Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, a slew of post-apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction movies appeared in movie theatres…and it seemed like every other one of them starred Charlton Heston.
There were Heston’s two “Planet of the Apes” movies (the 1968 original and its 1970 sequel, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”), and an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” known as “Soylent Green” in 1973. “Soylent Green” was an uncomfortably accurate forecasting of current world dilemmas such as overpopulation, climate change and resource depletion. The future, according to these Heston flicks, was looking mighty crappy indeed…
Tucked in the middle was a less-than-faithful (but not entirely without merit) adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic vampire novel, “I Am Legend” called “The Omega Man” (1971).
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend” is right up there with the classic vampire works of Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, yet it was radically different from most vampire lore at that point. “I Am Legend” approaches vampirism much in the same, pragmatic way that Andy Weir’s “The Martian” tackled day-to-day life trying to survive on a hostile planet.
The book is ground zero for the current, ongoing pop-culture obsession with post-apocalypse zombie films and ‘last-man-on-earth’ scenarios (LMOEs, as “Zombie Survival Guide”/“World War Z” author Max Brooks casually refers to them).
“I Am Legend” is an epic study in loneliness, madness and ultimately the obsolescence of a man who considers himself the last bastion of human civilization after a mysterious plague turns most of humanity into day-slumbering, nocturnal vampires. It analyzes the classic tropes of vampirism (mirrors, garlics and even crucifixes) using the scientific method. The novel’s protagonist, Robert Neville, uses those tools of civilization that he clings to (microscopes, the local library, etc) to try to ward off the inevitable collapse of homo sapiens (and other life forms, including dogs). His struggle ultimately proves futile when he is finally captured by the vampires. During his capture, he comes to understand that he is now seen as a destructive element to their emergent society. As he dies, he realizes that this new, fascistic vampire society fears him as much as he hates and despises them. He has lived long enough to see himself executed as their greatest threat. He is legend.
“I Am Legend” is the granddaddy of everything from “Night of the Living Dead” to “The Walking Dead.”
It truly is legend.
1971’s “The Omega Man” is the second attempt of three (so far) to film this classic horror novel. Directed by Boris Sagal (onetime “Star Trek” director and father of “Futurama” costar Katey Sagal), the movie is written by the husband & wife screenwriting team of John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington (“Battle for the Planet of the Apes”).
Some of the broad-strokes are familiar; Doctor Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is now a brilliant former US military pathologist trained in bio-weaponry (a departure from the book’s self-educated everyman) who now lives alone is a (then) near-future world of 1975 Los Angeles (the same locale and year set in the 1954 book). Several years earlier, a biological war broke out between the world’s superpowers and most of the human race was instantly killed. Neville hurriedly injected a hypo full of a test antidote into himself just before the world was scratched. He survived. And he now lives alone in a desolate Los Angeles of an alternate 1975… well, almost alone.
During the day, Neville plays 8-track tapes in his car stereo (an elevator music version of Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place”) and drives recklessly through the deserted streets. He also partakes in stalking and indiscriminately shooting slumbering, nocturnal albinoid mutants (a major departure from the book’s vampires). Neville has fortified his L.A. penthouse home with all sorts of defenses, including barbed wire, locked-off elevators and multiple machine guns with giant infrared scopes.
One day, while enjoying yet another, already-memorized showing of the “Woodstock” concert movie in an empty theatre, Neville gets careless and loses track of time. He rushes home just after the sun sets, and arrives just in time to fight off angry, torch-wielding albinos in his garage as he hurriedly locks off all access points to his penthouse.
Neville then hunkers down for the night, where he tries to drown out the constant, noisy barrage of angry mutants below. The mutants want to try him for crimes against ‘the family.’ The family clearly reflecting Charles Manson-like cultism, which was very relevant in 1971 (and would be throughout the 1970s with Reverend Jim Jones in 1978, and other tragic examples).
Leading the charge against Neville is the head of the mutants, former TV newscaster-turned-savior “Matthias” (Anthony Zerbe) and his impetuous lieutenant “Brother Zachary” (Lincoln Kilpatrick). Zachary clearly reflecting the youth militant movements of the time, such as Symbionese Liberation Army or the Black Panthers. To further hammer that point is Zachary’s line to Matthias about Neville’s living it up in a “honkey paradise,” while he and the family are living like “grubs.” A cutting indictment of racial and social inequality that is all-too relevant today.
Since the plague has rendered all of the mutants the same shade of gray with colorless light-sensitive eyes, racism within the family is now a moot point. They see Neville as an obsolete monster, clinging to ‘the old ways’ that led to the end of their world. These mutants are less vampiric and more like an army of angry Luddites. They see Neville’s use of tools and machines as a threat to their new lifestyle (much as Charles Manson and his ‘family’ used to sabotage earth-moving heavy machinery).
We begin to see the pattern of Neville’s life. Parts of his day are spent doing whatever he wants in the deserted streets of Los Angeles, while the rest is spent methodically hunting and shooting sleeping/dying mutants in their nests.
