The Last Man on Earth (1964)


*. You could make the argument that this is where the modern zombie genre begins. Let’s face it, the stories of “real” Caribbean zombies working in the cane fields were a dead end. Today’s zombies are all of the Romero lineage. And what was Romero’s inspiration? This movie.
*. it began life not as a zombie story, but rather as a novella by Richard Matheson titled I Am Legend, about a world overrun by viral vampires. The vampire apocalypse, as it were. If I have the story straight, Matheson wrote a screenplay for Hammer that they couldn’t produce because they felt they were in enough trouble with the censors already. It was then kicked around for a bit and ended up in Italy, of all places.
*. I never much liked Matheson’s story, though it’s since gone on to be acclaimed a horror classic. It seems a juvenile, narcissistic work to me, imbued with nihilism and bitterness. But what defines twenty-first century culture more than juvenile nihilism? Matheson was ahead of his time.


*. Zombie fiction became the dominant descendant of Matheson’s meme, with I Am Legend having its own direct line of succession through The Omega Man in 1971 and the 2007 Will Smith film that (foolishly, I think) kept the obscure title.
*. In any event, Romero was influenced more by this movie than by Matheson’s book. In Night of the Living Dead his shambling zombies surrounding the boarded-up house are identical to the off-kilter vampires here, who are frankly a little hard to understand in terms of motivation. What drives them? Do they suck blood? Ben says he’s going to “kill” Morgan. Ruth mentions her husband was “torn to pieces.” But to what end? We may note that after Courtland attacks Ruth she has signature vampire bite marks on her neck, but that’s it. The dead undead who lie outside Morgan’s house presumably give life in some way to the others, but they don’t look cannibalized. Night of the Living Dead was prepared to take the next step. In Romero we get to see, quite graphically, what the zombies want. They want to eat the living.
*. I like the jump-start beginning that just throws us into Morgan’s world three years after the outbreak of the plague. And the credit goes to Matheson.
*. It’s also nice how, in the opening montage, they don’t initially show any shots with bodies. At first the streets just seem quiet and empty, until you see the corpses lying around.


*. A homemade calendar? Well of course: no one is making new ones. But if I had to do this, would I know when the leap year was? Probably not. I couldn’t tell you if this is a leap year, or when the last one was. Still, it would work well enough, at least for a while.
*. “There was a time when eating was pleasurable. Now it bores me. Just food for survival.” Ah, the ballad of the single, lonely guy. They should have remade this movie not with Will Smith but Steve Martin.
*. I thought at first Morgan’s car was a Hearse. In fact it seems to vary (with some continuity errors, that people up on these things notice) between a ’56 Chevy and a ’58 Ford. I guess a lot of cars looked like Hearses back in the day. In any event, a Hearse is the kind of car Morgan specifically says he’s looking for.
*. Another staple of the genre introduced here is the trip to the supermarket. And yet we never get the sense that this is meant as a satire on consumerism, of the sort that would be advanced later (most notably in Dawn of the Dead). It’s just that Morgan has to go there to get what he needs. And I have to say that the fact that he’s been keeping the generator going for three years so that the freezer will keep the meat fresh is pretty remarkable.


*. After the great first act things settle down. The back story is contained in one very long flashback. This isn’t as interesting, and one begins to understand Matheson’s concern that Vincent Price was miscast. Price is always watchable, but something about him doesn’t belong in this film. Or this world. He’s a star for an earlier kind of horror film. But this is a point I want to come back to.
*. How many movies did Price appear in where he played an eccentric mourning for a dead wife? There seem to have been a few. His Poe adaptations comes to mind, and of course Dr. Phibes mooning over Vulnavia. So he’s certainly in his comfort zone here, at least in that regard.
*. It was an Italian production, as indicated by the cast, and the fact that it was shot in Rome. There are some wonderful locations, and if I can be excused a critical cliché, the city really is a character in the story. What a city to be the last man in! This must be a bit like what it felt like back in the 14th century, only with modernist architecture. How could the producers have expected us to believe we were in the U.S.?



*. I think it works best when it heads outdoors. I love those deserted streets, with the odd body artfully arranged on the ground. And the community body pit is magnificent, even if it’s hard to understand why it would still be smoking three years later. Morgan isn’t tossing that many corpses onto the pile, and the gasoline he pours in after them is a silly touch since the little bit he uses would just be absorbed into the ground anyway.


*. Matheson found the direction, by Sidney Salkow, kind of poor. That may be an understatement. Salkow made a lot of movies, none of them very memorable. His work here is flat and uninspired. And the editing is brutal. This is never a suspenseful or thrilling film, despite many opportunities.
*. I find it curious that this seems to be the first version of the story to present the last man on Earth as a Christ figure. I don’t recall that being in the book. It’s an idea that was then amplified in The Omega Man (Charlton Heston had a bit of a Christ complex at the time), and would pop up in later zombie films like World War Z.


*. I wish they’d done more with the political message. Ruth is a character with potential, being a conflicted representative of the brutal new world order, personified by the blackshirts (re)taking the streets of Rome. Morgan is right: they are inhuman freaks. He is the last man.
*. I don’t think it’s a very good movie, but it’s an important one, and not just for its direct legacy. It occupies a pivotal position, with a lot that’s old and new about it. At times it seems like a horror film of an earlier era, with the black-and-white photography and Vincent Price voiceover. But then there’s the nihilism, the sense of a world not coming to an end but descending (or evolving) into a new kind of savagery. That’s what makes the impact. When Price stands at the head of the church at the end and denounces all the “freaks” arrayed against him — a tribe of faceless, postmodern inheritors — I feel like he’s talking directly to me. And that he’s right.


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