Friday, October 31, 2008

The Last Man on Earth

I've been curious about it for a while, but I finally got a chance to watch The Last Man on Earth, the 1964 film starring Vincent Price that was the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, later remade as The Omega Man and, well, I Am Legend. (I think Ridley Scott tried to make a version with Arnold Schwarzenegger....)

Given the presence of Vincent Price, the year of the movie, and the fact that my wife bought it at a dollar store, I wasn't expecting a whole lot. It's isn't exactly cinematic gold, but I ended up being impressed. Being very much a neophyte in the land of horror movies (and zombie movies in particular – though the original Dawn of the Dead is one of my favourite films, period), I probably should have known how many narrative and visual motifs were taken from this one. I knew Romero was inspired by it to make Night of the Living Dead four years later, but the lifting goes a lot deeper. The opening shots, for example, are very close to the opening of 28 Days Later. Empty city, cars on the sidewalk, bodies everywhere, etc. The biggest lift is the overall tone, however. Unlike Omega Man, and like all the genuinely great zombie movies, this isn't man vs. ghouls, this is man vs. the patently obvious fact that he is fucked. There's not a single moment of levity in the movie. (Not intentional, anyway – like I said, it's not cinematic gold.)

Interestingly, Price doesn't camp it up at all here. Maybe one semi-demented laugh, but it's germane to the character and story. And there are at least two genuinely creepy moments.

It's also pretty unrelentingly brutal, sometimes even gratuitously so. It has no narrative rhythm, just lurching from awful thing to awful thing, and feels about twice as long as it is. But still, it's miles above Omega Man, and on some levels (none of them technical, obviously), just as good as I Am Legend. It's a clumsy movie, but it feels oddly more clear-eyed than the Will Smith one. A lot more cold-blooded – the ending is irredeemably bleak, and has nothing to do with Bob Marley.

There you go. Happy halloween, all.

Trailer below:

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