Monday, May 06, 2024

60 Years Ago: The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Shot in Italy on a shoe-string budget and released by American International Pictures, this nihilistic and impressive black-and-white adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1956 novel, I am Legend turns 60 years old today!  It has long been a favorite of cultists and genre scholars -- and for good reasons. Although Matheson removed his name from the completed film (writing here as "Logan Swanson" instead), this horror piece from the sixties remains my favorite interpretation of the material; though I also like The Omega Man (1971) quite a bit.

The Last Man on Earth opens with stark black-and-white images of urban desolation and emptiness. Scattered corpses lay strewn across lonely streets and byways, and the placard of a Community Church reads "The End Has Come." 

It is three years post-apocalypse as we pick up the tale of Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), the titular last man on Earth. We learn (in relatively lengthy...) flashback that a plague of vampirism began in Europe, carried "on the wind" and then arrived in the United States, precipitating a national disaster and the declaration of martial law. 

But that's all the past. Robert, a scientist working at the Mercer Institute of Chemical Research has lost his young daughter and loving wife to the plague and now lives a solitary, pleasure-less existence. We can tell immediately from Robert's posture and demeanor that he is a beaten man, one who does not want to make eye contact with the terrifying and gloomy world around him. Yet still he forces himself to adhere to the daily "routine" that keeps him alive in the face of the vampire menace.

In his own words, Robert lives merely "a heartbeat from Hell," and survives each long night as roaming vampires lay siege to his home, calling out his name and entreating him to come out and fight. The leader of the vampires is a former friend, now a monster. Robert protects his cluttered, disordered house with garlic, defends himself from the vampires with mirrors, and by sun-lit day goes out in methodical search of vampire nests...where he stakes sleeping vampires in the heart. We watch a montage of overlapping, superimposed images of many a death blow, as Robert hammers his rage into the fiendish, monstrous descendants of humanity.

The early (and most remarkable and affecting...) portions of The Last Man on Earth play out as a grotesque commentary on the modern "rat race," as we follow Price in the "day of the life" of the last man on Earth. He lives a very regimented life and one can practically see him mentally ticking off his "to-do" list. After the initial views of a ruined, (mostly) unpopulated metropolis, the film targets in on Price's character, his dilemma and his m.o.

As the film proper starts, the camera glides through a suburban house's bedroom window as Robert sleeps fitfully...and then his alarm clock goes off. He rouses himself and walks past a wall of hand-drawn calendars (years and years of calendars, we see...), and then gets down to grim business. Robert sharpens his stakes, replaces the garlic on the front door of his home, cleans up the corpses sprawled in his front yard and then realizes he needs supplies (gasoline and fresh garlic). Robert sits down and tallies up the stops he'll need to make that day on "the job" before the sun sets - from shopping at an eerily lifeless grocery store to going about the ghoulish business of disposing of vampire bodies in a huge, fiery pit.

These moments in the film expose how deeply human beings cling to the idea of routine, especially in times of stress, to impose a sense of control, order and comfort over our chaotic lives. Robert - a man who states he has no time for "the luxury of anger" - busies himself with the hunting/gathering of daily survival but seems to do so on almost automatic pilot. The film has no huge signature moments during this portion of its running time; it merely charts the almost boring routine of the last man alive. The result is an oddly intimate and small film that captures the horror of the apocalypse more successfully than many a special effects extravaganza because we feel connected to the man and his situation.

As The Last Man on Earth continues, the film is practically littered with images and sounds of time passing by, from the tic-tock of clocks on the soundtrack, to images of those calendars dotting his walls or views of alarm clocks. "Another day to start all over again," Robert laments, and the viewer comes to understand that the routine of this miserable existence is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it busies Robert; a curse because it feels never ending and there is no joy - or love - in any of it.

Basically, this is a one man show, Price's show, and The Last Man on Earth is as much character piece as action film. Action scenes arise because of character, in fact. When Robert succumbs to self-pity and sentimentality by visiting his old church, for instance, he falls asleep and stays out after sundown...meaning he'll have to engage the vampires on their terms. This is splendid storytelling because he pays a price (the loss of his automobile) and then must account for that surprise by car shopping on another day. Every action and mistake on Robert's part spurs an interesting effect, and that's how the film generates suspense.

Later, Robert's desire to connect with another human being, an infected survivor named Ruth, leads to his downfall. Price is terrific in the film, but this isn't the larger-than-life Price of the Dr Phibes films or Theater of Blood (1973). On the contrary, this is a more naturalistic Price. He is a huge man physically (and one can see why the vampires are afraid of him...), but Price gives a convincing performance. He has a terrific scene as Robert Morgan in which he watches old home movies and laughs at them, absent-mindedly. Then, the laughing turns into a mental breakdown, a crying jag, as the full impact of Robert's loss settles in. This isn't campy, but very, very human, and Price refrains from taking it over the top. He anchors the film in reality, and The Last Man on Earth benefits enormously from both his physical presence and his erudite voice-over narration.

In regards to cinematic aesthetics, this film is legend. 

The Last Man on Earth heralds the future of horror cinema (brutal, gritty and realistic, sans iconic monsters like Dracula and the Wolf Man) and though produced by an American, appears ripped from the Italian school of neo-realism, post-World War II. The film is lensed in bracing, grainy black-and-white, and like the neo-realist films of the 1940s and 1950s, is shot mostly outdoors, on the streets (an easily available location).

