They want my blood. Their lives are mine. I still get squeamish.”
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)
Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow The Last Man on Earth is based on the best-selling sci-fi/horror novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson who unhappy with the script, used the pseudonym Logan Swanson for the screenplay. The film remains pretty close to the book, and keep in mind that Last Man on Earth predates Night of The Living Dead (1968) by 4 years.
Piero Mecacci ( Suspiria 1977, Hatchet For A Honeymoon 1970, The Young, The Evil and The Savage 1968, was responsible for the film’s make-up.
Matheson’s story is perhaps the first involving vampire-like beings whose origin is not rooted in the supernatural but stems from a scientific, biological nature, an actual medical condition. It is also the first of three adaptations of Matheson’s book, and stands alone as the most striking, although I will always have a special kind of 70s love for director Boris Sagal’s version of The Omega Man 1971
Starring Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, Franca Bettoia as Ruth Collins, Emma Danieli as Virginia Morgan, Umberto Raho as Dr. Mercer, and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart as Ben Cortman. In 1971 it is the wonderful Anthony Zerbe as Matthias who reprises the role of the vengeful cult leader of ‘the family’ who craves Heston’s (Neville) lifeblood.
“Alive among the lifeless… alone among the crawling creatures of evil that make the night hideous with their inhuman craving!”
“December 1965. Is that all it has been since I inherited the world? Only three years. Seems like 100 million.”
The year is 1968, Vincent Price in a somber fashion plays Dr. Robert Morgan who like Sisyphus is condemned to repeat his daily tasks of replenishing his stock of garlic and mirrors (the undead hate both), adding gasoline to his generators, collecting the dead bodies that lay strewn around his dismal and cluttered house, and throwing them into the enormous pit where he burns the remains while wearing a gas mask, which is effectively creepy on its own.
“I need more mirrors and this garlic has lost its pungency.”
For much of the film’s beginning, Morgan narrates his story for us as an inner dialogue, “An empty dead…silent world.”
“There was a time when eating was pleasurable now it bores me. just a fuel for survival, I’ll settle for coffee and orange juice this morning. But first, there’s my life to consider, I better replace that garlic I’ll need more lots more, better stop off and get ’em”
Morgan is the seemingly sole survivor in a global outbreak of an unknown bacterium. By day, he collects his needed supplies, tries to make contact by radio with any other survivors, makes repairs to his house, from the onslaught of undead who attack by night, and basically tries to maintain his sanity in the bleak environment of apocalyptic ruin.
Each day he wakes up, checks off the date on his primitively scrawled calendars, sharpens his wooden stakes, the weapons he uses to defend himself against a surviving race of Vampiric like undead that roams the night air calling out his name ‘Morgan, come out!’ pounding at his door. “Morgan! We’re going to kill you!,” they taunt him endlessly, led by his old colleague Ben Cortman.
Living Ben Cortman: There are stories being told, Bob.
Robert Morgan: By people who are out of their minds with fear.
Living Ben Cortman: Maybe. But there are too many to be just coincidental. Stories about people who have died and have come back.
Robert Morgan: They’re stories Ben, stories.
“I can’t afford the luxury of anger, anger can make me vulnerable. it can destroy my reason and reason is the only advantage I have over them. I’ve gotta find where they hide during the day. Uncover every one of them.”
“And how many more of these will I have to make before they’re all destroyed”
“More of them for the pit. tonight there’ll be more of them, they live off the weak ones., leave them for the pit.”
Less like a Gothic Hammer vampire epic or prior decades features from Universal and Bela Lugosi featuring swarthy eastern Europeans, The Last Man on Earth is set in a modern urban landscape and acts like a hybrid horror/science fiction morality play, as Morgan drudges on to persevere against the army of soulless humans that haunt his existence.
They have become inhuman things to hunt, and he has been transformed into a veritable Adam living in a post-nuclear anti-paradise with no companionship. It’s merely the primal need to survive that drives him. In this way, he has been reduced to a scavenging animal, living on instinct, with an inescapable mission to hunt and kill people who were once human like himself.
“I can’t live a heartbeat away from hell’
Morgan inhabits a world, where everyone else has been infected by the plague, they cannot tolerate sunlight, hate to see their own image in mirrors, and more likened to the ancient folklore of Vampires are repelled by garlic.
