‘The Last Man on Earth’ or — Getting The Legend Right?
I was a couple of minutes into ‘The Last Man on Earth’ (1964) last night when I realised “Oh yeah, this is an adaptation of ‘I Am Legend’”, Richard Matheson’s famous story where the inclusion of a question mark in the title could’ve spoiled the surprise twist at the end. The tension from then on had less to do with lonely isolation or horde of monsters but more from wondering how closely they’d stick to Matheson’s original story. Turns out quite a bit.
If you know the story you know the story — Vincent Price is the last man on Earth, everyone else seemingly wiped out by an unstoppable disease that has turned some of the dead into vampires with a taste for human blood. Price searches for their nests by day and barricades himself against their attacks at night. All this involves meticulous scheduling and habit as one slip could result in his defenses being overrun and, most importantly of all, after killing the vampires in their sleep Price must be back home before dark. But is he as alone as he might think?
‘The Last Man on Earth’ is nicely structured into three ‘chapters’: the first introduces us to Price’s present post-apocalyptic lifestyle; the second flashes back to before the plague when everything was fine; the third concerns Price’s ultimate fate. It helps keeps the story clear as well as allowing us to feel like we’re getting to know Price’s character, as well as everything he’s lost. And it’s that sense of loss that really works here with some really heart-rending moments, particularly when Price is losing his family and the disease is really taking hold across the entire world.
‘The Last Man on Earth’s was an Italian-American co-production, so it was primarily financed by American money but shot in Rome with an Italian crew. That Italian influence really comes across in the visuals with co-director Ubaldo Ragona and cinematographer Franco Delli Colli giving a few scenes a terrifying atmosphere, particularly when Price is burning the corpses of his victims with the landscape looking like a Gothic hell-scape combined with the dehumanising horror of the concentration camps.
‘The Last Man on Earth’ also nicely balances all the different influences Matheson’s tale pulls together. Other film adaptations have either leaned too heavily into the ‘monsters’ being zombies or infected plague victims, whereas here they keep it all a little more ambiguous so they can also pull in the possibility of vampires. This means that ‘The Last Man on Earth’ is everything from an apocalyptic drama, a vampire tale, a zombie movie, sci-fi, a plague outbreak shocker and even Body Snatchers style paranoia. All this and it’s an Italian movie. That’s a heady combination but what a incredible mixture.
‘The Last Man on Earth’ is great. It sticks closely to the source material, has an excellent performance by Vincent Price, gorgeous black and white cinematography and is paced perfectly. The only question I had left at the climax was if they were going to use Matheson’s original ending and what was surprising was that, for a few minutes, it was looking as though they weren’t… and then they slip it in, right at the end in one quick sentence in the last five seconds of the movie. It’s fantastic. That’s a way to send people out the cinema.