The Last Man on Earth - 1964

The Last Man On Earth poster -  Vincent Price 1964 - image by Erik Weems

The Last Man on Earth - Released March 8, 1964. Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow

He (Vincent Price) is the "last man" on earth only in a technical sense. His home has plenty of visitors once nightfall comes, people infected with a strange bacillus that turns them into some kind of quasi-vampire/zombie determined in their slow-moving and drunken-sounding way to get at the occupant (this seems to have been lifted whole-hog by George Romero for the famous Night of the Living Dead of 1968). Instead of cowering in fear inside his boarded up home, Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) grumbles against the noise of the attackers, drinks booze and in a surreal bit of horror and comedy mixed together, plays a swinging jazz vinyl record which the director then times with the unorganized gate of the creatures outside. If only the whole film had the same pizzazz.

The original source novel for The Last Man on Earth is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and it is a story that has been filmed numerous times elsewhere and 'borrowed' from repeatedly for TV, movies, novels, comic books, etc. Matheson, before his death in 2013, said that nobody had yet to actually film his story the way he wrote it, which is a tale of how ancient superstitious legends about vampires (garlic, crucifixes, running water, etc) meet the god science which explains the plague of vampirism that takes over the world as the workings of a germ which gives the infected a food allergy against garlic, a psychological fear of crucifixes (unless you're non-Christian, obviously) and in Matheson's plot, the basis for the creation of something far worse than the germ, a new authoritarian society of half-human, half-vampires who are determined to drive anyone not like them into extinction. It's political conformity weaponized by microbe, and to make sure the idea isn't misunderstood, in both this film and the original book, the members of this new, improved society are dressed in black uniforms, better to make the allusion to National Socialism and fascism explicit.

The Vincent Price version of 1964 is the first effort at dealing with Matheson's book, and is probably the only filmed version (that I have seen) which tries to address all of Matheson's elements equally, however garbled it gets on screen. The 1971 Chuck Heston version and the 2007 version starring Will Smith threw out significant portions of the original Matheson story.

The battle for survival in The Last Man on Earth is simplicity itself, and as far as cinema goes, is something more or less like a hundred cowboy movies showing the wagon-train or fort surrounded by rampaging Indians, or even more directly, Hitchcock's The Birds from 1963 which depicted a similar siege of attackers with humans trapped inside their home.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Morgan as a desperate and determined scientist trying to find a way to cure or kill the vampires that have him surrounded at night. He is immune to the bacillus and has been trying to find a way to create a vaccine from his blood that will transform the infected back into less-lethal humans. As the film progresses, we flashback to how Morgan's wife and daughter are taken by the germ, and old friendships turn dangerous. Unfortunately for Price (and the audience), the paucity of the visual storytelling and his own over-emphasized acting style, which the directors seem to have no idea how to utilize, turns many scenes from The Last Man on Earth into unintended humor. If only someone like Roger Corman had optioned the tale, a director who would have kept Price from having to try and carry the whole picture by himself.

Page November 2018

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