Monday, October 09, 2006

The Last Man on Earth – review


Directed by: Ubaldo Ragona

Release Date: 1964

Contains spoilers

Originally planned to be a Hammer production, which was eventually rejected because the censor office threatened to ban the film in Britain if Hammer made it, this Italian movie is the only film so far that has got close to capturing Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend, though it did significantly veer from the original book in places. Just to note, also, that my DVD print of this is not exactly the best in the world, so I apologise now for the screenshots.

The film stars Vincent Price as Dr Robert Morgan, the last man of the title. We start with scenes of a desolate city, occasional corpses upon the streets. In a house an alarm clock sounds and Morgan awakens. “Another day to live through,” Vincent Price’s marvellous voice intones, “I’d better get started.”

His daily routine, which has lasted three years, involves checking his generator, and then checking the mirrors, crosses and garlic that he has on his external doors. making stakesThere are corpses outside his home; we discover that ‘they’ feed upon the weaker of their own kind. The mirror on his door is smashed as their own reflection repels them and his garlic, which the infected are allergic to, is becoming stale. He checks his ham radio, to no avail, and then makes stakes upon a lathe before venturing out.

In the city he gets petrol from an abandoned tanker and then takes the bodies from outside his home to The Pithunting a vampire, a vast landfill or corpses, still burning, that he feeds with flesh, petrol and more flame. He goes to a supermarket, there is a generator still running, presumably maintained by Morgan, and he keeps his garlic in the refrigerated meat locker. He takes more mirrors from another store and then he hunts. Methodically Morgan goes from house to house in the city, marking off each location as he searches out the hiding places of the dead.

When he gets home and barricades himself in, and the sun has set, the assault on his house begins. There have been some that have said that these vampires are more like zombies and complained that this is not a vampire movie. There are vast differences, yes they shamble and are of a lower level of reasoning, but they use tools, smashing at the house with sticks, they can speak and have memory. The main vampire outside the house calls for Morgan. He is Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), erstwhile friend and work colleague of Morgan. We should also remember that these vampires are the dead, they have died of plague and then have come back from the grave – as such they are reminiscent of the vampiric revenants of myth. We must further note that zombies do not fear their own reflection, are not stakable (in the heart at least) and are not repelled by garlic.

One of the problems with the film, as marvellous as Price is in his portrayal of unlikely action heroMorgan, is the fact that he seems an unlikely action hero. There is a sequence, when he is late back to the house having fallen asleep at his wife’s grave, where he fights through the vampires (who then smash his car through the night as it is not safely away in his garage). This highlights this problem, but it is only one of perception on my part as a viewer. Later we hear that individually they do not scare Morgan as they are ineffectual, it is their weight of numbers that frightens him.

We discover what has happened to the world through flashback. Morgan and Cortman were employed by a science institute, looking into a plague that was sweeping through Europe. That plague obviously travelled, the film indicating it was wind-born. As more and more fell to the plague a state of emergency was called, the dead burned in The Pit – the official reason being that it was for public health but some believing rumours that the dead were returning. Morgan’s daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland) fell to it first in his family, the army taking her away to The Pit. Virginia returnsThen his wife Virginia (Franca Bettoia) died. Morgan took her to the country and buried her, rather than have her thrown in The Pit. It is a marvellously haunting scene when he hears a whispering outside the house, and sees the door handle turning, then, as he opens the door, we see the horror on his face as Virginia comes to him her hands grasping forward.

Morgan doesn’t really know why he survived, but suspects that it had something to do with a bat bite he suffered in Panama years before. He has theorised that the bat carried a version of the disease and he became immune.

Of course, if you have read the book, you’ll know that there are not just the dead vampires. Morgan eventually finds Ruth (Franca Bettoia), a woman who walks in the daylight. He takes her in, but is suspicious of her and then discovers that she is infected, she has a serum that holds back the spread of the disease and her and others are rebuilding society. Unfortunately there is no place for a legendary monster like Morgan in this new world, a solitary creature who stalks the daylight killing indiscriminately – many of those he killed were alive.

