Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow
Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart
Dr. Robert Morgan lives a life of quiet monotony. He wakes, feeds himself, repairs his home, puts gas in his car, and drags the corpses of vampires to a pit on the edge of town, where he burns them. Then he hunts for more vampires and stakes them through the heart. We soon learn that an aggressive plague has swept across the country, turning the living into the sick and then into the undead. Morgan seems to be the only survivor in his area and protects himself with garlic, mirrors, and a heavily barricaded house. During the night, the vampires try to get into the house and kill him.
Desperate for company, he runs after a frightened dog. Later, he finds the dog recovering from wounds. He tries to nurse it back to health, but realizes it is infected with vampirism. When he goes to bury the dog, he sees a woman out in the daylight. He pursues her and learns her name is Ruth. She agrees to come back to his house, where he figures out that she is infected. He learns she has been managing the disease by regularly injecting herself with a vaccine and that there are others like her. Her group knows about Morgan and they hate him, because he has been killing others like them - sick, but not completely transformed. Morgan gives Ruth a blood transfusion and cures her, but it is too late. Her people attack Morgan and, as he dies, he laments that he is really the last man on earth.
Based on Richard Matheson’s groundbreaking horror novel I Am Legend, this first and most faithful adaptation may not be perfect, but it is worlds beyond subsequent remakes like The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston or the incredibly awful I Am Legend (2007). Matheson is one of the most important figures of ‘60s horror and penned a number of classic films, such as House of Usher (1960) and other films in Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s Poe cycle, The Devil Rides Out (1968) for Hammer, Legend of Hell House (1973), and episodes of the Twilight Zone, among many more.
The Last Man On Earth has a somewhat complicated development history. A U.S.-Italian coproduction filmed in Rome, rights to I Am Legend were originally purchased by Hammer, who planned to adapt the novel in the U.K. When censors refused, Hammer sold the rights and there was a plan for German auteur Fritz Lang to direct the film in the U.S. Matheson wrote the first version of the script, but disliked it so much that he refused to attach his name to it.
Vincent Price may have a reputation for hamming it up as often as possible, but here he is deadly serious and this is one of his finest roles. That seriousness is part of what makes this film hold up over time despite its flaws. Everything from the script to the set are practically stripped bare, relying almost entirely on Price’s performance and the horror of Matheson’s story to carry us to the bleak conclusion.
Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot going on with the film aside from Price’s performance. The script ignores a lot of the more interesting elements of Matheson’s novel, including key explanations of why the vampires are the way they are and how the plague spread. Here they are more like zombies than vampires and this is an obvious source for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (Romero admitted to ripping it off). In Matheson’s book, the vampires are athletic and fast moving, but in the film they are slow and shuffling, lumbering after Morgan, and they don’t often feel like a serious threat.
The beginning of the film is the most effective, where Morgan goes through his daily ritual and carries corpses to a pit at the edge of town where they are burned. Then he finds hiding vampires and stakes them. After the flashback things begin to unravel. Why does the vampire leader stand outside Morgan’s house and call his name all night? The sequence with the dog has a somewhat pathetic feel to it and the second half of the film has far more moments of accidental comedy than the first.
Though Price is largely onscreen alone for most of the film, there are some other decent performances, primarily from Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, Kill Baby, Kill) as Ben. It’s a shame he wasn’t given more screen time.
Last Man on Earth is available on DVD in a number of cheap editions. Though it isn’t a perfect film, it is an interesting entry in ‘60s American horror that helped revitalized vampire cinema and added elements of sci-fi and the survival film. It is also an important precursor to the emerging zombie subgenre and comes recommended for that reason alone.