The Last Man on Earth is a 1964 Italian-American science-fiction horror feature film based on the Richard Matheson 1954 novel I Am Legend. The film was directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow (Twice-Told Tales) and stars Vincent Price. The screenplay was written in part by Matheson, but he was dissatisfied with the result and chose to be credited as “Logan Swanson”. William Leicester, Furio M. Monetti and Ubaldo Ragona were the other writers. It was produced by Robert L. Lippert (Curse of the Fly; The Earth Dies Screaming; Witchcraft). The Italian title is L’ultimo uomo della Terra
Cinematographer Franco Delli Colli also photographed Macabre (1980); Zeder (1983); Rats: Night of Terror (1984) and Ghosthouse (1988).
Richard Matheson‘s 1954 novel I Am Legend has been called the most important vampire tale since Dracula (at least until the Anne Rice hype machine ramped up with Interview With the Vampire).
While it has been filmed three times (with Charlton Heston in The Ωmega Man (1971) and Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007) being the other versions), this Italian-American adaptation is the only version that really follows Matheson’s original text. Matheson, even while he noted that aspect himself, was so notoriously displeased by the results that he took his name off the credits (far be it from me to cast stones, but Matheson’s script for the TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles didn’t do Ray Bradbury a great favour either – showbiz, ugh).
It’s borderline threadbare budget – really, the Italians gave even the lower-caste Hercules peplums more lavish treatments than this – and poor dubbing notwithstanding, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth still has enough eerie moments and frissons to merit a look. Comparisons to later George A. Romero living-dead films are apt, even if gore and grue are fairly tame even by contemporary standards of the mid-60s.
It kicks off with first-person narration by plague sole-survivor Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), living in a nameless, silent city full of corpses (actually metropolitan/suburban Rome, suitably stark). His morbid routine in the ‘future’ of 1968 consists of venturing out in daylight, securing supplies, and locating and staking the dormant, vampire-like walking-dead beings that used to be neighbours. At night mobs of the shambling creatures lay siege to his boarded-up house.
Flashbacks and narration reveal it started with a mysterious worldwide 1965 epidemic that stubbornly resisted any vaccine. Robert, one of a team of scientists working on a cure, seems to be immune himself, however, the disease cruelly claims his wife and child, doomed to be cremated in a burning ravine where city authorities mass-dump the bodies.
Via a visit from his late wife, Robert himself has horrific confirmation that terrible rumours spreading throughout the city are true; the newly dead – unless they are skewered through – rise by night, zombie-like, hungering for the blood of the living. And, like vampires of folklore, the undead here are repelled by garlic and mirrors. Matheson’s novel went into great lab-smock detail trying to convince readers how this makes sense on a biological level; the movie a little less so, but what else is new with shortchanging science on the silver screen.
Robert’s routine is ultimately disrupted with the appearance of fellow `survivors’ who are not exactly what they seem to be. And it is one of the strengths of the finale that, intentionally or unintentionally, the grim new successors of humanity seem a visual quotation of Mussolini’s blackshirts.
This take on I Am Legend is also the sole version that puts across the thematic payoff of Matheson’s novel, that when you are the only normal person left in a land of monsters (or substitute any undesirable sub-group you want: vampires, werewolves, Trump supporters, Brexit voters, people who watch Simon Cowell TV shows etc.), thus it is that the paradigm shifts… and you by definition become the monster.
When this is taken into account, the use of Vincent Price, then the embodiment of larger-than-life suave villainy or gothic Poe-leaning horror, in a mostly action-hero scientist part, begins to make sense. Even if it didn’t to Richard Matheson, who complained of miscasting.
The Last Man on Earth has fallen into the public domain. It used to be available on smudgy or washed-out black-and-white low-resolution dupes that were rampant on VHS and then DVD and might conceivably have conveyed what the world looks like after three years of nonstop vampire-fighting and disturbed sleep. It’s thankfully now available free in high-definition widescreen versions online. A computer-coloured version has recently also been made available but that’s about as appealing as being infected with COVID-19.
Charles Cassady Jr. – MOVIES and MANIA
“Although Vincent Price is miscast in the role of Morgan, he succeeds in conveying his character’s bone-deep despair and frustration. He might be nobody’s idea of an action hero, but there’s nothing to say that a slightly prissy scientist can’t be the sole survivor of a global epidemic – and wouldn’t a man who’s at home amongst beakers and test tubes look vaguely comical engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a group of weak zombies?” 20/20 Movie Reviews
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“Franco Delli Colli’s eerie black and white photography is an asset in keeping the film very stark and atmospheric and even documentary-like at times. In particular, the opening scenes of a dead urban world are extremely chilling (especially the church sign: The End Has Come!). Also, the scenes with Vincent Price driving through the deserted streets are particularly well done.” DVD Drive-In
Cast and characters:
- Vincent Price … Doctor Robert Morgan
- Franca Bettoia … Ruth Collins
- Emma Danieli … Virginia Morgan
- Giacomo Rossi Stuart … Ben Cortman (as Giacomo Rossi-Stuart)
- Umberto Raho … Doctor Mercer (as Umberto Rau)
- Christi Courtland … Kathy Morgan
- Antonio Corevi … Governor (as Tony Corevi)
- Ettore Ribotta … TV Reporter (as Hector Ribotta)
- Rolando De Rossi … TV Reporter (uncredited)
- Giuseppe Mattei … New People Leader (uncredited)
- Enrico Salvatore … TV Reporter (uncredited)
- Alessandro Tedeschi … Passerby (uncredited)