Sunday, May 12, 2013

May Day Movie Marathon, Part II

Vincent Price in his least
melodramatic role ever!
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
I first read Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend shortly after seeing the 2007 film adaptation of the same name. As entertaining as it was, I Am Legend (2007) deviates significantly from Matheson's original story, particularly with regards to the climax and the meaning of the title. Despite having a totally different name, The Last Man on Earth is significantly more faithful to its source, to the extent that there are no real surprises for anyone who has read the book.

[Note that this review will contain spoilers for both the film as well as its source.]

Every day of Dr. Robert Morgan's life seems exactly like the one before it. Each morning he wakes up, checks his food supplies, makes sure his generator has enough fuel, does a little woodworking, and drives around the deserted city in his station wagon running errands. Those errands include picking up some fresh garlic, getting new mirrors to replace the smashed ones, throwing corpses into the endlessly burning pit on the outskirts of town, and breaking into homes to stake their undead inhabitants.

As far as he can tell, Dr. Morgan is the "Last Man on Earth", or at least the last living man on Earth. Everyone else succumbed to an invariably fatal disease three years ago... and then awoke looking for human blood. Every night these monsters congregate outside of his home trying to get in. Every night the vampire who was once his friend, Ben Cortman, shouts "Come out, Morgan!" The only thing between Morgan and the vampires are makeshift fortifications, strands of garlic, and mirrors. It also helps that the vampires are relatively weak and lack the intelligence they had in life.

A lengthy flashback reveals that our hero once had a wife and daughter. As the plague swept across the world, Dr. Morgan and others had worked feverishly but futilely to find a cure. Soon some of his fellow laboratory workers had contracted the disease while others like Ben Cortman whispered about the government's sinister reasons for burning the victims' corpses in the massive pit on the edge of town. When the plague hit his household, Morgan told his wife not to let the authorities know that their daughter was ill. While he understood intellectually that the government was burning the victims' bodies in an attempt to contain the disease, he couldn't bear the thought of his daughter being thrown into the smoldering pit. However, a desperate Mrs. Morgan broke down while her husband was at work and called the doctor. Morgan arrived from work later that evening to find an Army truck taking his daughter's body away.

When his wife came down with the disease, Morgan vowed not to let her end up in the pit too. The night after her death, he took her to a nearby field and buried her. In his exhaustion and grief he found himself unable to bury his wife more than a foot or two in the ground. Later that night, while preparing to go to bed, Morgan heard a hoarse voice calling his name. When he opened the door, Morgan found that the bizarre rumors that the plague victims were rising from the dead to prey on the living were most definitely true.

Three years after being forced to kill his undead wife, the last man on Earth has become utterly despondent, his singular immunity to the plague being a curse rather than a blessing. Day after day he searches houses for undead inhabitants and stakes them, but night after night the vampires gather outside his home and torment him. His first glimmer of hope in three years comes one day in the form of a stray dog; the first truly living creature he's seen since the plague completely enveloped the globe. When he finally brings the dog home, its odd behavior concerns him. A blood test shows that the animal isn't immune to the disease after all, and Morgan buries the staked corpse shortly thereafter.

Not long after burying the dog, Morgan finds an even more unexpected surprise during one of his daylight travels: a woman walking through an empty field. The woman, Ruth, startles and runs when he starts yelling, forcing Morgan to chase after her. She's understandably nervous when he takes her to his home near sunset and starts barricading the place. While ecstatic to be speaking to another human being for the first time in years, Morgan starts to suspect that the situation is too good to be true.

When Morgan finally pushes a string of garlic in her face, Ruth nearly vomits. Since one of the characteristics of the infected is an allergic reaction to garlic, the doctor insists that Ruth's blood be tested. She claims that a weak stomach caused the reaction, but other plague symptoms and the vial of vaccine and the syringe that she fails to conceal proves that she's lying. She eventually admits the horrible truth: her people sent her to spy on Morgan. Like herself, Ruth's people are infected but can keep the disease at bay with a vaccine, although many of them remain sensitive to daylight and are therefore nocturnal.

Now, imagine that you believe that you're the last human being on Earth and are convinced that everyone you come across during your daytime hunts is a vampire that must be destroyed. That's right; along with the undead, Morgan has also staked many diseased, but still living, human beings over the past three years. In the eyes of Ruth's people, Morgan is a monster that hunts down and murders innocent people while they sleep.

