by NIR SHALEV
The Last Man on Earth opens with a sunrise over an empty city. Houses, buildings, and cars are unattended and deceased bodies litter the streets. Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price in a contained and human performance) awakens to live another day. He goes through his daily routine of checking the radio frequencies for survivors (of whatever brought forth the apocalypse), making sure there’s gasoline in the electric generator, marking a map for locations he had swept, and carving stakes. His house is boarded up (windows and doors) and cloves of garlic hang from every doorframe. He leaves his suburban home and drives around the neighboring cities searching for vampires that are sleeping during the day. Upon discovery he stakes them, loads the carcasses into his station-wagon, and drives to a giant burning pit, dumping them into it.
Such is the chosen life of the last man on Earth.
Dr. Morgan had a wife and a child but one by one they had succumbed to the then-unrecognized epidemic. This we are told in flashbacks showcasing the concentration of Vincent Price as his character learns of the unavoidable. We understand that Dr. Morgan’s philosophy as a scientist, before the great fall, is that a universal disease is impossible. He looked for a rapidly-transmitted virus while his scientist buddy Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rosi-Stuart) became convinced of the vampire theory through popular word of mouth. All the symptoms of vampirism are present: those infected are weak to sunlight and garlic. The government warns the citizens to report all illnesses to the nearest hospitals and when Dr. Morgan’s daughter goes blind and is on the verge of death, he orders his wife to promise him that she would not call the doctor. For love of her daughter she does call the doctor and the military takes her away. Then the wife grows sick and blind….
We also learn that years back while in Panama, Dr. Morgan was bitten by a vampire bat that carried the vampirism virus and he eventually believes that he is immune due to that huge coincidence. But he takes it as a sign that he must continue to fight for as long as he can because the bat bite was not a complete accident, it provides a purpose to exist.
The film is shot in black and white, probably due to budgetary constraint, but is better off that way. It is easier to showcase night scenes involving vampires and the brooding thought that only one man lives while the rest of the population are undead. The film was shot in Italy but does do a good job at making it look like California.
This film does not center itself on sound reasons for the epidemic; we do not know why vampires are suddenly present. Is the epidemic a metaphor for the Black Plague or is it signifying that if a pandemic was to occur we, the human race, would turn on one another instead of seeking each other’s guidance? We don’t ask these questions because we are fascinated by the characters and their developing nature. Since Robert was a man of science he was trying to find a vaccine and cause for the epidemic, but ever since he lost his family and most of the population of the world died he dropped his scientific ways and had returned to good old fashioned barbarianism. The irony of his character is that because he is immune to the vampire epidemic his entire purpose in life is to continue to exist. If it means killing vampires all day, every day so be it. He hasn’t a real purpose in continuing to live.
The Last Man on Earth is based on the short story “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson. The screenplay was also written by him but it had a slight overhaul so the adaptation is slightly different, especially the ending. But this is still the best adaptation of the story, both as adaptation and overall film. This movie showcases an excellent performance by Vincent Price, who is usually looked upon as an average actor because most of his career consists of “B” horror films; but many are good films. Notably, when Price worked for Roger Corman’s production company in the early-mid 1960s he starred in excellent film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe short stories that contained great production values and his awesome presence and performances.
This is an excellent example of a low budget horror film in which the actors’ performances and the complexity of the philosophy in the plot show up the emptiness in “big” films with overblown budgets or a ridiculous amount of special effects. This film has no special effects, unless you count horizontal wipes and fades as special effects.
Vincent Price’s performance alone makes this film worth watching and if you have seen The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007), now would be a good time to see the earliest and best film version of the same story.