Thematically, the Price film actually shares something in common with the neo-realist movement as well. The cinema of that period in Italy's history portrayed post-war economic and social changes in a mostly negative manner (I'm thinking The Bicycle Thief here...), and the very subject of this film, (life in a post-apocalyptic world as a new society arises) hits some of the same philosophies, only in genre-specific terms.

Price is a man alone representing "the old system" while black-uniformed, heavily armed men form the gestalt of the new order. They hunt down and rub out remnants of the old order. The cruel nature of life you'll see captured so well (and so poetically) in the cinema of Vittorio De Sica is present here too, only made "fantastic" by the imaginative storyline and presence of vampires. Though today we hardly blanch at such things, this film includes the startling images of corpses being burned in a pit by the U.S. Army (including Robert's daughter) and the unlikely sight of a vampire dog staked through the heart (though covered by a blanket). It is blunt and graphic, but not overdone. It all feels alarmingly really and - unlike most Hollywood cinema - not exaggerated for effect. Romero and Cronenberg later went in the very direction spearheaded by this film in efforts as diverse as The Crazies and Rabid.

This film is cheap, no doubt, but gloriously cheap. It makes the best out of a limited set of resources, focusing on the nature of one man (Robert), rather than hordes of rampaging monsters. Frankly, you don't need state-of-the-art CGI to dramatize the story of the last man on Earth, you just need a good actor, some fine character moments, a few convincing views of an abandoned city and a believable threat. 

In fact, having an abundance of special effects would only take away from the very individual story vetted here, the story of a man who did not see the end coming ("I'm a scientist, not an alarmist," he insists...) and paid the price for his blinders by losing his wife, his family, his society and ultimately his life. I don't really need jumping and drooling monsters when I have a strong narrative about a person I care about, living through a frightening situation.

Not just in terms of dialogue, but in terms of presentation, The Last Man on Earth certainly points the way to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Here, Robert notes of the vampires that "individually they are weak, mentally incompetent" but in groups dangerous...which is a perfect way to describe Romero's ghouls. Similarly, the vampires are rather zombie-like, lurching towards Robert's home and trying to break in. Watching the vampire/zombie scenes of Last Man on Earth I was reminded, as well, why I've always preferred slow-moving zombies to their new, blazingly-fast brethren.

Fast-moving zombies offer shock and surprise: boom! Something attacks from out of the shadows! But slow-motion zombies offer something better in my mind: suspense. A few slow-moving zombies (or vampires, here) can be warded off with a little physical strength and peripheral vision (which characters in horror movies always lack). Ten zombies can be dealt with. But fifteen? 


When protagonists like Robert in The Last Man on Earth or Ben in Night of the Living Dead step out into the darkness, suspense builds because they usually dispatch the first several zombies they encounter with relative ease. But then something hangs up our heroes (a locked door; a friend who has fallen and twisted an ankle; whatever...) and then the zombies keep coming in greater numbers. One by one. And it is there - in that moment - that the zombie horror is inescapable, as heroes become buried in sheer numbers, and it no longer possible to simply duck and weave. Let alone shoot or lob grenades. The Last Man on Earth plays with that suspense here and does so surprisingly well. Who needs the shock and awe of digital effects when suspense will do the trick?

True to the spirit of its Matheson source material if not all the details, The Last Man on Earth ultimately concerns the changing-of-the-guard, of one society in rapid descent as another ascends. About the old guard falling while the new guard rises. This version of the material offers less hope than The Omega Man, which is more a polemic about race relations in post-sixties America (and offers the possibility that Charlton Heston's messianic blood could save the human race). In the end, the armies of the new order hunt down Vincent Price and destroy him without remorse (and without even hearing his case). He dies in a church, of all places, telling his murderers that they are "freaks." However, the truth is not so simple. Throughout the film, the vampire plague is regarded not merely as a disease, but something more. It is suggested, actually that the plague is "a strange evolutionary process," a natural development of the human animal. Would we - as man - allow the last dinosaur to survive and rampage (killing our citizens by night?) in our cities, or would we stamp out the old to make room for the new? In the perspective of the new order, this film ends with the monster destroyed. We just have sympathy for that monster, because he'

"Your new society sounds charming," Robert quips to Ruth at one point during The Last Man on Earth, and that comment gets to the heart of the film. Robert's people - mankind - had their turn in the sun and waged war, killed one another by the million, developed weapons to destroy the world and used up the resources of the planet without looking back. His society wasn't so charming either. 

Yet as bad as those things are, our species also boasts love, decency, kindness, individuality and family...and none of us wants to see the human race go the way of the dodo. In charting this incredible change on the Earth, and the passing of the torch for planetary supremacy, one can see how - in the age of global warming, suitcase nukes and COVID- The Last Man on Earth remains eerily relevant. The apocalypse mentality is apparently here to stay, and though we don't face an impending threat from vampires (that I know of...), why is it that this "last man on earth" scenario still holds so much power for us? And why can we, in 2024, think of so many ways that such a disaster could befall us? Will it be an environmental crisis? A terror attack? A nuclear explosion? A meteor strike? A virus? Right-wing coup? What? Why are we obsessed with doomsday (and what comes after?)

The Last Man on Earth is basic and blunt. It is so effectively shot and mounted that it features a timeless quality which grants it tremendous currency today.  Happy Anniversary, to the last man standing (or falling apart, as the case may be).

No comments:

Post a Comment

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...