Don’t you just hate it when flesh-eating zombies force you to stay home at night like some kind of shut-in?
Richard Matheson’s original 1954 novel, I Am Legend, put ideas into the 50s zeitgeist that have stayed with us, spawned spin-offs, rip-offs and re-makes. Even horror master Stephen King was influenced mightily by it. After years of starting and stopping, they finally got a film in theaters that used the original, powerful title that the writer himself felt was appropriate for his work.
That film is, of course, I Am Legend. It follows a lineage of trying to adapt the brilliant original literary vision to film with spotty success (at least, critically); from the 60s version made in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis; to the 70s version where Charlton Heston brought his post-Planet of the Apes sci-fi cred to the endeavor; to this post-millennial version which wants to do what all the others set out to do but fell short of, but with today’s fears, not yesterday’s. These are three films that say as much about who we were at the time of their production as they do about the actual films themselves. One thing they prove, however, is that flesh-eating zombies just never go out of style.
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The ’00s Challenger
You’ve heard that this was a troubled production. To show how long that storyline played out, consider this. The lead in this movie was supposed to have been played by Arnold Schwarzenegger back when he was just an actor and before he was a Governor. When you see how relatable and human Will Smith can be, and what a fine actor he’s become with every new movie, you will be so damned happy that they waited to get this right. I went to see this film with my 15-year-old at a WGA screening put on by Warner Brothers at the TV Academy Theater (the same place where, as chairman a few years earlier, I got to announce the Emmy nominations at 5:20am). The trailers and the hype had worked their magic. Everybody in that crowd was stoked to see it.
The story is that Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last survivor of a pandemic caused by a “cure” for cancer that turned out to be a mutating son-of-a-bitch of a virus that jumped tracks somewhere and became a human rage virus. Sort of like 28 Days Later in many respects. The future time frame of this latest apocalypse is the dreaded year 2012, although the storyline is that the virus raged across the planet in 2009. As we know now, of course, it wasn’t a zombie virus that swept the planet but economic failure. (Smack Revised: May 2011)
In any case, Neville wanders this big empty city that looks like a set from the Life After People television series: weeds cracking cement, abandoned cars, buildings starting to fail. He’s got only his dog to keep him company, lives behind barricades in a Greenwich Village home, and tries not to go insane from the cruel reality that every single night the streets become killing grounds for hairless, once human zombies. Honestly, not even the sports car he drives or the awesome sound system in his place can make up for that.
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The ’70s Champion
I saw The Omega Man for probably $1.50 or $2.00 at the Town Theater in Hillsboro, Oregon when I was a kid. It worked for me. Watching Charleton Heston tool around an empty New York in that hot car of his, taking whatever he wanted from whatever store he was in, watching movies for free as many times as he wanted, that was a lifestyle that really seemed special. Of course there were those oddball zombie/mutant dudes lead by an albino Anthony Zerbe, and that was a pesky detail, for sure.
Boris Sagal directed this version from a script by John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington based on the Matheson novel. In this telling, the future apocalypse is 1977, two years since a biological war between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union pretty much wiped out humanity. Like Will Smith’s Dr. Robert Neville, Charleton Heston’s characer was a military scientist when the plague hit. He’s injected himself with an experimental vaccine, and it must have worked, because the LA of this timeline is one where, shall we say, freeway traffic congestion has been addressed and is no longer an issue.
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The ’60s Champion
As long as we’re using the box office barometer of my childhood as an indicator, let’s just say that if I been allowed to seeÂ The Last Man on Earth as a kid, it would have cost me $.25 at the Hill Theater in Hillsboro. These days there are multiple editions of this available on DVD, mostly because it’s fallen out of copyright and into public domain.
It’s most true to the novel’s use of vampires over zombies over raging pandemic victims, but that also makes it less believable. Shot in Italy, it literally has the Neville character raising garlic and using mirrors, religious crosses and sharpened wood stakes to take out these creatures.Â This film’s future apocalypse is set in 1968, where every day Dr. Robert Morgan (horror veteran Vincent Price) grabs his weapons and goes vampire hunting. Although the mirror-and-garlic two-step is unique to this version, the vampire aversion to sunlight was carried over into the zombie versions to come. In any case, this Dr. Morgan is immune to the disease that caused the disaster (it wasn’t biting) because, he surmises, he was bit by a bat at a young age. The last image here is memorable because he gets chased into a church and murdered on the altar, like Cool Hand Luke and Jesus.
Directed by Sidney Salkow, The Last Man on Earth actually has Matheson a screenwriter who, apparently, was so turned off by what the writers who came after him did to the material, that he took his credit by the name of Logan Swanson.
Each film worked for its time. The Last Man on Earth was pretty much meant to be a B film, afternoon matinee, grab a bag of popcorn kind of movie. Nobody expected huge production values, and because we hadn’t seen 28 Days Later and the like, we didn’t care. It seemed to dial into the spiraling fears we all felt in a world that could be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust any night while we lay sleeping.
The Omega Man, on the other hand, had different expectations on its way to the screen and so its failings are a little harder to forgive. We liked it, but it hasn’t aged so well.
Purists, on the other hand, may want to argue that the current I Am Legend has lost its way, stripping away vampires, etc.
