the hell did I do that? How did I make through two years and
nearly eighty reviews, and yet manage to not review a single Vincent
Price movie? How is such a thing possible?
now, everybody take a seat, and get ready to take notes. What we have
here is a genuinely seminal film. All of you who are snickering
can just leave the classroom right now and go down the hall to Night of the Creeps - they'll
welcome you with open arms.
where was I? Oh, yes. This week's movie. Let's face it folks, this is
that rarity, the one you don't see that often: A Grand-daddy. The Progenator.
The First. From this movie descends an entire genré,
a definable breed of its own, a type of movie still being made today:
This is Zombie Movie Zero.
getting ahead of ourselves a bit. First it should be mentioned that
there's a hoary old chestnut about a short short story called "The
Shortest Science-Fiction Story Ever Written", which went like this:
The last man on earth sat in his
room. There was a knock at the door.
Until some wag came up with an even shorter story, which went
The last man on earth sat in his
room. There was a lock on the door.
being, why would the last man on earth need a lock?
we could ask that question of the Last Man himself, Robert Morgan (Vincent
Price), as he awakens to a new day with all the energy of a man who
wishes he had died in his sleep. When you're the Last Man on Earth,
you actually have a pretty full schedule. After a cup of coffee, you
unbar your doors, put some gasoline into your generator, and then pick
up the dead bodies in your front yard (while thinking, "The
strong feed off the weak"), load them into the back of your
car, and drive them to the eternally burning plague pit on the edge
you stop at a supermarket where you somehow have the generator running
and get some fresh garlic to put on your doors.
You also stop at a store to get some mirrors to replace the ones 'they'
smashed last night. Those go up on doors and windows, to keep 'them'
away. Are the boards across the windows still secure? Then it's time
to use that lathe in the living room to make more wooden stakes. You
check your city map and and find out which block you're supposed to
search today, and mark off the one you cleared yesterday.
you take a bag full of stakes to that part of the city and you go door
to door, finding 'them' sleeping, away from the sun, and you drive stakes
into their hearts so 'their body seal can't work'. It's getting late,
so you hurry home, lock the car in the garage, and barricade yourself
inside the house. As soon as the sun goes down, 'they' are outside,
beating on the walls and boarded-up windows, moaning for you to "Come
out! Morgan! Come out!" You try to drown them out with music. You
drink a lot. You wake up the next morning and it starts all over again.
you have a flashback to three years ago, when everybody was alive
and you were one of many scientists trying to find a cure for a disease
that was apparently borne on the wind and had already decimated Europe.
You were happily married then, too, with a daughter who had just celebrated
her sixth birthday. Just before the wind came.
worked hard at the Institute, with your friend, Ben - dismissing his
talk about the rumors going around. Rumors about people
who died from the plague coming back to life and walking around. Nonsense!
Why do you think they burn the bodies immediately? Ben would
ask. Standard procedure, you would glibly reply, now let's
get to work. Never mind that your wife and daughter are both getting
progressively weaker, especially in the daylight hours...
came the dreadful day you came back from the Institute, and saw the
Army truck taking away your daughter's body, to burn in that dreadful
pit. And the next day, your wife collapses.... but no, they won't get
her. You drive out into the country, and give her a decent burial.
that night... late that night... there is a sound at your front door.
Somebody is turning the knob, left and right. Somebody is whispering,
"Let me in...", over. And over. And over. It sounds
like your wife. No, No, don't open the door....
late. You opened the door, didn't you?
Morgan opens the door, and it was a big mistake. His wife, everybody
who wasn't burned at the pit, has returned as some manner of vampire,
uable to bear looking into a mirror or withstand the smell of garlic.
And his old friend. Ben? He's the one outside calling, "Morgan!
day, Morgan sees a dog on the street. Since it's the first living
thing he's seen in ages, he pursues it and only manages to frighten
it off. But he does find some dead vampires, with a difference
- these have been staked, not by his wooden weapons, but
by iron spears - they look like they were cut from some fence.
Puzzled, he goes home; somebody is doing the same work he is - why don't
they contact him? The dog has doubled back, wounded and dirty. Morgan
takes it in, feeds it, bathes it, dresses its wounds, then sits and
talks to it like an old friend as the vampires gather outside, beating
and calling. Finally, Morgan can stand it no longer and examines the
dog's blood under a microscope. Of course. It's infected.
next day he buries a burlap bag with a stake driven through it.
the picture's not finished messing with him yet. While burying the dog,
he sees a woman - walking in broad daylight. There's a brief
chase, then Morgan offers the frightened woman shelter - the sun will
be setting soon. Her name is Ruth, we are told, and eventually we find
out that Morgan's paranoid certainty is correct - she is infected,
but she's taking an injection that holds the disease in check, like
insulin controls diabetes. People taking these injections have all the
symptoms, but do not die, and therefore do not become vampires.
here is the kicker - while Morgan thought he was exterminating the vampire
race, he was actually killing innocent people. He has become
a boogey man in reverse, coming out only during the day to kill, a legend,
a whispered threat to make children behave. And the non-vamps are coming
to kill him. Ruth was sent as a spy. Never mind that Morgan uses a Home
Transfusion kit to give Ruth his immune blood antibodies, curing her
- the non-vamps chase Morgan to a church and spear him beneath the crucifix,
with only Ruth, now the sole carrier of the cure, to mourn him. The
are a lot of times while watching The Last Man on Earth that
you will think to youself, "am I watching Night of the Living
Dead?" The black and white photography, the boarded windows,
the shambling zombies - er, vampires - the downbeat ending. This movie
and its source novel, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson (required
reading for all horror fans), are the acknowledged inspiration behind
Night of the Living Dead. (The gut munching part, Romero and
crew brought to the party.) Matheson is a terrific writer whose name
should crop up in genré circles a lot more often than
it seems to. For one thing, his novels also formed the basis for The
Incredible Shrinking Man, The Legend of Hell House and Stir of
Echoes. And Trilogy of Terror (with that damned creepy Zuni
doll), Somewhere in Time.... ah, you get the idea.