During a trip for clothing in a deserted department store, Neville meets an uninfected woman named Lisa (Rosalind Cash). Their relationship is initially one of deep distrust, until Lisa rescues a captive Neville from the family. She has an ulterior motive for the rescue.
Turns out Lisa is taking care of her sweet younger brother Richie (Eric Laneuville), who is in the early stages of mutation. Lisa hopes that uninfected Dr. Neville might be able to cure him. Eventually winning her confidence, Neville and Lisa soon partake in an awkward bit of romance (‘the last boy in the world and the last girl…’).
Neville also learns of a group of plague-resistant young people living out in the hills outside of L.A., led by a former medical student-turned-radical hippie named Dutch (Paul Koslo), who comes to trust Neville as well.
A recovered Richie begins to question why Neville continues to hunt the mutants instead of simply curing them. Not satisfied with Neville’s copout of an answer, Richie takes his mini-bike deep into the city to propose a truce with Matthias and the family. He brings the hope of a cure as an olive branch.
It doesn’t end well.
After Richie is killed, Neville rages holy hell upon the family.
In the melee, he also loses Lisa, who turns rather abruptly as she begins to hear the ‘call’ of Matthias and her new ‘family.’
After Lisa joins their ranks, Neville is left alone to fight them off. He is outnumbered, captured and eventually killed. In his melodramatic dying gasps (very Hestonian), he spreads his arms, almost Christ-like, across a fountain outside his home. Dutch and his gang of plauge-resistant youth find Neville’s body, take a few vials of his resistant blood, and presumably go off to save the world…
While the novel’s in-depth look at Neville’s deteriorating mental state is largely gone, the film does retain a few bits of Neville’s pathos; his ‘haggling’ with a long-mummified used car dealer, his endless rewatching of “Woodstock,” his playing chess with a bust of Caesar, etc. However, the movie seems less concerned with his mental unraveling and more about cementing Heston’s lantern-jawed heroic status. The Christ imagery at the end (Neville’s sacrificial blood saving the world, with Dutch’s gang as his Disciples) is as nuanced as a sledgehammer striking an anvil.
The family’s mutants are less on-the-nose than the book’s vampires, but they also say something more about cultism, as well as the darker side of the counterculture movement. “Omega Man” was made in the early days of cultist-killer Charles Manson, who left much of the establishment white-knuckled with fear in those days. Crazed killer cults also later play roles in such 1970s drive-in fare as “Race With the Devil” and “The Devil’s Rain” (both 1975).
More benign hippies were also represented in the film with Dutch’s helpful band of merry rebels, who represent the hope for the future that both Neville’s and the Family’s dead-ended approaches couldn’t achieve. Again, serving as the Disciples to Neville’s Jesus.
Both versions also retain something of that now-cliched post-apocalypse, libertarian ultimate fantasy of having an emptied city (or world) for the taking… if only one has the weaponry and cojones to simply take it from whatever mutants or vampires get in one’s way. The late George Romero’s “Dead” movies and their endless imitators, such as “The Walking Dead” graphic novels/TV series have made an undying (excuse the pun) industry out of this fantasy.
So while the depth, methodology and pathos of Matheson’s masterpiece book is essentially shredded, there is something in “Omega Man” that speaks to many 1970s concerns (cultism, counterculture, biological warfare) in more direct ways than Matheson’s book. But make no mistake; Richard Matheson’s book is far superior to the film, though the two are so different as to be almost unrelated. It’s a bit like ordering a medium-rare filet mignon with all the trimmings, and getting a plain hamburger instead. Both involve beef, but they’re very different culinary experiences.
Though sometimes just a burger will do.
Meet the family.
Director Boris Sagal was a name that I’d remembered seeing before, though I couldn’t quite place where… until I rewatched an episode of classic “Star Trek” called “The Return of the Archons”, which also featured an eerie, cultish society with robed ‘lawgivers’ who roamed about an eerily tranquil city.
Despite its widescreen frame, “Omega Man” very much feels like a TV-movie sometimes. Given its director’s pedigree, it’s not surprising. Sagal also directed a segment of the 1969 “Night Gallery” anthology pilot (“The Cemetery”, starring Ossie Davis and Roddy McDowall), as well as the groundbreaking 1976 miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man”, which starred Nick Nolte and was produced by future Star Trek movie producer Harve Bennett. Sagal’s direction of “The Omega Man” is a good fit for the material.
Charlton Heston gives the kind of cynical, world-weary performance that we’d become accustomed to after “Planet of the Apes,” and for “Omega Man” that cynicism works very well. While nowhere near the depth of the book’s Robert Neville, Heston is perfectly adequate for the role as it is onscreen. There are moments where he gets to convey some of Neville’s occasionally faltering grip on sanity (“There is NO phone ringing, dammit!”), though nowhere near the level of drunken nihilism present in the book.
