The Last Man on Earth (1964) [31 Days of American Horror Review]
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Director: Sidney Salkow, Ubaldo B. Ragona
Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi Stuart
“Another day to live through. Better get started.”
The last man on Earth.
Doesn’t sound much fun does it? It’s not the kind of thing that suggests any kind of victory, of being the last player in the game or even the ultimate survivor.
The last man on Earth…that’s a fate worse than death and Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend went to great pains to ram that point home. Massively influential not just in its time, but even now, it would spawn not one but three adaptations and it’s a testament to how strong the source material is that each would be so different from the last.
It’s the original 1964 version that is the most faithful to Matheson’s original work though, hardly surprising as he wrote the screenplay himself, though upon seeing the finished film his disappointment in it left him insisting on taking a credit of Logan Swanson. While you can see where he was coming from (it does look cheap in places, director Sidney Salkow was indeed ‘a bit of a drop’ from the originally touted Fritz Lang and, if we’re being honest, the great Vincent Price is a strange casting choice), it’s a bleakly, effective film that explores some truly horrific ideas.
It’s not just that the world as we know it has ended, it’s not just that the apocalypse has left swarms of infected mutants with vampiric tendencies everywhere, it’s not even that our protagonist appears to be, well the last man on Earth. It’s that in the end, he’s the bad guy. The last representation of humanity left on the planet and who does he turn out to be? A man who didn’t take the threat to the environment and the survival of our species seriously enough when he could have and one who’s first reaction is to kill and ask no questions at all later.
Just an average, everyday example of humanity then.
It’s 1968. Dawn rises over a deserted city, bodies are sparsely strewn around the streets, a church sign proclaims “the end has come” and for humanity as we know it, it has. The world has been devastated by an airborne plague that has turned the remnants of the human race into the undead, vampiric creatures that fear sunlight, mirrors and garlic, all save for one man.
In another life, Dr Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) was a scientist who was part of a team trying unsuccessfully to find a cure for the plague. Ironically, Morgan himself was immune, possibly due to a bat bite he received some years previous, but the knowledge came too late to save his wife, daughter or indeed humanity in general.
Now, he lives a solitary existence, exterminating the vampires by day and watching home movies as he drinks himself into unconsciousness by night, still holed up in the home he shared with his family. Worse, his old colleague/best friend is Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is now one of the undead and comes to him every night, taunting him to come out and face him.
Morgan’s miserable existence has been like this for three years, but everting changes when he meets Ruth (Franca Bettoia), a young woman who can walk in the sun. Is she still human like him? Or is she something else entirely? And more importantly, does she come alone?
What a sad, bleak film The Last Man On Earth is. While The Omega Man adds in Charlton Heston’s Alpha-male nihilism into the mix, Vincent Price’s Morgan is much more of a normal, everyday man, albeit one dealing with the grimmest of situations.
Right away, from that resigned sigh of an intro quote, we’re thrust into the depressing but utterly mundane existence that he’s scraping out for himself. In the three years since he “inherited the world”, every day has been the same.
He tops up his generators, he makes new stakes. He collects supplies. He picks up the bodies of the undead left on the streets (they feed on their own weakest), stakes the active ones he can find, then throws them all in the still-burning charnel pit on the edge of town that the army started to try and contain the plague.
Every. Single. Day.
No wonder those three years seem like 100 million to him.
The loneliness he feels is clearly almost overwhelming, his daily attempts to reach someone, anyone, on his radio are made with no enthusiasm or hope. He’s clearly long past that point, but still keeps trying. What else is he going to do? Even eating is tedious to him, the entire joy of any aspect of life has been sucked out of him and Price’s hang-dog facial expressions are perfect for this most beaten-down of men.
Perhaps the bleakest of his routines is his mundane the killing and disposing of the vampires has become. Day after day, marking off blocks on the map, areas where he’s exterminated anything that moves by night, casually hammering stakes into their hearts with the demeanour of a man putting his 100th nail of the day into a fence that he can’t be bothered building.
The first we see of those executions is just a young girl in bed. She’s ugly and badly-kept, but clearly still a girl, mutant vampire or not. It’s shot from behind, slasher-like, almost like she’s the victim. It’s jarring and a clue to the real villain of the piece, then to ram the point home, is followed by a montage of murder. There’s nothing heroic about it, or even exciting, it’s mundane. Mundane, daily murder that’s as much of a routine as collecting garlic or refilling the generator.
The extensive flashback scene that occupies the middle of the film really helps drive home what Morgan has lost and has an extra poignancy as you already know what awaits him.
The plague is ravaging Europe but he’s not concerned of the implied danger until the army are taking bodies away and his own daughter is going blind. If hubris and scientific arrogance had a face, it would be Dr Robert Morgan. When it all kicks in though, he’s more aware than most what it means and his chase to reclaim his daughter’s body from the fire pit is without doubt the film’s most harrowing scene. Telling a faceless military man that his daughter is in there, he’s met with a resigned “A lot of people’s daughter’s are in there, including my own.”
Make no mistake, this is a vision of hell.
As his doomed wife Virginia, Emma Danieli doesn’t get much more to do than look worried and upset then die, but it’s when she comes back, bring the flashback to an undefined, but very obvious conclusion that really hits home the nightmare that Morgan’s life has now become.
As enjoyable as he is, Vincent Price is a strange piece of casting for this role. He’s not massively sympathetic at any point, he feels cold and aloof, even when he’s not bitter and angry. Maybe it’s the casting itself or just how Price was pitching it, but the revelation of who he really is and what impact he’s been having on this brave new world would have much more emotional heft if we had saw him as a more human and relatable character. It’s a minor quibble and Price is, of course, still absolutely magnificent here, but there was room for improvement.
The vampires that plague his new life are fascinating too. They’re not sophisticated predators, or even traditional bloodsuckers. They’re slow-moving, shambling ghouls, mostly dressed in smart clothes that look like funeral attire. There’s a seemingly-endless supply of them, but they can be outmanoeuvred if you’re fast enough. Individually, they’re weak and mentally incompetent, acting like animals after a long famine.
Yes, they’re pretty much the original “ghouls” from 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead, four years early. Romero admitted that Matheson’s novel was an inspiration, but watching The Last Man On Earth’s monochrome undead horde shuffling about in their Sunday best, it’s impossible to imagine it wasn’t an influence.
It’s what’s been going on away from the camera that’s most interesting though. There’s another breed of survivors out there, the kind that have injected themselves with a combination of blood and vaccine that holds the disease at bay. Far from mindless zombies, they’ve begun to rebuild.
Dressed entirely in black and with a distinct militaristic bent, there’s more than a hint of fascism to this New World Order. They’re trying to re-organise society, but there’s a monster in their midst.
Morgan thought he was the hero in his own story but he’s the monster in theirs. Those “creatures” he’s been killing by day? Some of them weren’t the undead at all, they were very much alive and Dr Robert Morgan has been murdering them – the last man on Earth wasn’t as alone as he thought he was.
Chased into a church, Morgan meets his end in front of a hastily-assembled congregation of men, women and children who live in fear of him. To him, they’re nothing but freaks and mutations, frightened of what he represents. To them, he’s a legend, a bogeyman that they live in terror of. Neither of them really knew who the other was and a new world gets under way much the same as the last one ended, in confusion, misunderstanding and violence.
Only once Morgan is gone, can this new, undefined world of not-quite humanity move on. Only once the Last Man on Earth is no more.
This review originally appeared in Into the Velvet Darkness – A Celebration of Vincent Price (LINK)
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy
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