At night these undead civilians, try to get into Morgan’s house, they have a desire to kill him as much as he has to destroy every one of them.
Each day he gets in his large automobile in search of more lifeless bodies scattered around the city and seeks out those in hiding to use his wooden stakes to impale and then throw on the mass grave, fumes rising from the gasoline-soaked funeral pyre.
He finds a dead girl outside his house, and picks her up as she flops like a rag doll. He finds another one in his driveway. He loads them into the trunk of his car. He realizes that he’s out of gas. Dead bodies line the road.
“I can get rid of them later, right now I’m out of gas.”
As he drives over scattered bodies like human road kill he thinks to himself.
“They can wait too, I’ve got my life to worry about, those mirrors will have to be replaced before dark.”
The cinematography by Franck Delli Colli is stunning as it is stark. He paints an apocalyptic wasteland, with the addition of the mass graves and gas masks which to me, evoke the specter of war-torn Europe after WWII.
In flashback we see Morgan as a happily married man, with a beautiful wife and daughter. As the memory unfolds, we see that his wife and daughter have been effected by the plague. While his daughter is taken away to the public burning pit after she succumbs, Morgan secretly buries his wife, not knowing that the dead are coming back to life.
Once he returns home and is attacked by his dead wife, he realizes that he must dispose of all the plague victims before they reanimate themselves into zombies who can spread the plague. Morgan has a theory that his immunity to the bacteria is due to an infected bite he received from a vampire bat, while stationed in Panama. This prior exposure to the plague allowed his blood and immune system to build up a tolerance over time.
One day he finds a dog wandering and takes him home, joyous for the company the little guy will be, unfortunately he too has fallen ill from the plague and sadly, Morgan has to kill him too. Just to let you dog lovers know what to expect…
During one of his daylight excursions, he notices a woman moving around in the distance. It is Ruth Collins, who is terrified of Morgan when she first sees him, but he convinces her to come home with him. When Ruth becomes sickened by a string of garlic waved in her face, she claims she is just weak, but Morgan becomes suspicious of her.
Morgan catches Ruth trying to inject herself with the vaccine that he’s been working on, which seems to stave off the effects of the disease. At first, she attempts to point a gun at Morgan but eventually admits that she was sent to spy on him and that she is part of a secret group of people like her, who are infected by the plague but are using a treatment that restores their health while still in the bloodstream but wears off after a time only to be reinfected again.
Ruth tells Morgan that her group is trying to rebuild their wiped-out civilization, while destroying the remaining infected walking dead, also telling Morgan that many of the people he has killed were technical ‘still alive’
Morgan- “Your new society sounds charming.”
Ruth Collins: You can’t join us. You’re a monster to them. Why do you think I ran when I saw you, even though I was assigned to spy on you? Because I was so terrified, what I’d heard about you. You’re a legend in the city. Moving by day, instead of night, leaving as evidence of your existence bloodless corpses. Many of the people you destroyed were still alive! Many of them were loved ones of the people in my group.
Robert Morgan: I didn’t know.
Morgan transfuses his own blood into Ruth’s while she is asleep, and she is immediately cured.
This encourages Morgan as he sees hope that he can now cure the remainder of Ruth’s people, the surviving yet suffering group of humans between the living dead and Morgan, the last completely healthy survivor of the human race.
In the climatic ending, the hand of irony strikes Morgan’s triumph down, as Ruth’s people begin to attack, forcing Morgan to flee, leaving the band of Ruth’s survivors to kill off the rest of the undead who are aimlessly threatening, and menacing, and of course stalking Morgan’s house.
Ruth’s people see Morgan and begin chasing him, as he picks up tear gas and grenades from a police station arsenal, they exchange gunfire and Morgan is wounded.
He finds his way into a church, with Ruth begging her people to let Morgan live.
They finally impale him on the altar with a spear. Of course, a very Christ-like image the symbolism is not lost here, he has been sufficiently sacrificed, the only man who could truly save them.
Morgan’s last dying words are “You’re freaks, all of you! All of you, freaks, mutations!” and declares that he is “the last true man on earth.”
This is truly not the end my friends… -MonsterGirl