It’s not hard to understand why Joe Dante is so inspired by “The Last Man on Earth” given its undeniable impact and influence on the genre.
In 1954, author Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror novel I Am Legend was released to the masses, a groundbreaking effort that would ultimately go on to act as something of a game-changer within the horror genre.
Shortly after I Am Legend hit shelves, the film industry came calling, looking to bring Matheson’s tale of the end of times to life on the big screen. British production company Hammer Films, the studio responsible for the ultra-gothic technicolor iterations of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, snatched up the rights and hired the author himself to pen the script. Sadly, the British censors would halt the film’s production due to some of the script’s violence, leading to American producer Richard L. Lippert swooping in to snag the property.
Partnered up with Italian production company Produzioni La Regina and with Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo B. Ragona in place to direct Matheson’s tweaked script, production rolled on 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, which starred horror heavyweight Vincent Price in one of the finest performances of his career.
The end result would lay the groundwork for the foundation for the modern zombie film we all know and love today.
The Last Man on Earth picks up three years after a deadly disease has spread across the globe and decimated the population.
There appears to be only one survivor, Dr. Robert Morgan (played by Vincent Price), who was one of the researchers racing to find a cure before civilization fell.
As it turns out, the victims of this new plague not only died but were reanimated with the setting sun, overtaken by an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Barricaded into his fortified home, Morgan spends his days hunting down and dispatching the infected and his nights hidden away from the mobs of ghouls that tirelessly try to break their way in.
One day, Morgan happens upon a mysterious woman by the name of Ruth (played by Franca Collins), who claims to hail from a larger community that has supposedly found a cure for the disease. But it also turns out that Ruth is housing a darker secret, one that threatens to be the end of Morgan.
Shot on the picturesque outskirts of Rome, one of the most fascinating aspects of The Last Man on Earth is its peculiar use of location.
Salkow and Ragona attempt to pass the setting off as Los Angeles, but any eagle-eyed viewer is going to realize this clearly isn’t the City of Angels. The exotic locales, which somehow take on a grand futuristic edge that comprise the sci-fi side of Matheson’s tale, aid in making the viewer feel like reality itself has been thrown off its axis. It allows for a dreamlike eminence that is a superb backdrop to Morgan’s dazed view of the terrors around him.
As the camera pans the deserted streets, we study abandoned cars, littered motorways, and twisted corpses decaying to piles of bones, images of a wasteland that is sparse yet textured enough to really emphasize the dreariness of this metropolis turned inside out.
It’s nearly impossible not to classify it as anything but petrifying, something that is essential if you’re going to cast the audience into a world populated by one.
Of course, The Last Man on Earth is basically a one-man show, with a good chunk of the drama carried by the master of fright himself, Vincent Price.
It was said that Matheson was unhappy with the casting choice of Price, here in the role of hero rather than dastardly villain chewing his dialogue through his nasal inflection.
It’s somewhat refreshing to see Price in this light, a calculating survivor obtaining a scrap of normality through a set routine that has allowed him to carry on three years after it is believed that final souls perished. He scrapes corpses out of his overgrown yard and piles them into the back of a hearse-like set of wheels that he drives to what he calls “The Pit,” a fiery swath of earth he approaches clad in a gas mask, both to shield him from the billowing smoke and the swirling ghosts of memory from the early days of the outbreak.
Price’s spectacularly firm grasp on Morgan’s loneliness constricts when he is almost moved to tears by a stray dog that shows up on his street, which he chases through the labyrinth of shuttered buildings that once enjoyed the bustle of humanity. And his visitation to a church where he secretly laid his wife to rest seems to act as his only true consolation, even if it is from beyond the grave, something further reinforced by his nightly viewings of old home movies, which are met with a swirl of belly laughs and tears.
He tugs the heartstrings, a virtuous man of science saddled with the unbearable weight of carrying humanity’s slowly-fading torch while nurturing the dying embers of his rusted mental state.
Further into The Last Man on Earth, Price is allotted time to enrich his character through a few human connections within a flashback sequence that does jam the breaks on the film’s stellar early rhythm.
He is shown to be a loving husband and father, which is glimpsed at a birthday party for his young daughter. Anguish pierces a seemingly perfect life as his daughter succumbs to the horrors of this microscopic foe, shrieking for her mother as she is rendered blind and bedridden.
He takes another blow as his wife, Virginia (played by Emma Danieli), also falls victim, a death that proves the rumor Morgan has heard to be true – the dead do return to life once their vitals have faded.
It’s perhaps one of the film’s most terrifying moments, a confirmation that shatters Morgan’s soul like one of the mirrors he hangs from his front door to drive away the infected masses.
In one of The Last Man on Earth’s weaker areas, the film tries to mold Morgan’s friend and research partner, Ben Cortman (played by Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), into something of a foe when he becomes one of the undead.
This is somewhat sloppily telegraphed, and it could have made for an even deeper emotional blow, but the two never really have anything resembling a satisfying final confrontation. Cortman is reduced to simply pounding on Morgan’s boarded-up windows, calling his name through pained moans as Morgan wrings his hands over the chants of surrendering to the ghoul army.
It’s strangely fumbled, but the last act addition of Ruth does cover some of that wasted emotional potential that could have exploded between the former colleagues.
Meanwhile, Collins’ Ruth adds a layer of mystery to her deceptively feral role.
She talks of a society that has been carefully surveilling Morgan and, much to his surprise, trouncing him in scientific progress against the disease. It’s clear she is awash in secrets (and dirt), yet her mere presence fills you with optimism even if the society she speaks of stabs with unease over their true motivations. It builds ominously to a rip-roaring conclusion of trigger-happy soldiers, hordes of undead, explosions, and Morgan tragically fighting for his life as the promise of hope dangles on the edge of a stake.
Drenched in hopelessness and elevated through a resourceful scope that expands well beyond its budgetary constraints, The Last Man on Earth is the type of film that could spark a young filmmaker’s imagination and ambition.
It’s a monster movie simmering in stinging human drama and pained isolation, allowing for the type of investment we award to films that walk the line of a classic, which is a label many lend to this undervalued Price picture.
It’s a perfect late-night creature feature bereft of flash and heavy on atmosphere, with subject matter malleable enough to mirror the current state of our fractured society. We may end up recoiling in horror at the reflection we see, just like one of those pesky undead loiterers.
Even those who aren’t exactly privy to the history of horror can’t ignore The Last Man on Earth’s looming impact, particularly on the zombie genre and George A. Romero’s zombie debut, Night of the Living Dead, four years later.
As far as the three direct adaptations of Matheson’s novel are concerned – which include 1971’s Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man and 2007’s Will Smith epic I Am Legend – it’s easily the strongest and most potent of the three iterations.
While some pacing issues make way for some sluggish spots, The Last Man on Earth is a riveting and remarkable piece of horror filmmaking that is never far from sending an icy shiver, despite what history may have told us about its troubled production.