could ham it up with the best of them, but Last Man also allows
him to show off some nice acting chops that would be (and
should be) envied by current matinee idols. Oh, not just the breakdowns,
those are easy to do - extreme emotions are much simpler to act out
than the more complex, subtle ones. Morgan walks in a constant slump,
the burden of his solo status and the bloody work he undertakes weighing
him down at every step. His weary depression and sadness informs every
motion. Price even makes him unsympathetic at times, rendering his Everyman-turned-Van-Helsing
all the more real to us. I hesitate to use the phrase tour de force,
but Price certainly shows himself to be a good, highly capable actor
here. It's the mark of good acting - you see it in his eyes.
the star is good, the script never quite manages to bring itself up
to his level. The scenes with the vampires assaulting the safe house
are afflicted with the same languid speed as the vampires themselves,
possessing not much in the way of menace. Even when a mourning Price
nods off in a mausoleum (where he has apparently secreted his staked
wife - it's never explained), and has to fight his way back to his house
when he awakens after dark, we're never too concerned that he might
not make it. As he explains to Ruth, he only has to take the precautions
he does because there are so many of them - they're weak, slow,
and not terribly smart.
this to the novel, which has opens with a much better version
of the nodding-off scene: Morgan is going about his business, and checks
his watch. Three o'clock. Still plenty of time. Later, he checks his
watch. Three o'clock. Still plenty of.... wait a minute. Yes,
his watch has run down, leaving him far away from his home with the
sun going down. Why this was jettisoned in favor of a mawkish, unrealistic
device for placing the character in peril is unknown.
again, another area in which the movie fails is what is supposed to
be the happy flashback, where Morgan's 'domestic bliss' is simply awkward
and painful to behold; that the character of his daughter is, typical
for film of the time, so quickly and badly written that the poor child
merely becomes annoying. It is hoped that the mere sight of the daughter,
holding her arms out to nobody under her useless mosquito netting, blind
in the daylight, will devastate us. The idea plucks at my heartstrings;
the presentation (no parent, faced with a blind child asking, "Mommy?
Where are you?" would not answer) and the shrill, badly
dubbed performance simply made me eager for the next scene.
it fails in the scripting department, Last Man supplies some
powerful imagery. At the beginning, Morgan looks at a calendar for the
year 1965; the camera slowly pans across the wall, across the handmade
calendars he's drawn on the wallpaper, so he can mark off each day,
until we come to 1968, the 'present' of the movie. His daughter's birthday
party, full of life and children at play, dissolves to the deadly wind
blowing over empty, overturned playground equipment. And the return
of Morgan's dead wife is full of the dread that should be at work throughout
the entire picture. I must say, however, that the final scene, where
Morgan is speared in the side beneath a similarly wounded Christ, is
just a shade too overt for my taste. Director Sidney Salkow was
mainly known for second-string westerns and pirate films; this movie
sorely required a Bava at the helm.
cannot help but feel that the opening sequence would have been much
more powerful and involving without Price's constant overheard inner
monologue; perhaps it was silent, at some point, and the narration added
later because film distributors know that all audience members are idiots.
nice, slow discovery as to what this film's world is like would have
raised my interest in the proceedings nicely, but this begs another
question, a much thornier one: you see, we already know what's
going on. As the movie was made in 1964, there's no real way to avoid
that, but this is something that has concerned me about films for a
while now: we are rarely allowed a sense of discovery, of surprise anymore.
I was able to enjoy The Matrix because I was a hermit through
most of the summer; I knew too much about Blair Witch Project
(my fault, I sought the stuff out). You know that at some point
in the making of Terminator 2, it was thought that the revelation
that Schwarzenegger was playing a good Terminator was going to
be a cool surprise. Too bad the publicity machine blabbed that two years
before the picture even opened.
there a cure for this? No. Doesn't mean I have to like it, though.
of Arnold, his name was attached to yet another movie version of I
Am Legend; so were the names Ridley Scott and Kurt Russell, at one
time or another. I have only two words of caution to these worthies:
I know a lot of people like this movie. Yes, I know it made beaucoup
bucks. I don't care. I despise it. It represents for me everything
that is wrong about the way Hollywood approaches such properties: if
it's good as is, why, it can only be improved by the addition of gunplay,
explosions, chase scenes and sex. Fie on The Omega Man, fie!
When you guys are serious about making a horror movie, let me
know. (and keep Jan De Bont and Roland Emmerich the f@#k away from it!)
my bitching and sniping aside, The Last Man on Earth remains
the best version (past Night of the Living Dead) of Matheson's
book, although the novel's ending, unlike the movie's, manages the neat
trick of avoiding being totally downbeat. This Italian production took
the emotional heart of the novel, the weight of what it truly means
to be The Last Man, and creates a bleak, sorrowful landscape from it.
Though not totally successful as a horror film, it nonetheless stays
with you, far past its meager running time. For that, and its historical
importance to the horror genré, it deserves to be seen.