I Am Legend is an uneven film, I’ll admit. It starts with one of the best openings I’ve ever seen in a film, let alone a sci-film. It takes you on a journey that is both a thrill ride and a thought puzzle. Yet, even so, there are logic issues and wormholes that shouldn’t be in this film. And its ending, for many people, is almost as bad as the opening is good. There were two endings filmed, by the way, making this all the more confusing, but it is still a hell of a Blu-ray addition.
For those of you who have actually seen these three actors — Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith — you have a real decision to make in our poll. What rocks your zombie world the most: Price’s creepiness, Heston’s intensity or Smith’s vulnerability?
When it works, The Last Man on Earth feels like maybe Rod Serling had done it for Playhouse 90 as the pilot for the Twilight Zone. It floats, in film form, this idea that was to have great hold on our imaginations. Seven years later, when they made The Omega Man, the idea was to hip it up for the times, to make it a big commercial movie, and they lost the cool factor with the awful zombies they created. Finally, though, this bold new I Am Legend has done it all. It’s hugely commercial, powerfully thoughtful and (most of the time) brilliantly executed. Will Smith is sensational. It is also the new champion by a knock-out.
I just read the review and I think that it’s very well written and the author brings some very valid points that I totally agree with. I am and will always be a big fan of the Omega Man concept so I have seen all of the movies and read the book several times. This is my take on the whole movie trilogy and the short story. I saw the Omega Man in the 70’s when it came out at the theater.I was just an impressionable kid with an overly active imagination who also was a huge fan of science fiction both written and on film. Now the original Omega Man movie laid down a life-long impression and fascination in my psyche. As a kid, I admired the Robert Neville (Charlton Heston Character)I mean I thought that he was just great and everything that an American man was supposed to be. He was a soldier and a total American hero that perfected a vaccine that would save the world and ultimately died trying to do so. All of this despite his best efforts the evil ugly stupid ignorant zombies absolutely hated him and all that he stood for. Some might say that he was portraying a modern day Jesus Christ. Since I was just a kid and not really a Christian I didn’t see it that way at all, to me he was just a hero trying to do the right thing. Now after that, I read the short over and over again and I found that it was written in a different time with different morals for a different audience that I couldn’t relate too. So I didn’t like it as much as the movie but still enjoyed it. Then much later on in my life I say the original movie “The Last Man” and again it seemed to me that it was so out-dated that I had even a harder time getting into it. Now this is in an age where we had all of the great Sci-Fi movies Terminator, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes etc.So this isn’t even a fair comparison. The Last Man on Earth would have been or should have been a fantastic Elvira special. I will look into this because she and Vincent Price were great friends and she did so many of his movies that she really helped his career, especially to the younger audiences. Now with all of this as a background I was really looking forward to the newest movie “I Am Legend” and this was starring Will Smith and actor whom I am very familiar with and kind of liked. Now this movie had a spectacular beginning sequence with some great special effects. Although I just couldn’t relate to the cancer vaccine mentality and much of what was happening in the “ensuing “chaos’ really didn’t make any sense to me. The war between Russia and China and the release of toxic germ warfare made much sense then and now. Then the movie kind of dragged on with more hard for me to relate to unintelligible scenes which made absolutely no sense at all. Then the whole improbable meeting of the female and the kid at the end and really stupid final conclusion. I was thoroughly unimpressed and extremely disappointed. It was at this time when I was much older and really kind of worn out with so much of Hollywood’s stupid and overly done Science Fiction movies There’s just way too many really bad zombie movies to even mention here. So I didn’t even bother to see it at the movies but instead waited until it went straight to DVD. .
I’m 42. This puts me kind of at the end of the nuclear apocalypse generations of the 50s-80s. None the less, I have this fascination with post apocalyptic stories. The cheesier the better. The Omega Man checks all the boxes for me. I Am Legend, was such a disappointment to me. That ending ruined it.
1. Last Man On Earth
2. I Am Legend (2007)
3. Omega Man
We will be having a different conversation about I Am Legend (2007) in another 15-20 years. Will Smith is good, but the righteousness of his character is increasingly unbelievable and the ending is an absolute mess. It won’t age well.
Last Man On Earth worked within its limitations (aside from the garlic thing, which was a holdover from the Hammer intention I think).
Omega Man is an NRA-infused advert!
Thanks for setting this up.
Just saw LMOE tonight after 49 years of avoiding it. Dubbed dialogue, editing errors, amazingly bad cinematography and an unsatisfying ending. On the other hand I LOVE The Omega Man. It is about the Second Coming. Think about it. Chuck saves the world with his blood, unites Left and Right, Black and White and dies in a pool with his arms stretched out wide. GREAT soundtrack, a challenging luddite philosophy motivating the brilliant actor Anthony Zerbe and his “Zombies” and relentlessly FUN action. Will Smith is a good actor, but those CGI zombos were fake as hell. Second Place for I Am Legend.
Wow my take is different on all three movies… well, two of them anyway. I agree the Vincent Price “Last Man” was a B movie that need a MST-3K crew to salvage. But Chuck Heston’s O-Man was in my opinion much better than W. Smith’s Legend.
The CGI mutants were crap and could not be compared to the Omegan mutants for realism simply because the CGI mutant were just that… CGI. Cartoon mutants would have been more scarey. Oh, and just one more point; The city in Omega Man was LA not NYC.
You forgot I am Omega.