“Someone else is alive in this world — but where are they? Where are they hiding?”
The sole survivor (Vincent Price) of a devastating plague battles vampiric zombies while searching for a cure and reminiscing about the wife (Emma Danieli) and child (Christi Courtland) he has lost.
Although this first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s horror-sci-fi novel I Am Legend (published in 1954) is more faithful to his original premise than the 1971 remake The Omega Man (not listed in Peary’s book), he was nonetheless disgruntled enough with the results to change his name on the screenplay credits to a pseudonym. His most vocal complaint was with the casting of Vincent Price in the title role — clearly a critical decision, given that the majority of the film centers on this character’s solitary existence in a desolate, zombie-ridden, post-apocalyptic city (which is supposed to be San Francisco, but clearly takes place in Italy, where the film was shot). Indeed, the decision to cast Price in this pivotal role does come across as suspect, and shifts the film automatically into a different “type” of film in viewers’ minds. With that said, while Price’s performance is uneven (at times he can’t seem to help hamming it up, even at a low level), his performance is ultimately effective enough to carry viewers along. We believe in the neurotic drudgery of his existence, and he occasionally bursts forth with depths of emotion rarely seen in his other films.
Meanwhile, the screenplay is surprisingly compelling, despite its deliberately slow pace. After carefully showing us the details of Price’s daily regime — crafting wooden spikes to kill zombies; dragging zombie corpses to a pit to be burned; meticulously scouring sections of the city in search of life — we’re shown an extended flashback sequence which nicely fills us in on Price’s pre-apocalyptic existence, and provides us with essential information on the plague. Adding to the film’s overall ambiance is Franco Delli Colli’s atmospheric cinematography, which successfully portrays the shadowy, uncertain world Price has come to inhabit; shots of the zombies stalking Price’s house at night are especially effective, and immediately remind one of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) (they were a clear inspiration). As DVD Savant writes, while The Last Man on Earth is “no classic” (it possesses too many subtly campy details to allow that moniker to stand), it’s still “a unique little chiller with progressive ideas”, and worth checking out at least once.
Note: My favorite “Price-ism” in the film: “Your new society sounds charming.”
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Atmospheric cinematography
- A remarkably spooky ambiance
Yes, simply for its historical importance as a clear inspiration for Night of the Living Dead and other similarly-themed films. As a public domain title, it’s available for free viewing at http://archive.org. Remade as I Am Legend in 2007 with Will Smith.