Rosalind Cash also gives the movie a nice shot of energy as Lisa, too. Her edges are dulled a bit when she all-too predictably warms up to Neville. I preferred the edgier, less-trusting version of the character. Her mutation (while a bit too abrupt) made me genuinely sad, largely because the fire inside of Cash’s character had completely gone out.
Music for “Omega Man” was composed by the legendary Australian-born composer Ron Grainer, who created the classic ‘Electro-Theremin’ (or Tannerin) & guitars theme song for “Doctor Who” (a theme as iconic as “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone”). He also created the theme for Patrick McGoohan’s short-lived cult series “The Prisoner” (another favorite TV series of mine) and the music-heavy feature film, “To Sir, With Love” (1967). His music for “Omega Man” alternates from comfortable ‘made-for-TV’ sounding melodies early on, to more eerie and isolated cues later. Perhaps not among Grainer’s best (the man was a genius), but once again, adequate for the material.
^ Oh, and kudos to Margo Baxley and Becky Rous of the wardrobe department for a rebellious piece of Dutch’s ensemble that always makes me smile a bit…
Other incarnations of “I Am Legend.”
Turns out “Omega Man” was a middle child. There have been two other attempts to film Matheson’s classic novel. Both missed the mark to varying degrees.
The first attempt to film Matheson’s book was 1964’s “The Last Man On Earth.” The movie starred a somewhat miscast Vincent Price as Robert Morgan (nee: Neville) in an otherwise surprisingly faithful adaptation of the book (Matheson cowrote the screenplay under the pseudonym of ‘Logan Swanson’). Regrettably, the movie was sabotaged by an obvious low budget, ill-defined black-and-white cinematography and an otherwise fine lead actor who is simply not right for the role. Price is unbeatable when doing old-school Gothic horror such as “House of Wax,” “The Abominable Dr. Phibes,” or even the tongue-in-cheek Roger Corman adaptation of Poe’s “The Raven.” But cast as an everyman struggling to live in a vampiric post-apocalypse? He is completely wrong. The use of Italy-for-Los Angeles is similarly jarring as well. Some of Price’s Italian costars are clearly dubbed into English. This version could’ve worked with a bit more money funneled into it, as well as a more appropriate lead actor (Rod Taylor of “The Birds” comes to mind…).
The third attempt was 2007’s “I Am Legend” starring Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville, who is once again a military pathologist, just like Heston’s version. Like “Omega Man”, this is another entertaining, if slightly off-the-mark take on the book. In some ways truer to the book’s tone, IAL 2007 has lots of necessary updating, as well as a location change from suburban L.A. to the much more cinematic Manhattan. Will Smith gives a truly no holds-barred performance; he is arguably the closest to the novel’s psychological (if not physical) portrait of Neville. However, Smith’s largely computer-generated vampire foes are the movie’s weakest link. They appear so gelatinous and phony, that they’re more like an army of poor man’s Gollums instead of nocturnal bloodsuckers. These new vampires are also much more animalistic, grunting and growling instead of speaking. This makes them far less interesting than the novel’s vampires, or even “Omega Man”’s albinoid cultists. IAL 2007 had all the tools to do a near-perfect adaptation of the book, yet it still misses the mark. Deeply frustrating, as so many elements of this version (the casting, the location) were so right.
Here’s hoping that perhaps someday we might see an HBO miniseries of “I Am Legend.” That’d be a more proper way to allow the source material’s pathos, darkness and contemplative mood adequate room to breathe. A two-hour movie, especially in today’s action-heavy, R-ratings averse market, might simply be the wrong format to tell this story.
But of course, if you don’t want to wait? There’s always Richard Matheson’s brilliant book as well…
Final musings on ‘the Man.’
I can’t exactly remember when I first saw “The Omega Man” (may have been late-night television? Not quite sure…), but I do very distinctly remember seeing some of the mutants in the pages of the late Forry Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine (my very first magazine subscription as a kid).
They gave me one hell of a case of the skeeves. Serious nightmare fuel for a young kid in those days. Their gray skinned, white-pupiled look reminded me a bit of Linda Blair’s demonic possession makeup in 1973’s “The Exorcist.”
Watching “Omega Man” a couple of times alone in my bachelor days, I remember having an all-too-uncomfortable kinship to Heston’s lonely, isolated Neville at times. Luckily, I had plenty of non-mutant friends to keep me company in those days. Well, maybe one or two of them were mutants…
Overall, the movie today still has some effective moments. The first half hour is arguably the best, when the story is focused on Neville and his one-man struggle against the mutants. Simple, creepy and even a bit spooky at times. Later, the film loses some of that isolated vibe when additional characters show up (especially Dutch and his group) and make it feel a bit too crowded.
It also helps if you ignore any connection to the vastly superior Richard Matheson source material and enjoy it as a simple, dystopian adventure film. On that level, “The Omega Man” is a perfectly adequate entry in the late 1960s/early 1970s Charlton Heston Dystopia Anthology.