This first-ever adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend is easily the most faithful of the three; unfortunately, it is also the least entertaining. Although featuring some memorable images that capture the feel of the excellent source material, the Italian production is hampered by an obviously low budget and some poorly recorded post-production dubbing that creates an amateurish feel, undermining the power of its story – about a lone man left alive in a world overrun by vampires. The the pacing is lethargic, and the attempt to render vampirism in science-fiction terms – the whole point of the story – is glossed over in arbitrary fashion. The result is a film that reeks of missed potential.
After some opening shots of an empty, anonymous city, the film introduces us to Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) as he goes about the routine of his day: sharpening stakes, preparing garlic, repairing damage to his house from the night before. We learn immediately that it is 1968, three years since Morgan “inherited” the world, but only gradually does the nature of the apocalypse become clear: the rest of the human population is dead, killed off by a plague that turns its victims into vampires. Some extended flashbacks in the middle of the film reveal Morgan as a scientist searching for a cure, even as the plague kills his daughter and then his wife. Morgan’s neighbor and colleague, Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), suggests a cure cannot be found because the problem is not a disease but vampirism, an idea at which Morgan scoffs - until his wife comes back from the dead. Back in the present, Morgan tries to cure a stray dog, but it succumbs to the disease. Burying the animal, he encounters a woman in daylight, who claims to be normal, but she turns out to be infected. Ruth (Franca Bettoia) and her kind have developed a serum that keeps the disease in check, allowing them to go on living. Morgan cures her with anti-bodies from his blood (he developed immunity after being bitten by a bat with a weak strain of the disease years ago). Ruth’s comrades arrive, wipe out the vampires, and set their sights on Morgan – whom they consider a monster because many of the “vampires” he killed during the day were actually their friends, family, and loved ones - but Ruth helps Morgan escape. The black-shirted commandos corner Morgan in a church and fell him with gunshots and a spear to the stomach, before he or Ruth can reveal that his blood can cure them. Despondent, Ruth walks away…
The poverty row tone is established almost immediately: the opening sequence consists mostly of inconsequential footage of Price wandering around his house and garage while his voice-over narration tells us the purpose of what he is doing. The rest of the present day scenes continue along similar lines: lots of footage of walking and driving. If the idea is to convey the boring routine of Morgan’s life under seige, it succeeds too much, boring the audience as well.
The scenario plays out like a cliff notes version of the novel, with major ideas skipped over or barely addressed, especially the science-fiction approach to vampirism. The script just assumes that Morgan has had three years to figure out what makes vampires tick, but little is explained to the audience, such as why vampires shun their reflections in a mirror. (The book’s protagonist methodically separates fact from fiction in his quest to understand vampires, revealing which characteristics are due to the plague and which are psychological/superstitious in nature.) The film also introduces the unlikely idea that Morgan’s blood can provide a cure, without ever asking the obvious question: If it was that easy, why did it take him so long for to figure it out?
Although the character has been rewritten for him - from a blue-collar worker into a scientist – Price seems miscast in the role. Much of the movie is a virtual one-man show, but it is a weak showcase, thanks to the shoddy production values. Price does his best when playing the mournful scenes, recalling the deaths of his family, watching old home movies, laughing until he cries, befriending the stray dog only to see it die. However, Price is weak when called on to take action. His character is not just a scientist but a two-fisted hero, who outruns and outfights hordes of vampires and tosses grenades at the climax. There is something just too refined about Price for us to believe him when he metaphorically jumps in the ring and gets down and dirty.
The depiction of a depopulated world is suitably barren: the quiet buildings, the empty city streets, dotted with dead bodies. (In case you find yourself wondering why the bodies are not decomposed skeletons: the film barely bothers to explain that these are the bodies of recently killed vampires – drained of blood by their own kind because no living human prey is available on the desolated planet.) The effect is slightly marred by the lack of decay: even though the Earth’s population died off three years ago, we see no cobwebs, no cracks, no overgrown vegetation. In one of the more unintentionally funny scenes, Morgan goes into a store and finds “fresh” garlic. (The book’s character grew his own, in a hot house.)
Images of the geat outdoor pit (where the dead are incinerated to prevent spreading the plague) are visually impressive; even without special effects to increase the scale, we get the point: the earth is going down in flames. Scenes of the vampires amassed outside Morgan’s house are frequently cited as inspiration for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), but despite the stark black-and-white photography, these scenes are indifferently handled (the vampires are more annoying than frightening).
In general, the staging and camerawork displays the lethargy of a cheap television play. (Interior scenes almost resemble the half-dozen classic TWILIGHT ZONE episodes that were shot on videotape, with minimal sets and resources.) The film really comes to life only at the end, when Morgan is hounded to his death by the violent “New Society” that has emerged to reclaim the Earth from the vampires. Curiously, these scenes fly by too quickly – just when the film is starting to get good, the pace picks up and rushes to the climax.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH will probably retain a small place in cinema history as the first adaptation of Matheson’s novel. The title and the concept, along with the presence of horror star Vincent Price, are enough to warrant some small interest, but in the final analysis the film must be reckoned a tremendous disappointment.
Italian prints credit the direction to Ubaldo Ragona; American prints credit Sidney Salkow. Apparently, Salkow (who had directed Price in TWICE-TOLD TALES) was on set to help his fellow-American and to prep the English-language version.
The screenplay is credited to William F. Leicester and “Logan Swanson” (Richard Matheson’s pen name, which he used because he was dissatisfied with the film). Although uncredited (at least on American prints), Ubaldo Ragona and Furio M. Monetti also contributed to the script.
Shot in Italy, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH never specifies its location but tries (unconvincingly) to suggest an unnamed American city. There seems to be at least one occasion on which the Italian screenwriters bungled American terminology: a news broadcast refers to the state governor as “His Excellency.”
Despite the film’s shortcomings, Vincent Price had a certain fondness for the film, because it offered him a chance to play a different sort of character, who got to display a wide range of emotions. Said Price, “I think it was better than THE OMEGA MAN, which Charlton Heston did later. “It had a kind of amateur quality about it. We worked in a studio that was so cold we hd to put ice water in our moths so you wouldn’t see our breath! It should be done as a great spectacular. You know, just buy a city and empty it out!”
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964). Directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow. Screenplay by Logan Swanson and William F. Leicester, based on the novel I Am Legendby Richard Matheson. Cast: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Umberto Raho, Christi Courtland, Antonio Corevi, Ettore Ribotta, Rolando De Rossi.