Review: Last Man On Earth

Fans of survival fiction are quick to note the influence of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on the survival fiction genre, both in film and literature, since its 1969 release. However, too often, many fans of the that release have not seen its predecessor, The Last Man On Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price and based on Richard Matheson’s I am Legend.

If you rent this film, or watch it on the internet (it is in the public domain), you’ll instantly see the connection between the two motion pictures, both in plot, execution, and film-making technique. Romero himself acknowledges its direct influence.

The Last Man on Earth, directed by Ubaldo Rugona, is an Italian production starring Vincent Price, with a screenplay partially penned by Richard Matheson himself. The storyline is familiar now, especially since it has been remade as The Omega Man (with Charleton Heston) and more recently, I Am Legend (with Will Smith). Dr. Robert Morgan, played convincingly and with tremendous sincerity by Vincent Price, is perhaps the only survivor of a world-wide plague. He has developed an immunity to the disease. The rest of humanity has degenerated into packs of vampires (although it should be pointed out that in the film version of Matheson’s work, they look and behave more like the zombies we’ve come to know and love). By day he seeks out and destroys the surviving monsters, but by night he retreats to his fortified dwelling as the things ceaselessly taunt him and try to find entrance. Before the pattern destroys him, he finds hope in the possible existence of another human.

What will arrest the attention of fans of the genre are Last Man on Earth’s night scenes. When Morgan seeks shelter in his house and the shuffling  “vampires” bang at the boarded up doors and windows, its easy to imagine Romero taking notes. The only thing missing in these moments is a blonde-haired woman mumbling about her brother Johnny as a bald headed man growls “You’re not the boss of me.”

Romero’s film is tighter and although Price gives one of his career’s best performances as Morgan, Night of the Living Dead is able to keep razoring the suspense until the final scene when the doors finally collapse and the dead pour in.

If you haven’t seen Last Man On Earth, and I am always astonished at the number of people who haven’t, then you owe it to yourself if you are a fan of survival fiction, or maybe even interested in film history. While at times the action may drag and the production values are lacking, the film still delivers as we watch Morgan wrestle with loneliness and attempt to cling to his humanity.

3 comments to Review: Last Man On Earth

  • Romero has related that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was inspired by Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, and as you said, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH was obviously an influence as well. Despite those low production values, with Rome unconvincingly doubling for L.A., it is by far the most faithful of the three feature films based on the novel. A small correction: LAST MAN was actually directed by Sidney Salkow, the brother of Price’s agent Lester Salkow; Ubaldo Ragona was credited only on the Italian version, presumably for the benefit of the domestic audience. Matheson put his pen name of “Logan Swanson” on the screenplay because he was dissatisfied at the rewrite done by another scenarist. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4), tentatively due out in early October.

  • Stewart Sternberg

    I agree with you about The Last Man On Earth being the best of the three. I look forward to reading your book this October. Perhaps I can review it.

  • I love “The Last Man On Earth.” It has some really cool visuals. I keep meaning to read Matheson’s original screenplay for it in “Visions Deferred.”