Soon a well armed mob shows up outside of Morgan's house, destroys all the undead surrounding it, and goes after Morgan himself. The doctor makes a run for it but is eventually caught inside of a church. Having seen that the fiend her people fear is simply a lonely man who didn't know what he was doing, Ruth asks for him to be spared. This goes about as well as can be expected in a movie like this and Morgan takes a few spears to the body. With his last breath, our hero calls his killers freaks and claims that he is the last man on Earth.

I knew beforehand that I would like The Last Man On Earth; it's a Vincent Price movie about a vampire apocalypse! Like Will Smith's I Am Legend, this movie has a strong first half featuring an engaging actor who is able to carry significant portions of the film by himself. While the older movie takes the easy way out and incorporates a lot of voice-over narration to let us in on the protagonist's thoughts, the fact that the narrator is Vincent Price more than makes up for it.

At the same time, I found it lacking in a few places, particularly near the end. By conveying the loneliness and horror of the hero's life as well as it does, it sets the bar for what follows a bit too high. For starters, this horror film isn't all that scary. Only once, when he loses track of time and arrives home late, do the vampires really threaten Morgan. But the creatures' clumsiness and weakness mean that he's able to get back to the safety of his home after only a brief and unsatisfying struggle. Scenes featuring hordes of the undead surrounding your house and calling you out by name should be frightening by their very nature, but the filmmakers present them in a static and unexciting way. The only truly creepy scene is during the flashback when Morgan's wife comes back from the dead. A few more moments like that one would have made The Last Man On Earth a much more effective horror film.

Another shortcoming is in the film's failure to discuss the nature of its sci-fi vampires. All we get from The Last Man On Earth is that the vampires are the result of a disease, that the victims (undead or not) are allergic to garlic and sensitive to light, and that Morgan's stakes are designed to hold open the wound so that "their body seal can't function". We don't get any elaboration on the vampires' self-sealing ability nor why other things like crosses or mirrors also ward them off. Matheson's novel, on the other hand, spends a lot of time explaining why his bacteria-spawned vampires behave according to the legends. The novel's Robert Neville (who isn't a doctor and does his research as a way to distract himself) finds that the vampire bacteria dies when exposed to air. To protect itself, the bacteria introduces a type of glue into the bodies of its victims. Narrow cuts or holes made by bullets seal too quickly for the bacteria to die, but stakes keep the wound open and allow enough air in to kill it. Mirrors and crosses (and Stars of David for those who had been Jewish) work on some vampires since the remnants of their personalities feel remorse or horror when reminded of what they have become. Unfortunately, The Last Man On Earth doesn't go into enough detail and the reason why Morgan feels compelled to replace the mirrors that the creatures smash each night remains unexplained.

Finally, we come to a significant philosophical difference between The Last Man On Earth and I Am Legend. When Neville finds out that he's been killing the living along with the undead, he's devastated. He makes no attempt to escape or hide despite having several weeks or even months between Ruth's warning and her people's attack. It's only when he sees the brutality with which the infected dispatch the undead that he attempts to defend himself, which results in him getting shot before he's captured. Since the infected are certain to execute him (possibly in a very unpleasant manner), Ruth gives Neville some pills to finish off what the gunshot wound started. As the pills do their work, he looks out his cell window at the mobs of the infected and realizes that, to them, he is as frightening and terrible an entity as any vampire had been to him. A being that could walk in broad daylight and killed their friends and family, Neville had become a legend among them.

Like Neville, Dr. Morgan also finds out that he has been killing the living, but if he feels remorse for it he doesn't really show it. Instead of empathizing with the fear and hatred of the infected as Neville does, Morgan calls them freaks and implies that they're no longer human. He had been a likeable character up to this point, but he loses the viewers' sympathy with his refusal to accept that he made a mistake that killed countless innocents.

(I won't go into detail, but even The Last Man On Earth's slightly disappointing ending is better than that of the theatrical cut of 2007's I Am Legend, which tacked an unimaginative Hollywood ending onto an otherwise good movie. The film's alternate ending, which preserves the general idea of Matheson's story, is a lot better.)

On a historical note, horror fans may notice that George Romero's zombie movies (e.g., Night of the Living Dead (1968)) have a lot in common with this film. It's not a coincidence; Romero admitted that he borrowed liberally from Matheson's novel.

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