***/**** Image B- Sound C Extras D
starring Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart
screenplay by Logan Swanson & William F. Leicster, based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
directed by Sidney Salkow
by Walter Chaw If the execution of The Last Man on Earth, Sidney Salkow's adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, is sometimes clunky, the ideas contained therein seem prescient at least, profound at best. Disowned by Matheson and oft-derided as slow-moving, it's actually an exceptional film in an exceptional year for film, a beautiful, occasionally stunning piece about loneliness and alienation. I wouldn't call it a metaphor, but as a bleak emotional landscape--Eliot's "The Wasteland" committed to genre schlock--it boasts of an intimidating gravity. Take the scene where titular plague survivor Dr. Morgan (Vincent Price) refuses to turn over his freshly-dead wife (Emma Danieli) to an army crematorium crew, endeavouring instead to bury her in the woods. His act of love is rewarded that night with her undead corpse paying him a visit. Yes, the pacing is off, leaving the shock of a shambling loved one to be milked properly in four years' time by George Romero and his Night of the Living Dead, yet the duration of the attack by itself underscores the horror and revulsion of the dearly-departed now up and walking. Veteran television director Salkow isn't very good, it's true, but DP Franco Delli Colli (Strip Nude For Your Killer), on one of his first films, provides beautiful, empty tableaux littered with car husks and burning pits fed with the corpses of the baddies Morgan stakes in the daytime.
At its heart, the picture is that familiar mid-Sixties refutation of the previous decade's sources of succour: Here, it's the nuclear family and almighty science put under the microscope and found badly wanting. Withering, as 1964 contemporaries Dr. Strangelove, Marnie, and The Train are, of Eisenhower era standards for cultural normalcy, The Last Man on Earth has as its central speech a reverie about Morgan's chief zombie tormentor, Ben--about how Ben is his best friend, and how he can't wait to kill him. Haunted, the moment speaks to the nature of love as the rest of the film does, to how mortality is love's ultimate betrayal. The father who knows best is a scientist; as the plague sets in, blinding his young daughter, Morgan forbids his hysterical wife to call a doctor or the authorities. Of course it all goes to hell.
Told in a three-part structure that reserves its middle for a clunky, dubbed (the film is an Italian co-production) flashback to the coming of the end, the movie concludes with the discovery by Morgan of another survivor of the pandemic, Ruth (Franca Bettoia), who turns out to be an emissary from a culture of "monsters" that have found a way to overcome the physical/mental limitations of their ailment. Alone, then, even still, his without-consent "cure" of Ruth only serves to underscore his complete isolation as the last holdout of a failed ideological system. The winds of change are blowin' and Morgan's carried off with them, kicking and screaming, into his own manufactured past. Things come to a head in a hilltop church--and the connection to be made is to the planetarium finale of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause: love and death at the end of the universe. This time, there's no riding away in Ozzie & Harriet's car once the "bad one" is dead.
Released on DVD in countless permutations due to its public-domain status, The Last Man on Earth gets a studio-sanctioned 2007 reissue from MGM (dropping Panic in Year Zero from their previous Midnite Movies platter) to capitalize on whatever brief interest there might have been in this property circa the Will Smith travesty I Am Legend. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer restores the original 'scope compositions to the b&w picture, revealing a newly convincing depiction of the post-apocalypse: shopping carts crowding a sliding door to a grocery store, bodies littering wide public stairwells; in its low-budget resourcefulness, it's as good as the process shots in stuff like Val Guest's The Day the Earth Caught Fire--which is very good indeed. Alas, while this is currently the definitive version of The Last Man on Earth on home video, it nevertheless looks a little dupey, with fine detail--already dampened by the anamorphic cinematography--further Vaseline'd by overzealous noise reduction. The accompanying Dolby 2.0 mono audio is only too clean, sounding as post-synched as it indeed was.
Greg Carson directs a short interview segment, "Richard Matheson Storyteller" (6 mins.), in which the crotchety Matheson says that no one will ever make a good movie of his great book and that Hollywood just isn't interested in this grand material anymore. (This was shot a couple of years before Will Smith's kajillion-dollar reboot.) Not terribly prescient for one of our pre-eminent fantasists, you could snark, but the more serious issue is that Matheson doesn't appear to have a good grasp of why certain stories court multiple interpretations. Knowing that he at one time damned Jack Arnold's adaptation of his own The Incredible Shrinking Man is enough for me to not respect the man's opinion overmuch. Originally published: January 12, 2010.