Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ is one of my favorite books ever. It’s a brilliant observation of what might happen to someone under the most extreme of circumstances and what they might do to preserve the last remaining scraps of humanity and civilization they have while also delving into questions about what differentiates humanity from monsters. It also just happens to be the book that directly influenced George Romero to create ‘Night of the Living Dead‘.
More people should read ‘I Am Legend’. Most people will recognize the book title from the 2007 Will Smith movie. However, most people these days don’t realize that ‘I Am Legend’ was adapted into films twice before then. The biggest reason most people don’t realize this is that neither movie shares the book’s name. The first of these film adaptations was ‘The Last Man on Earth’ (1964), starring Vincent Price. Filmed in Italy, it is easily the movie that sticks most closely to the book, not surprising, since Matheson helped write the script. Although ultimately he didn’t like how the movie turned out and asked to be credited as “Logan Swanson”. Despite Matheson’s disappointment, I rather like the film.
For those not familiar with the story, ‘The Last Man on Earth’/’I Am Legend’ takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where some sort of disease has killed most people and turned everyone else into vampires. Everyone else except for Robert Neville. (Well, Robert Morgan in this movie, but it’s Neville in the book and other movies.) Robert spends his days searching for supplies, hunting for sleeping vampires, and repairing and reinforcing his house. His nights are spent trying to ignore the horde of vampires trying to get inside. That’s what happens for most of the story and I know it sounds boring, but you have to trust me it’s far more interesting than that. You learn about Robert and how he copes… or at least tries to cope with the end of the world. The climax of the movie comes when Robert runs across another human, a woman, during the daytime. Obviously, he’s excited to find another human alive, but can he really trust her? I’ll skip the spoilers for those of you who haven’t actually read the book or seen any of the movies yet. Hopefully, this will encourage you to read or watch it yourself. I really can’t encourage it enough.
Now I also admit that ‘The Last Man on Earth’ has its flaws. It obviously did not have a large budget and most of the actors being Italian means a lot of very obvious dubbing. The latter part is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that most of the movie is Vincent Price by himself with internal monologue, but the scenes that do have other actors in them can look a little strange when it’s so obvious that what they’re saying doesn’t match up with their lips.
Speaking of Vincent Prince’s performance, I can sum it up in a single word: Wow. Quite a few people consider it his best performance and I’m one of them. I know Price is often known for being in a lot of cheesy horror movies and he can be a bit of a ham at times, but that’s not the case in ‘The Last Man on Earth’. It’s a serious movie and Price plays a serious character. The melancholy in his voice is all but palpable. There’s one particularly heartbreaking scene where he watches a home video of his late daughter. He starts out happy and smiling and slowly breaks down sobbing and you can believe that he means it.
I know a lot of people these days aren’t interested in watching old black-and-white movies, but for those of you who are awesome and willing to watch good cinema, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ is a brilliant, if flawed, gem.