The Last Man on Earth
This review is actually the first I wrote for this blog, but I delayed posting it to write a better introductory review to the blog. I decided to today would be the day to exhume it. Enjoy.
“…can’t live a heartbeat away from hell and forget it.”
“Now, 12 long hours before the sun will rise and drive them back to darkness.”
“There was a time when I shopped for a car. Now I’m looking for a hearse.”
For cinephiles not yet gorged on the recent spate of zombies, vampires, and post-apocalyptic movies, The Last Man on Earth will hit the spot. It’s the first of three major adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, including The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston and more recently I Am Legend starring Will Smith; Vincent Price is star in this adaptation. The Last Man on Earth tells the tale of Robert Morgan, the last survivor of a global pandemic that turns the infected into vampires. By day he systematically searches through the city, trying to find and exterminate every last vampire with a stake to the heart.
By night, he weathers the siege of a group of vampires knocking at his doors and breaking his windows, trying to sleep in spite of the vampires, in spite of the hollow moans of his former friend and colleague, Ben Cortman, who flatly intones, “Morgan, come out.”
As with most horror flicks from the golden era of the B-movie, The Last Man on Earth will probably fail to terrify the modern viewer, but there are a few spooky moments. The vampires behave more in line with the modern conception of the zombie, slow, weak, stupid, though at least these vampires can talk. Nevertheless, Ben Cortman’s hollow-toned entreaties to get Morgan to leave the house are creepy and the thought of vampires calling your name, trying to burst into your house while you sleep, scraping and banging at the walls, windows, and door, is unnerving. The scariest scene however comes from Morgan’s first encounter with a vampire: his own wife.
Morgan reminisces about the events leading up to his current predicament after watching a home movie of his daughter’s birthday party. The flashback takes him to that birthday party, when Ben shows Morgan and his wife Virginia the headline about an airborn plague “coming on the wind,” sweeping across Europe. Morgan is skeptical about the dangers of the plague and seems hopeful when working on a cure for the disease at the Mercer Institute of Chemical Research. However, the ensuing weeks and months quickly prove Morgan wrong. His daughter takes ill and outside the wind blows the leaves, a visual nod to the plague “coming on the wind” and an indication that the disease has reached the United States. A quarantine is in effect in the city and covered military trucks patrol the streets, picking up the bodies of the dead and burning them in a pit outside of town to stop the spread of the infection. Morgan warns his wife not to call a doctor, for fear that the doctor will call the military men in and consign his daughter to the fiery Gehenna heaped with bodies. Ultimately however, the daughter dies and Morgan is unable to save her from the flames. When his wife dies, he promises to give her a proper burial and takes her to a field to bury without notifying the military. That night, Morgan hears an eerie whisper, “Let me in.” The specter of his dead wife opens the door, clad in a white dress smeared with dirt, eyes ringed with black, flatly calling, “Robert” and walking slowly toward Morgan who goes wide-eyed with terror. The flashback returns to the present before showing the culmination of this scene, but he visits a sealed sarcophagus in the church earlier in the film, suggesting that he probably killed and entombed his wife once more.
The flashback sequence adds complexity to Morgan’s character. He seems gentler, more magnanimous because of his interactions with his family and his work at the lab to cure the disease. We may admire our tormented hero’s tenacity in exterminating the vampires and surviving their onslaught, but he shows a pragmatic cold-heartedness in dealing with the vampires and infected. He befriends a dog, then kills it when he finds out it’s infected; he seems callous in his treatment of Ruth Collins when he finds out she’s infected; and finally, he expresses a desire to kill Ben Cortman the vampire, even though he was once his friend. Morgan is a well-developed character, as well he should be since he has most of the screen time and narrates most of the start of the film.
One issue viewers might have with The Last Man on Earth is its use of the vampire mythos. I took no offense, but the shambling, moaning vampire might strike some viewers as an unflattering portrayal of the smart, sophisticated, sexy vampire many of us know and love. Furthermore the standard tools to destroy or ward the vampires, stakes, garlic, mirrors, and sunlight, might seem hokey when compared to the mercenary arsenal of guns and chainsaws we’ve come to expect from zombie apocalypse movies. Nevertheless, I don’t find it hard to accept the traditional anti-vampire arsenal. If anything, I find myself interested in how these figure into the apocalyptic scenario Morgan is trying to survive. I appreciate the details put in to make Morgan’s situation seem real. He has a lathe to carve blocks of wood into well-hewn stakes. He fills the generator in his house with gas to keep it running and has to find gas to fill his car back up. The mirrors and garlic drive away the vampires, but the vampires break the mirrors and the garlic fades in potency. He replaces the mirrors by raiding a mirror store and replaces the garlic by taking cloves from a walk-in freezer at a grocery store; he maintains that generator too to keep the freezer cool and the garlic fresh. The details give life to the movie.
This is one of the best B-movies I’ve seen in a while and would rank high on my list of horror movies, particularly from 50’s and 60’s. If you have not wearied of the recent spate of zombie, vampires, and post-apocalyptic books and films, take some time to see a movie that did it before it was cool.