The Last Man on Earth tells the tale of a lone survivor of a global catastrophe that must learn to function in a world where he is a legend amongst the monsters.
Vincent Price plays Robert Neville, scientist, philosopher and vampire hunter in this sci-fi/horror hybrid that takes place in a post-apocalyptic America.
Based on the novel “I Am Legend” by Richard Mattheson, The Last Man on Earth follows Vincent Price as the apparent soul survivor of a world wide plague. Those left behind have turned into a zombie or vampire like creature that’s he’s bent on killing. The trailer sets up an elegant feel of loneliness and isolation as Price exists in a world without people. He has some flashbacks to happier times in his life, but all there is for him now is survival. It’s unclear what the main antagonist in the film is, other than his own survival. If this original adaptation is anything like the later ones, then it’s not going to end well for anyone.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Last Man on Earth tells a tale of life, death, hope and survival in a plague-strewn world. Three years after a global epidemic killed the majority of the population, Dr. Robert Neville (Vincent Price) sees himself as the last man on earth. His day-to-day life consists of cleaning up dead bodies around his house, fashioning weapons, searching for the nest where the “vampires” hide during the day, and refreshing his supplies at the local grocery store.
At night, slow moving zombie-like creatures that can speak rudimentary sentences, and call him by name, come pounding on his doors and windows attempting to break in. Neville explains in voice-overs that these beasts are dull witted and as long as he maintains his reason he can stay safe. The next day instead of his normal chores, he chooses to visit a mausoleum where his wife is entombed. Exhausted, he falls asleep. Awakening after dark, he must race home, avoiding the shambling hordes that take to the street.
He reminisces about the time before the plague when he and his wife Virge (Emma Danieli) celebrated their daughters birthday. His colleague and friend Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) stops by, sharing a news clipping about a European plague that might be carried on the wind. Neville says not to worry. Over time, it becomes evident that the plague is spreading and Neville & Cortman begin working on a cure at their office, The Mercer Institute.
The two have differing ideals about how to stop the spread of infection. Ben believes the stories of people coming back to life. Robert is more grounded in his approach. At least until his daughter is stricken by the plague and thrown into a pit to be burned with the other bodies. A short while later his wife is affected as well. He buries her in a field to avoid the same fate as his daughter. When she comes back to life and shows up at his front door later that night, he realizes that Ben was right.
Back in the present, Robert continues his daily ritual, as the audience realizes that one of the undead at his door every night is Ben! One day he finds a dog still alive. This gives him hope for the future, but quickly realizes it too is infected and he kills and buries it in a field. As he leaves the field he sees a woman, Ruth (Franca Bettoia), out in the daylight. Realizing he may not be the only one left, he is overcome with joy, bringing her home with him.
That evening she reveals to him that she is infected but has been keeping it at bay with a serum. She was sent by an enclave of other infected people to spy on him. He is a legend amongst them, having killed a number of their friends. Friends that were not quite alive but not quite dead. He tries to apologize, but the group of vigilantes chase him through the town shooting at him. They corner him in a church and kill him with an iron stake, screaming at them that they’re freaks! His last words are, “they were afraid of me.”
“I don’t deny there’s some strange evolutionary process going on, but mankind won’t be destroyed. The fact that you and I are working here today is evidence of that.” – Dr. Mercer
History in the Making
The Last Man on Earth (not to be confused with the Will Forte TV series of the same name), is the first of three major adaptations of the Richard Mattheson novel, “I Am Legend.” Written a decade before this film was released, it was his third novel, predating “The Shrinking Man” (1956), which was adapted as The Incredible Shrinking Man. It is considered to be one of his best and most popular works.
It presents the story of Neville in three acts, each about 30 minutes in length. The first act deals with the theme of life. The daily rituals of Neville’s survival are presented, and the viewer can extrapolate three years of this existence. The second act, which is the flashback concerns itself with death. The plague settles in and Neville’s family and friends, along with the city as a whole, die from the mysterious virus. The final act then focuses on hope and salvation, as Neville discovers there are other beings still living. First with a dog, and then with Ruth. It’s only at the very end, that he realizes his hope is fleeting, and the real salvation is for the clan who have managed to hunt down and destroy this “monster.” This sort of ending marked a change in the style of sci-fi films, where the ending is a twist or downbeat (or both).
Ostensibly, on the surface, The Last Man on Earth is a vampire story, where an apocalyptic plague destroys a majority of humanity. The film presents every trope audiences would be familiar with in a vampire film. Cloves of garlic, mirrors, crosses, and stakes to kill the undead. So why then is this film considered to be a science-fiction film and not a horror film? Up until this time vampirism had always been presented as a straight horror genre theme, with supernatural explanations surrounding the monsters. The creation of a scientific-based reason for such legends was also a new component of this film.
