As we know, George A. Romero’s 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, created the modern zombie genre that’s still going on today. However, there were at least a few movies that came before and influenced it. These (for better or worse) films had their own takes on doomsday and the “end-of-the-world” scenarios. Personally, the one that I think outshines them all is 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, an almost forgotten but now classic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s celebrated novel I Am Legend.
The legendary Vincent Price plays Robert Morgan, a scientist who studies a mysterious plague that takes over the world, wiping out most of the human race (including his wife and daughter), and turning the still populated into bloodthirsty vampires. He is the only man still left alive because he harbors a strange immunity to the disease. Day by day, night by night, he spends his existence alone, getting supplies, and constantly fighting legions of the undead when darkness falls.
One day, he spots a dog in the neighborhood, and goes to catch it, but to no avail. Later, the dog winds up at his doorstep. He thinks that maybe he’s finally found a companion to survive life with, but unfortunately it is wounded and discovered to be infected. He’s forced to kill and bury it because he knows the dog will eventually turn on him. This obviously increases his loneliness and depression.
However, he encounters a woman named Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), who is wandering around after losing her husband to the vampires. At first, she runs from him, but he convinces her to come home with him. He immediately becomes suspicious of her after she’s repelled by the garlic that he puts on the doors to keep the undead away. He thinks that she’s one of the infected, but discovers that she is but still human (after witnessing her injecting herself with blood and vaccine to keep the disease at bay). She tells him that she’s apart of a group of people who are just like her, infected but helped by treatment, and that they are on their way to kill him.
They chase and eventually corner Robert in the nearby church, thinking that he’s undead. Ruth runs to try and convince them not to kill him, but it’s too late. The last moment of the film has her telling a crying child that they’re safe now. The end.
Despite its low budget and a few unintentional moments of humor (the way that the undead look in the film, and that the fact that they can talk?), this is still a grim and dark film. It’s also unfortunately relevant, especially due to COVID and the new Delta variant that we’re dealing with now. You realize that the plot (albeit a little silly) doesn’t sound so far-fetched when you see the film now.
Price, being one of the all-time hammy actors, gives a tour-de-force and subdued performance here as Morgan. He does have a few manic moments, but you definitely understand why. You would feel the same way in you were in this dire, no-win situation.
Being in the public domain for years, it’s great that we finally have a proper release of this vastly understated but totally worthy cult classic from Kino. Until the inevitable 4K release, the picture and sound on this Blu-ray is probably going to be as good as it gets. There are some pops and tracking issues, but you not enough to make you angry. The special features include an audio commentary by writer Richard Harland Smith; Richard Matheson: Storyteller, a featurette on the iconic author; TRAILERS FROM HELL segment with Joe Dante; alternate ending; TV spots; and trailers (including other Price classics, such as The Raven, Scream and Scream Again, and Theater of Blood).
I haven’t seen the other adaptations of the Matheson novel, including 1971’s The Omega Man and 2007’s I Am Legend, but I doubt that they are as immediate, low-key, and chilling as this one. This is hands-down one of the more memorable apocalyptic thrillers ever made.