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 see 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. 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.