Last Man on Earth, The (1964)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 01/13/08 22:51:46

"The first, seriously flawed adaptation of "I Am Legend."
3 stars (Just Average)

Richard Mathesonís post-apocalyptic science-fiction/horror novel, "I Am Legend," was first adapted in 1964. Mathesonís first attempt at a screenplay, however, was for British horror specialists Hammer Studios, but after the British Censor Board turned down Mathesonís script, retitled "The Night Creatures," apparently for its ghoulishness, Hammer turned the property over to American producer Robert L. Libbert. To save money, Libbert decided to film the newly titled 'The Last Man on Earth" in Italy with only Vincent Price as the only English-speaking member of the cast and, presumably, a modest box office draw in the United States and England. Libbert turned the directing reins over to Ubaldo Ragona and an uncredited Sidney Salkow.

Robert Morgan (Price) is the ďlast man on earthĒ of the title or, to be more accurate, the last living human. A former biological researcher, Morgan worked on finding a cure or vaccine to a new plague that quickly overwhelmed Europe and, presumably, the rest of the world. Plague victims gradually lost all energy or willpower, eventually losing their eyesight and, apparently, their lives. Buried, however, plague victims awoke with a new, insatiable desire for human blood. As a result, the government collected and burned the bodies of the plague victims. But that didnít stop the plague or the newly revived plague victims, now exhibiting every sign of vampirism, from taking over the world.

Three years after the plague took his wife, Virginia (Emma Danieli), and daughter, Kathy (Christi Courtland), Morganís life has settled into a dull, lifeless routine. Every morning, Morgan repairs his boarded up house, sharpens stakes on a lathe inside his living room, and ventures outside in his car to pick up supplies, hunt and kill vampires as they rest, and returns home before nightfall brings the vampires and their leader, Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), Morganís former neighbor, co-worker, and friend, to his door, hungry for his blood. Cortman and the other vampires are too weak to break into Morganís house, but that doesnít stop them from trying. Morgan listens to jazz to distract him from the vampiresí incessant attacks.

The Last Man on Earth is effectively split into three sections or acts. The first section follows Morganís daily routine, emphasizing his boredom, loneliness, and despair. The section segment takes Morgan back in time just as a mysterious new plague began spreading throughout Europe through an extended flashback. The third segment picks up with Morgan, his sanity finally crumbling, as he encounters a dog, his first potential companion in three years, and a young woman, Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), he spots in the daytime. Ruth gives Morgan renewed hope that other plague survivors exist, but that doesnít mean they want the vampire-killing Morgan to share in their new society.

After Ragona and his other collaborators made changes to Matheson's screenplay without his involvement, Matheson decided to use a pseudonym, ďLogan Swanson,Ē rather than run the residuals on his work. Despite Matheson's unhappiness, The Last Man on Earth is surprisingly faithful to Mathesonís novel. Some changes, like switching the main characterís last name from Neville to Morgan, are obviously cosmetic. Others, like changing his profession from plant worker to scientific researcher or a slightly different ending are more significant, but The Last Man on Earthís problem isnít faithfulness to Mathesonís novel, but rather Ragona and Salkowís direction, which can be best describes as flaccid, tepid, lackluster, and tedious.

Whether due to a limited budget or concerns about censorship, The Last Man on Earth downplays the vampirism angle central to I Am Legend. Outside of their distaste for garlic, fear of mirrors (explained as psychologically based repugnance), and aversion to sunlight, the vampires in The Last Man on Earth move more like zombies (and dress just as badly) than the vampires moviegoers have to come over the years. In fact, the undead in The Last Man on Earth don't pose much of a physical threat to Morgan. They seem to be little more than nuisances, as Morgan discovers daily when heís forced to clear out corpses (the stronger ones feed on the weak) that litter his lawn.

Unfortunately, the cheap production values, various plot holes (e.g., a supermarket generator running on its own, still potent three-year old garlic, etc.), bad, really bad dubbing, and Vincent Priceís hammy performance donít help. By the early 1960s, Price was more suitable for black comedies or period horror films than for straight, contemporary horror. Sadly, the next adaptation, "The Omega Man," wasn't much better (actually, far worse), if far more entertaining for its campy, early 70s exploitation flavor and Charlton Hestonís scenery-chewing turn as Mathesonís anti-hero. Unfortunately, the most recent adaptation, "I Am Legend," bears, at best, a superficial resemblance to Matheson's novel or its themes of isolation, loneliness, societal breakdown, adaptation, and, ultimately, resilience.

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