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Fright Fest 2018: The Last Man on Earth (1964)

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Directors: Ubaldo Ragona (as Ubaldo B. Ragona), Sidney Salkow

Writers: William F. Leicester (screenplay), Richard Matheson (screenplay) (as Logan Swanson)

Stars: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli

You can credit Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I am Legend, for many things. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead borrowed heavily from I am Legend. In tone and visuals, mostly. But it’s interesting to note that Romero changed the landscape of his tale to reflect the mindless eating machine known as the zombie (a monster he completely retooled that many have appropriated) while Matheson choose a primitive form of vampiric new breed of civilization. One with a secreted illuminati who were also at war with the savage cattle that obeyed only its bloodlust. 

“When a plague devastated life on Earth, the population died or became a sort of zombie living in the dark. Dr. Robert Morgan is the unique healthy survivor on the planet, having a routine life for his own survival: he kills the night creatures along the day and maintains the safety of his house, to be protected along the night. He misses his beloved wife and daughter, consumed by the outbreak, and he fights against his loneliness to maintain mentally sane. When Dr. Morgan finds the contaminated Ruth Collins, he uses his blood to heal her and he becomes the last hope on Earth to help the other contaminated survivors. But the order of this new society is scary” -IMDb.

Stephen King made an argument in his wonderful non-fiction examination of horror, Dance Macabre, that the zombie fell under the archetype of vampire. A more rudimentary type without will or conscience.

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I explored the theory of zombie/vampire in my recent novella, Honger. A gory and downbeat tale about an immortal cannibal, given a bite that never heals and  compels him to eat people every new season, that was the closest thing to an actual vampire in my main supernatural fiction universe. Again, a concept that might have never been if Matheson hadn’t taken the vampire notion in 1954 and turned it on its ear.

Vincent Price stars as a scientist, Dr. Robert Morgan (Neville Morgan, in Matheson’s novel). When a plague carried on the wind decimates humanity, Morgan’s wife and daughter among them, the nightmare has only begun.

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The dead rise and return to life as nocturnal killing machines. Morgan barricades his house during the night. He plays music and drinks while his undead neighbors pound at his walls and doors. During the day, Morgan finds the night monsters and drives stakes through their hearts as they slumber in shadow. After extensive research, Morgan discovers that all of the fabled weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the vampires exist in the creatures that now rule the night. The novel breaks down, in much greater detail, why the vampires can only be killed by stakes, hate garlic, and can’t stand to see their reflections in the mirror.

Morgan wagers that a bite from a vampire bat in his youth gave him an immunity to the plague. He uses his blood to develop a serum that could help treat the victims of the disease. But a shadow society, existing and warring with the near-mindless creatures that haunt Morgan, brand him an enemy of the new world when he unwittingly begins to take their ranks.

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The Last Man on Earth is the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s I am Legend. It’s heavy and downbeat. Price has never had a better role, in my opinion. Though there are swerves from the novel and an ending that reduces the power of the source material’s to a silly, rushed, cop chase and over-acted eureka moment at the end, this is one of my favorite movies. It carries more raw power than the tackily dated Omega Man and Will Smith’s hollow bad-cgi-ed I am Legend.

The Last Man on Earth is a public domain film and can be seen on many streaming services.

Terry M. West is an American horror author. His best known works: What Price Gory, Car Nex, Dreg and his Night Things series. He was a finalist for 2 International Horror Guild Awards and he was featured on the TV Guide Sci-Fi hot list for his YA graphic novel series, Confessions of a Teenage Vampire. Terry was born in Texas, lived in New York for two decades and he currently hangs his hat in California. www.terrymwest.com

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One response

  1. Excellent review! While my favorite Price performance was in Theater of Blood, this one very comes very close. Years later, this movie still retains much of its power.

    October 19, 2018 at 2:03 pm

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