Apocalypse Review: The Last Man on Earth

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The Last Man on Earth (feature film, 1964)

Directed by Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow Written by William F Leicester and Richard Matheson Based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson Amazon US DVD

Some notes on buying: you should really get a version that's original B&W, and in the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio. So far as I can tell, that's what the Amazon link above provides. UK and other international buyers should get this US NTSC version - it seems to be the best transfer. Whatever you do, DO NOT get a colourised version. Unless you think that adding pastels to a horror film is a good idea.

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Review (Spoilers!)

A strange disease has spread on the wind and turned humanity into a race of vampires. One man is immune. By night, he hides away in the fortress he’s made of his house; by day, he wages a war of annihilation against them even as his sanity slips.

The main problem with The Last Man on Earth is that I’m watching it in 2011, having been deadened to spectacle and special effects. There’s not a great deal of either in this film; the ‘vampires’ are semicatatonic, the empty streets are achieved by filming on a Sunday morning, and the corpses are mostly unconvincing dummies. The level of threat seems minimal as the ‘vampires’ bash ineffectually against Vincent Price’s barely-fortified house, and we hardly see them actually harm anyone.

Worse than that, I’ve been spoiled by storytelling techniques that emphasise realism; by exposition not delivered in a characterless monotone; by dialogue that sounds like actual people speaking; and by actors who’ve learned to tone down their performances for film and TV, rather than projecting and posing as if they were on a stage.

(Vincent Price is nevertheless fun to watch as a source of spectacle in his own right, and certainly stands out against the cardboard cutouts he’s required to act alongside. He does a great job of generating sympathy for his plight. It’s possibly his most human performance. But even so, he’s still Vincent Price, with his stylised manner that we’d regard as excessively theatrical these days.)

The Last Man on Earth has dated badly in these respects. But in others, it shines out as a truly imaginative piece of horror – not so much because the story is original (it’s an adaptation, after all), but because it’s willing to challenge the audience in ways that modern films fail to do, even with their superior special effects and more realistic depictions of human behaviour. Perhaps this is just a comparison with the much-derided recent adaptation of the same book, which turned the story into a humans vs monsters special effects-fest, but I was nevertheless constantly surprised by how far the story was willing to go.

In this story, stereotypical moppet children die, and die horribly. Soldiers given terrible orders by the government carry them out no matter who suffers. Even though the flashback device is horrendously done, the disintegration of society it shows is still compelling. The hero’s plight for much of the film is treated seriously, and not as an adventure. And even some of the storytelling technique is superior to what we might see today: when Price’s wife returns from the grave, we don’t see what he has to do to dispose of her: only the horror on his face as his wife attacks and he finally realises how serious the plague is. And, knowing what he’s been doing to the ‘vampires’ ever since, the audience is trusted to fill in the horrifying details. It’s hard to imagine a modern filmmaker passing up the chance to actually show the killing, but concealing it turns out to be the more powerful choice.

And then there’s the final horror, and the most powerful idea in the whole story, which transforms it from a simple tale of postapocalyptic survival to something much more horrifying: the shift in perspective as we realise the Last Man on Earth isn’t just an innocent, tormented survivor, but a terrible force of destruction hunting down humanity’s replacements. As the film ends and he accuses them all of being freaks and monsters, it’s clear that he’s the one who needs to be put down as much as any vampire or zombie. Having this happen in a church while he’s pierced by a spear is really too much of a grasp for significance, but the point is made even without that.

This willingness not to pull punches or offer any kind of sentimental cushion to the audience is what makes the film stand out fifty years later, even though it sometimes behaves like a low budget piece of schlock with primitive production values. If you can peer past all of that, there’s something truly gripping here that’s worth the effort.

Depiction of the Apocalypse

If you’re looking for a detailed, realistic depiction of an apocalypse – well, this is probably as close as you could get in the early 1960s. Which means that while it actually manages to get reasonably close in terms of a few basic ideas, the actual depiction falls down on a regular basis. It’s been three years since the plague destroyed humanity, but the effects are limited to abandoned cars, a bit of random debris here and there, and of course the bodies of ‘vampires’ taking a nap while the sun’s up. While still wearing barely damaged clothes. The filmmakers have a little too much faith in the durability of human artefacts, but then they really weren’t to know how quickly an abandoned city can be reclaimed by nature.

What’s really silly, and what you simply have to accept if you’re going to get anything out of this film, is that the plague turns people into vampires: vampires who don’t seem to do much that’s vampirish and who shamble around more like zombies, but can be defeated by a variety of anti-vampire tricks: garlic, wooden stakes and mirrors (because they can’t bear to see their own reflections, for some absurd reason).

In general, the science in this film is more like a pastiche of science than anything that really makes sense. Terms like ‘vaccine’ are bandied about with no understanding of what they mean (a vaccine is useless if you’re already infected, but it gets treated more like an antidote here). Even when they get something right, it rapidly falls over: Price thinks that maybe his blood has antibodies that make him immune – not an unreasonable hypothesis. So he transfuses his blood into someone else to cure them. Without doing any tests to make sure this is true. Or checking the blood type of the recipient first. Ouch.

What the film gets right is the mood. The sense of despair. The feeling of hopelessness that leaves Price sometimes barely able to continue with his mission of eradicating the ‘vampires’. It’s the human details that do this: lacking a printed calendar for years later than the plague, he has to draw his own on the wall to keep track of time. He encounters a dog and hopes he’s found a companion, but the dog soon perishes and he has to bury the little corpse. He finds another survivor and his first thought is only that she may be infected – and, of course, he’s right.

And then there’s the ending, which sets this apart from so many other post-apocalyptic stories: instead of just a brutal, miserable fight to survive against the forces of apocalypse, it turns out that the Last Man on Earth is himself a force of apocalypse who must be destroyed if those ‘vampires’ who’ve been able to reclaim some of their humanity are to survive. It’s incredibly difficult to find a way to end a postapocalyptic story, because the worst has often already happened; this final twist offers something shockingly different even today, even when the concept that the true monster is mankind has been used over and over again.