeral pacing, and a typically hammy turn from Price. The 1971 version, The Omega Man, adapted from Matheson's novel without his input, is either dismissed as schlock or appreciated as camp, with fans of the novel crying foul at the wholesale changes made for the film adaptation. While The Omega Man leans toward the later interpretation, it offers more than a few pleasures, first and foremost as a repository for cultural and social attitudes and anxieties.
"Campy B-movie fun that doesn't do justice to the source novel."
Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is the literarily the "last man on earth." A biological plague, released as a result of a global war, has decimated the world's population. Neville, a military officer and research scientist, found a cure for the plague, but too late to save anyone but himself. Now, he patrols the streets of a deserted, desolate Los Angeles, scavenging for food and supplies, while hunting the mutated remnants of human society. The mutants have lost all skin and eye pigmentation, making them susceptible to sunlight, which forces them into a nocturnal existence. The mutants have coalesced into a self-described "Family," and are led by the eschatologically inclined Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), a former newsreader turned prophet turned religious cult leader (the Family was probably inspired, if inspired is the right word, by the then recent Manson Family murders and their aftermath).
Matthias sees the plague as divine punishment, with technology as the culprit. For Matthias, Neville is the last representative (and symbol) of a dying, dead world and must be exterminated. Matthias henchman, Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick), is eager to take Neville out himself. Matthias makes his acolytes dress in long, monkish robes (where they get them is also left unanswered), favors candles, and, more importantly, an eschatological, medieval worldview. The mutants, however, aren't vampires (as they are in the source novel). How and what they feed on is left unanswered, but they certainly don't crave or subsist on blood (or so we assume). Without that element, the Family falls short of being frightening, as vampires in the popular imagination tend to be. Even in Matheson's novel, the vampires are closer to George A. Romero's shiftless undead, lacking social structures, leaders, or the ability to create sophisticated plans.
Neville's solitary existence changes radically when he encounters Lisa (Rosalind Cash), an African-American survivor of the plague. Lisa is infected by the plague, but hasn't turned yet. Her younger brother, Richie (Eric Laneuville), shows the signs of the plague. Lisa is part of a small community led by Dutch (Paul Koslo), a former medical student. The others in their community are all children. Renewed by Lisa's presence and a new purpose, Neville sets to work, using his own blood to create antibodies to fight the plague. Neville hopes to save Richie, Lisa, and the rest of the survivors. Matthias, of course, continues to see Neville as a threat, appearing nightly at Neville's fortified building to taunt him and lead attacks (most of them fruitless).
All storylines lead to a confrontation between Neville and the Family, with the future of humankind in Charlton Heston's hands (or rather the hands of his character, Robert Neville). If that last line sounds faintly religious, it should, as The Omega Man's screenwriters, John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, ensure that viewers don't miss Neville's role as messiah (in the last scene, he even strikes a Jesus pose), with his blood holding the key to salvation. And not to be outdone by obvious Christian symbolism, the screenwriters attempt to give The Omega Man a then contemporary feel by including a controversial interracial romance (one of the first of its kind). Of course, they couldn't help but make Lisa a tough-talking ghetto chick straight out of a blaxploitation film, complete with Afro, stylish urban clothing (sometimes illogically changing from scene to scene), and a headstrong attitude to match.
TV-veteran Boris Sagal's uninspired direction only exacerbate The Omega Man's shortcomings. Most viewers will take a look at The Omega Man's opening scenes and assume they're watching a television program from the early seventies, thanks to the flat lighting (the result of a limited budget, presumably) and the lackluster production design. The Omega Man was filmed on studio backlots for the scenes in and around Neville's fortified apartment building and on location in Los Angeles on Sundays, when crowds were generally nonexistent in the downtown area. The location shooting may add some authenticity, but not much else. There is some similarity, however, with the look and feel of Charlton Heston's next science-fiction film, Soylent Green, set in an overpopulated, overheating world of limited resources and unchecked corporate control. Last, the score by Ron Grainer fits uneasily with the rest of the film, often going in directions unrelated to the action onscreen.Why recommend "The Omega Man" then? As mentioned, there's the anthropological aspect, of seeing a film firmly made and representative of its time and contemporary concerns. There's the camp aspect, thanks to the unfortunate dialogue, most of it delivered by the African-American actors in the cast, and the generally non-frightening Family members running around in their robes and hoods. And fans of Charlton Heston, whether inclined by a serious respect for his talent and craft (there are some, seriously) or because Heston's emphatic overacting, not to mention going shirtless in multiple scenes, is a draw in and of itself. Frankly, it is (at least for this reviewer). It pushes "The Omega Man" firmly into camp, but it also makes it watchable, even thirty-four years after its initial release. As for Matheson's science-fiction/horror novel, the definitive adaptation is still somewhere in the future (how far in the future is hard to surmise). That's at least something we can all look forward to.
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originally posted: 12/04/05 16:43:57