The film spirals on to an end that, whilst having the same result of the book, reaches that ending via a much different route.

vampiric intrusionOther than the issues of seeing Vincent Price in action sequences there are other problems with the film. The direction, whilst competent, just doesn’t allow level of paranoia to reach the levels that perhaps the book attained and, on a more technical level, there are issues with day and night shots being annoyingly intermingled, so it is daylight when it should be night – but that is typical for the films of the time this was shot.

The greatest thing about the film, however, is Price, despite my action scene misgivings. He really acts his socks off and, given that he is the sole player for much of the film, the film is carried by his marvellous voice – mostly heard in voice-over. A scene, as he watches home movies, and is driven first to maniacal laughter and then to tears highlights perfectly just how good Price’s performance was. This should serve as a warning to anyone making a version of the book, you need a lead actor with the gravitas to command the screen, Price had that.

I am Legend is crying out for an accurate conversion to film, and it is all too apparent that the chances of that happening are remote. However, whilst we wait, this is the best adaptation you can see of the book. 7 out of 10.

The film is public domain and can be downloaded at The Archive. Note that the version available for download is not the widescreen print.
end of the last man
The imdb page is here.

A look at the colour re-master is here.
I’ll leave this with Morgan’s words at the end of the movie, as realisation finally dawns upon him all too late, “They were afraid of me.”


Mark said...

Bravo! I love this movie, despite its many problems. When I first came across it I was leary; I just wasn't sure how Price would do in the role of Dr. Morgan. Like you (and many others), I believe Vincent may not have been the best choice, but I do think he pulls off a competent portrayal. The scene you highlight (where his maniacal laughter turns to weeping) is a favorite of mine. Fantastic acting.

Oddly enough, I was going to review this film for my "October review" this month. But then, just yesterday, I decided to review The Brain that Wouldn't Die (I haven't posted it yet, but probably will today or tomorrow).

Anyway, nice to see this movie featured here. Someday I'll have to review it myself.

zombiepunk said...

Total agreement with Mark. I think this version is FAR superior to "Chuck" Heston's The Omega Man and live in fear and trepidation of what Will Smith will bring to the role in the promised new version. I hope and pray it's not as bad as the Hestomn portrayal, but have a sneaky feeling it will end up being played more for laughs than scares.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers guys,

Marks, what can I say but great minds think alike and fools rarely differ... lol :)

zombiepunk, I fear that the omega man will ultimately proove a more worthy film that the Will Smith vehicle

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of the novel, Last Man on Earth, and even The Omega Man (in it's own way).

Last Man will probably be the only version of IAL closest to the heart of the novel. So I agree with Taliesin about Heston's Neville versus Will Smith's. ("Aw hell naw!")

Here's hoping that it won't be as heavily Hollywooded as the Mark Protosevich script from a decade ago when Arnold was the prospective lead. Only problem is that the credits Protosevich's screenplay. Pray for rewrites!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

annoymous, from what I can gather the script has been rewritten and that is not necessarily good. The rewrite is by Akiva Goldsman, the person behind I, Robot: This article refers.

Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, Taliesin. Sad that the vamps have been dumbed down into mindless zombies, which just kills the original story even further.

The T said...

I haven't seen this film, but I want to, especially since I've finished reading the book and I watched the other two versions already.

The book is fantastic. The Omega Man is an atrocity. Since you will probably never review it here (as there are no vampires but the ridiculous "Family") let me say that it veers so far from the book that the movie appears to be a separate entity. And a terrible one at that. Heston acts with no emotion, the story is ridiculous, everything that made the book work is destroyed, and to top all of that, the music is probably the worst mismatch in movies' history.

The Will Smith vehicle, as you called it, while seriously flawed and also unfaithful to the written masterpiece, at least doesn't feel like a Z-class movie filmed with B-class bludget like the Omega Man.

One day maybe someone will film a good version of the book which will center in Neville, in his daily plight, in his discoveries, in his loneliness... For now, and helped by your review, I'll run and buy The Last Man on Earth.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The T, part of me wants to 'Vamp or Not?' Omega Man, but we all know it isn't...

The Will Smith version, well I thought he was great - at first - I just lost all faith in it when the woman came into it, started bleeting on about God and they missed the essence of the book in the ending (both versions).

This is a great version - but then Vincent was the man. You can download it, in the first instance, as it is public domain and see if you want to part eith money for a DVD version.