Monday, August 16, 2010

ZomBlog Review: "The Last Man on Earth"

“The Last Man on Earth”
Stars: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli
Writers: Logan Swanson and William F. Leicester, based on the novel “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson
Dir: Sidney Salkow
87 minutes

I love me some Vincent Price. Yes, indeed I do.
As many others in my age bracket, we first heard his velvet voice ending the final moments of Michael Jackson’s “Thiller.” And, to many, that was one of the creepiest things we had heard by the time we were 6 years old.
I can remember spending Saturday afternoons trolling the TV’s six stations after my Saturday morning cartoons had ended, searching for any glimpse of a horror film on either the then-syndication dump known now as Fox or the recently revamped WB Network (DC-20, to my age-equivalent compadres).
There I stumbled upon many a film featuring either Vincent Price or the legendary Christopher Lee. And, yes, I stayed glued to the TV right through commercials.
It was about four years after I had been introduced to “Night of the Living Dead” (which I saw half of during a special televised week of horror films coinciding with Halloween) that I first heard the story, “I Am Legend.” During a sixth-grade camp retreat with my teachers from Earle B. Wood Middle School in Montgomery County, my then science teacher, Mr. Wydro, decided to entertain after lights-out my cabin of 16 young boys with the tale of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” only he told the audio-book version of “The Last Man on Earth.”
Despite that week being an awful, terrible time in my memory, that then-chilling story always stuck with me. So, when I was older and saw a bargain-bin copy of the Vincent Price-starring classic, I have to admit I got weak-kneed and excited.
By now, you all know the story. For clearly unknown reasons, a scientist is holed-up in his home, avoiding a plague of nighttime visitors, searching during the day for any signs of survivors to a tragedy that has left him entirely alone on Earth.
While Romero cites this story/film as his greatest inspiration for “Night of the Living Dead” (whoa, he made “NOTLD” four years after “Last Man” … I heard the “Last Man” story four years after I first saw “NOTLD”…my…mind…is…blown), there are clearly some differences. The “undead” are vampiric in nature, sleeping during the day, warded off by garlic, and terrified of their reflections. Oh, and they talk, taunting Robert Morgan (Price) at night, ordering him out of his fortified home. Some of the dead — having been friends or coworkers of Morgan three years prior to the “plague” occurring — batter the home with planks of wood or rocks, making the sunset unpleasant for the tortured hero in this tale.
He spends his days torching the dead, sending out broadcasts to a deaf ear, and replenishing his stock of wooden stakes or garlic. The audience realizes early on Morgan has his routine set in stone and it is mundane, tortured, boring, and verging on insanity. Yet, he treks on, looking for any semblance of life as he once knew it. And when he eventually finds it, the true horror unfolds.
George Romero has famously touted this film, and its book-form, as his inspiration for “Night of the Living Dead.” Anyone who views this will see the obvious parallels. This is why this film is so hard for your humble reviewer to quantify and sandwich into a precise judgmental system. It has many merits for a zombie film. It has many merits to be called a post-apocalyptic masterpiece. It has many merits to be called a study in the psychology of the loneliness of mankind and the desire to have contact of any form, voice or touch preferred. The last 20 minutes of the film still are the best representation of Matheson’s original message: mankind is the real monster. The Will Smith-starring “I Am Legend” had a grand opportunity to better tell the tale Matheson envisioned, but studio pressure and a spineless director allowed a shitty ending to be tacked onto the film where the original ending would have wrapped it up perfectly. Check it out on DVD or Blu-Ray with the original ending. If you are a right-thinking human, you will agree.

Romero Rules Followed: Romero based several of his rules on this film. This is tough, but 3/5.
Gore factor: Non-existent, but sometimes what is not seen is better.
Zombies or Wannabees? Damn close, but wannabees.
Classic, fine, or waste of time: Classic, for the simple fact it inspired the heralded Romero zombie classic.
Additional comments: If I viewed this as simply a vampire film, it would still be far more enjoyable than anything Stephanie Meyer envisioned while garbed in her magic underwear. As a post-apocalyptic film, it is even more enjoyable. As a loose influence to “Night of the Living Dead,” I can soak in the subtle references the former gave to the latter.


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