Edited by Robert Beach
In 1954, titan of science fiction Richard Matheson redefined the zombie/apocalypse genre with his horror novel I Am Legend. Even to this day, I Am Legend stands as one of the best examples of both zombie storytelling and post-apocalyptic imagination. Given the impact the novel’s had, it makes sense that it’d see a film adaptation. Most people are probably familiar with the 2007 Will Smith adaptation of the same name.
Despite the gloss and glamour surrounding that film, it’s actually not very representative of Matheson’s novel; it’s also not the only adaptation of the story. Previously, there was Omega Man, a 1971 film starring Charlton Heston as part of his post-apocalypse trilogy (alongside Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes.) However, the first adaptation of Matheson’s novel was the 1964 Italian horror film The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, and it is incredible.
The Last Man on Earth is an amazing film. It's a triumph of the genre and easily Vincent Price’s best work as actor to say nothing of the best adaptation of Matheson’s original story. Part of that is owed to Matheson himself co-writing the film under the name Logan Swanson. The plot is pretty standard: at some point in the future, a deadly plague has struck humanity. The plague turns people into what I like to call "Zompires." They abide by the general rules of vampires: repelled by crosses or garlic while a stake through the heart or sunlight will kill them. Where they differ is that the zompires shuffle around in an almost mindless state like classic, Night of the Living Dead zombies.
Vincent Price plays Dr. Robert Morgan, a virologist who was working on the disease before it wiped out all of humanity but him as he possessed a sort of natural immunity. With all of humanity gone, including Morgan’s wife and child, he now stalks the wasteland, hunting street by street to kill off the remaining living dead. What works so well about The Last Man on Earth over the other adaptations of Matheson’s work is that it really gets how terrifying and shattering it would be to be the last man on Earth.
In stuff like I Am Legend and even Omega Man to a degree the end of the world always brings with it an element of enjoyment. Will Smith may be alone in I Am Legend, but he spends his whole day fighting inhuman monsters and hanging out with his dog. The same way Charlton Heston’s engaged in a downright war with his albino, mutant horde. There’s something to legitimately struggle against and a sense of hope to go with it. They’re sci-fi action films with horror elements more than anything else.
Last Man on Earth keeps the emphasis on what Morgan’s life is really like in the post apocalypse. We see his routine of scavenging food, disposing corpses, shoring up defenses; there’s no glamour to his life. Even when he’s killing the zompires in the daylight, it’s an oppressive sequence. The creatures are so uncoordinated that they offer little resistance when cornered by him, they’re more like frightened animals he’s putting down. There’s also the added twist in Last Man on Earth: the monsters look just like people. So much of the disconnect that’s afforded through the monstrous designs in Omega Man or I Am Legend is wiped away here, especially with how many of the zompires used to be Price’s friends and colleagues.
We also get a greater sense of contrast in Morgan’s character. Through flashbacks, we see how he was once a family man and a doctor before being turned into a hardened killer by the post-plague world. What really works here is Vincent Price’s acting as he manages to keep the wasteland version of Morgan from ever feeling truly evil and more detached. You get the sense he’s lived so long in this hideous broken reality that he no longer recognizes anything from the world before. There’s a chilling stand out scene where Price identifies one of the key zompires as his best friend before the world ended. Now that he’s become the undead, Price will just kill him without a second thought. It’s such a matter of fact statement without even the slightest hint of doubt, it really highlights what a conscienceless killer Price has become.
Another major element that adds to the film’s moody and contemplative atmosphere is the incredible cinematography and visuals. Though Last Man on Earth was made in the ‘60s, it was shot in black and white, similarly to Night of the Living Dead. The black and white lends the whole film this incredibly dark atmosphere and makes abandoned cityscape all the more isolated and eerie. It also helps that the film was shot in Rome, so the city already had a strange, otherworldly feel to it that the black and white extenuates. What really ties it all together is the incredibly cinematography from Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow. A sense of foreboding and inevitably is draped over the entire story, especially during the flashback sequences that allow us to see Dr. Morgan’s world prior to the plague. There’s a creepy naturalism to the plague as if it’s a force of human extinction beyond the touch of science. It really highlights how small and hopeless man can be against the deadliness of nature, a concept Matheson would later explore in The Shrinking Man.
Another major element that sets Last Man on Earth apart from the other film adaptations is its realization of the ending. It’s eventually revealed that the people Dr. Morgan perceives as monsters are actually sentient with their own civilization and culture. The whole time he’s been hunting them he’s become something of a monstrous legend; this insane madman stalking through the city and killing them in their beds. It’s a dynamite revelation that works so well because of how much the film had already worked to develop Morgan as a man who’d become a hardened killer.
Last Man on Earth is the only film to really grasp the post-human vibe of the original story and tap into the central thesis of Matheson’s work. It’s a story that questions not only our own personal sense of purpose but also the place of humanity in the world and whether or not we really deserve to exist. It challenges our accepted standing as lords of the Earth. In that, Last Man on Earth suggests humanity’s insistence on its own self-importance is what truly creates monsters.