Science-fiction is supposed to extrapolate existing scientific advancements or social regimes into a potential future. So just how does a vampire film adhere to this definition? By not really being a vampire film. As seen in the flashback portion of the film, the plague that wipes out humanity was a man-made ill. When Ben Cortman brings up the stories he’s heard about the dead rising again, Neville dismisses them as superstitious, at least until his wife returns from the grave. And while the film might suggest all the supernatural tropes for vampires, it never believes those stories itself. Neville explains to Ruth that people infected by the disease become allergic to garlic. The infection also increases their sensitivity to light which is why they stay indoors during the daytime. The plague degenerates their bodies, hence their aversion ot looking into mirrors. The Last Man on Earth creates scientific reasons for the superstitions and stories of vampirism. Maybe the individual vampires of history were always affected by this strange disease. This spin on fantasy and horror elements puts the film squarely in sci-fi territory, opening a new avenue for future storytellers.
That being said, the film and story were both a very important base for horror films as well as sci-fi films. George Romero has been quoted that The Last Man on Earth was a template for the structure and tone of Night of the Living Dead. It also has inspired other other apocalyptic films. It sets a grim and isolated picture of a desolate future, providing Vincent Price with one of his best acting roles ever. Sure, part of this success is Mattheson’s story, but the film has to show these elements visually. The use of black & white photography, coupled with the location shooting of Rome (which doubled for San Francisco) present a near-future view of a decimated, abandoned world.
Additionally this film, along with Mattheson’s earlier hit The Incredible Shrinking Man, cemented his place in genre history. He would have many more hits in the sci-fi and horror genres both in film and on television. Some would be based of stories of his, while others were original ideas. Anyone doubting his reach, just look at his credits between 1959 and 1979. He wrote 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone including perennial favorites “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders,” and “Little Girl Lost.” He wrote the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” he adapted 5 Edgar Allen Poe films with Roger Corman including House of Usher and The Raven, wrote the screen story for Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and wrote various other stories that would be adapted into the films The Legend of Hell House and Somewhere in Time.
The Last Man on Earth sets up a common sci-fi theme of “us” versus “them.” This is not only just a sci-fi aesthetic, but also important in the horror genre as well. Thus, with Last Man bridging both genres, the thematic resonance doubles. The way this film goes about this conflict appears to be a standard progression. The viewer is introduced to the protagonist, Neville, who we come to know and understand his predicament. The “others,” are the vampires, creatures, or victims, that threaten his way of life. And since Neville is human, and is relating the story to the viewer as a narrator, of course the audience sympathizes with his plight.
The second act introduces the cause for the plague, allowing the audience to understand the nature of these undead scavengers. It’s not really their fault, but they aren’t quite human either. It’s not until the third act that the sci-fi twist becomes apparent. For the group of survivors that have learned how to cope with the their affliction, Neville is the antagonist – killing off members of their group. To them, he is the monster. It’s a shocking moment that makes the viewer re-evaluate the point of view dictated by the film.
When individuals want to disparage other groups, the first thing that they do is to dehumanize that group. The loss of humanity makes it easier to shun empathy and civility and treat the “other” like an object or something that is less than human. Neville’s contempt for these other people, which has been honed over three years of difficult survival is suddenly put into question. The viewer is forced to see the survival of the clan from their point of view, where Neville is the monster, randomly striking and killing their comrades.
Thematically the film does even more to present Neville as not really alive, thus creating more subconscious doubt about his character. While the film presents Neville as a survivor, making supply runs daily, it also shows that he has become as dead as the creatures he hunts. Early on in the film Neville states that, “there was a time when eating was pleasurable. Now it bores me. Just fuel for survival.“ His existence, without companionship, without hope has become a dull, monochromatic life. Just surviving. Not really living.
The Science in The Fiction
As mentioned above, the science in The Last Man on Earth is used to explain supernatural events within the boundaries of the scientific world. Explaining the common vampire tropes in medical and scientific terms transition the film from horror to sci-fi. Science also is used to explain the ending of the film.
In the ending, Neville is shocked that this clan of infected individuals sees him as the monster. They tell him how they will rebuild society, which shocks Neville. He claims ignorance as his only defense. But earlier in the film, Dr. Mercer laid out the conclusion, stating that “there’s some strange evolutionary process going on, but mankind won’t be destroyed.” The audience takes it as Mercer says, that Neville will survive to carry on as “the last man.” But in reality the evolutionary process is moving beyond man. Much as homo erectus died off giving way to homo sapien, now mankind is giving way to homo vampirum. It’s evolution of the fittest!
The Final Frontier
“I Am Legend” has been adapted in three major films, this being the first. The more well know version, but weaker overall, is Charlton Heston’s 1971 The Omega Man, which was followed by a slightly more faithful (and accurately titled) I Am Legend, in 2007 with Will Smith. Something about this story must stimulate the creative process having been told and re-told over and over. Each time the film strives to capture some other aspect of the original story, or present some other thematic nugget for audiences to enjoy.
The Last Man on Earth is certainly a strong contender for Vincent Price’s best film. It’s seemingly low-budget approach works within the confines of the story in which an apocalypse has wiped out mankind. Plus it sets up the coming cynicism of culture and the love for surprise endings that would become more prevalent in the late 60s and 70s.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.