Movie Review: The Last Man on Earth (1964) directed by Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona.
It has been three years since Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) has seen another living human. There are only the dead-and the undead. A mysterious plague swept the Earth in 1965, causing blindness and death. But at least some of those who died of the disease reanimate as creatures somewhat like vampires. They fear sunlight, avert their eyes from mirrors, and are repulsed by garlic. And they crave blood. The stronger ones feed on the weaker ones, so there are fresh corpses on Morgan’s doorstep every morning.
The undead aren’t very strong or smart; the very brightest of them seem confined to one or two phrases that are continually repeated. But there’s a lot of them, they’re persistent, and they have nothing better to do at night than attack Morgan’s now-fortified house. So in the daytime, Morgan gathers supplies, disposes of corpses in the burning pit the government set up before it collapsed, and stakes as many “vampires” as he can find.
This cult classic movie was based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend and Mr. Matheson wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Unfortunately, he didn’t like the changes made (including the new ending) and had his name changed to “Logan Swanson” in the credits. Rome, Italy doubles as an unnamed American city, and most of the cast and extras are Italian.
The movie opens with a half-hour of Morgan’s typical day and night activities before going into an extended flashback. We learn that Morgan was a researcher at Mercer Chemical trying to find a vaccine or cure for the mystery plague, made more difficult by the apparent 100% fatality rate and having no idea how it was spread. Morgan’s colleague Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) realizes about the vampire thing well before it’s confirmed, and holes up in his garlic and cross-festooned home rather than come into work. (This apparently does not help, as by the time the film opens, he’s the closest thing the undead have to a leader.)
Morgan loses his small daughter, and the government takes her to be burned. So when Morgan’s wife succumbs to the plague, he chooses to take her to a remote spot and bury her instead. That night, there’s someone at the door whispering to be let in. Now Morgan believes in vampires.
Back in the present, Cortman has succeeded in wrecking Morgan’s car, so Morgan varies from his usual haunts to obtain a new one. As a result, he sees a stray dog for the first time in years (it’s not clear whether animals also are infected the same way, but don’t rise, or if the undead just ate most of them.) While trying to catch it, Morgan finds staked corpses, but these are staked with metal spears (probably repurposed from fences) instead of the wooden stakes he uses. Someone else is alive!
The dog turns up on Morgan’s doorstep, badly wounded, and dies. While disposing of it, Morgan sees a woman nearby, standing in the sunlight! This turns out to be Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia, dubbed by Carolyn de Fonseca), who is deathly afraid of Morgan. She reveals the existence of an enemy Morgan didn’t even know existed, with hostility towards Morgan because of his seemingly reasonable actions. This propels the film to its tragic climax.
While I can see why Mr. Matheson was disappointed by the changed ending (and none of the film adaptations have ever used the original ending), the movie’s ending is suitably horrific and works quite well. There’s also good use of tragic mistiming–Morgan’s defenses against Cortland are very similar to the ones Cortland hoped to use to protect himself, and Morgan doesn’t realize he had the cure he was looking for in his own veins until there’s no one else to test it on. Which sets up the misunderstanding that dooms Morgan in the end.
This film is a showcase for Vincent Price, who plays Morgan in an understated tone through most of the film.
The movie is in the public domain, so a copy should be easily obtainable, and it’s well worth seeing if you’ve never had the chance, or have only seen the other adaptations.