Jan 31, 2013

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH - Review

Zombie Vampires

07/10
The Last Man on Earth
1964
Director:
Ubaldo Ragona
Screenplay:
William F. Leicester, Richard Matheson
Furio M. Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona
Cast:
Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia,
Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart,
Umberto Raho

"By night they leave their graves, crawling, shambling, through empty streets, whimpering, pleading, begging for his blood!"




Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the sole survivor of a plague that has wiped out the human race. Worse, plague victims have returned from the dead as something very much like the vampires of legend. They gather outside Morgan's house every night seeking his blood. Morgan's entire existence consists of fortifying his home and hunting down vampires every day then blaring loud music to drown out their cries as he drinks himself to sleep every night. Yes, that does sound kind of great but Morgan has grown sick of it over the three long years that he has managed to survive. Loneliness and despair have begun to take their toll.

The Last Man on Earth was the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson's post apocalyptic vampire novel. It's a more faithful version than either Omega Man or I Am Legend and, in spite of suffering from an obviously low budget and often unimaginative direction, it's still my favourite of the three. The main reason for this is that it features vampires and doesn't transform the antagonists into psychotic cultists or mutant darkwalkers in the name of...realism I guess. See, back in the 70's a big budget film with an A-list star couldn't possibly trifle with something as silly as vampires no, albino psychos in holocaust cloaks would be taken far more seriously by sophisticated audiences of the time. Of course, today we realize that albino psychos in holocaust cloaks are completely ridiculous so instead we have cartoon CGI mutant darkwalkers instead. In another ten years this will be remade with Joseph Gordon-Levitt fending off bath salt zombies.


"There. That cross, mirror and garlic
 are bound to keep those zombies away."
Speaking of zombies, there is a slight controversy over whether the plague victims in Last Man are more properly defined as zombies rather than vampires. George Romero has cited Matheson's novel as the inspiration for Night of the Living Dead but I agree with those who think it more likely that this film was his main inspiration. The stark black and white shots of zombies laying siege to the farm house in Night look as if they could have been lifted from Last Man (the entrail eating business was new though, rock on Romero). In any case, Night pared down the already pared down vampires of Last Man to establish the ground rules for the countless zombie movies that we know and love today. Though Romero never referred to the flesh eating corpses of Night as such in his film, zombies soon stopped being those poor bastards brought back from the dead by mystical voodoo rituals to toil away in sugar mines. Now they were rogue, infectious devourers of human flesh. The undead horde of Last Man is like a transitional fossil between traditional supernatural vampires and the modern zombie.

As well as craving blood the film's plague victims exhibit many other traits specifically associated with vampires. Sadly for them, these traits are a laundry list of things which repel and kill them. They shun sunlight, are allergic to garlic and recoil from mirrors and crosses. A wooden stake plunged into their hearts will kill them though it's later shown that sharp metal poles work just as well. The finale also reveals a prosaic susceptibility to being riddled with bullets. As in Matheson's novel, these vampires have been disenchanted possessing no supernatural abilities. The film gimps them further as they mostly shamble around in a clumsy stupor, displaying none of the speed and strength described in the book. However, they do engage in a rudimentary form of psychological torture, calling out Morgan's name in the night and vandalizing his car when he isn't looking. So I just take them to be dim witted vampires but, if you wish to be more charitable and think of them as high functioning zombies, more power to you (but they are vampires).


"Morgan, come out! We want to be friends."

One of the more interesting things about Matheson's I Am Legend is how he describes creatures of myth stepping into the modern world and taking over. Vampires were old hat even as far back as the 50's, even Bram Stoker's Dracula plays with a juxtaposition of a creature of superstition pitted against the tools of then modern science. Matheson takes this a step further by using vampire folklore but explaining it in completely rational and psychological terms. The effect, when accompanied by a proper willing suspension of disbelief, is to lend a new plausibility to very old stories. It's like finding out that the reality of nightmares has been demonstrated through scientific means. Everything from the vampire's craving for blood to their aversion to the cross is explained without reference to the supernatural. Last Man drops most of the details of this speculation and exposition, but it remains implied. The film does spend time detailing the cause of vampirism, here an airborne bacillus.


Mormons.

Matheson was not pleased with Last Man, citing poor direction and contending that Vincent Price was miscast. I get the impression that Matheson envisioned his last man as more of an average man type and Price always had an air of refinement about him. The one deviation from the novel common to all three films is that they turn the protagonist from a plant worker into a scientist. This makes sense as each film also deals with a search for a cure, far more plausible when the character doing the research has some professional training. So I really have no problem with Vincent Price cast in the lead as opposed to some everyman type. He delivers a fine performance maintaining the audience's interest over the film's rough patches, such as the longish opening in which he wanders around an empty world as a voice over narration states the obvious. Got to get gas, I need to get gas, here I go, going to get gass. Price conveys loneliness and bitterness through his physical demeanor and there is a very good scene, as he lays back on the couch listening to the vampire horde trying to break in, where his cynicism gives way and you can see the fear in his eyes.

Aside from Price's performance, Last Man does have other moments that make it worth while. I've already mentioned the siege scenes, here made slightly creepier as his former best friend groans "Morgan, come out!" There is also a flashback containing a great bit in which we discover what ultimately became of his wife. During the last stretch, as a second character is introduced, we get to see how Morgan's ordeal has chipped away at his humanity and the film ends on a gloomier note than did the novel. This would make a terrific double-bill with Night of the Living Dead.



"I'd kill for an Xbox...and some weed."

2 comments:

  1. Did you really think I Am Legend was that bad? Aside from the ending they chose for the remake. At least they managed to make it for a more "realistic" level compared to Omega Man which to me was the weakest adaptation of the three. Although that might be because I was born in the generation that Will Smith has always been cool. Even if he was in Seven Pounds...

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    1. Will Smith is cool, I thought he was good in I Am Legend. Just didn't like the CGI whatever they weres, took me out of the film.

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