The Bad Movie Report

The Last Man on Earth

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How 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?

Okay, 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.

Now, 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.

We're 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 thus:

The last man on earth sat in his room. There was a lock on the door.

Question being, why would the last man on earth need a lock?

Well, 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 of town.

Then you stop at a supermarket where you somehow have the generator running and get some fresh garlic to put on your UMPH!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.

Then 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.

A man's home is his prison.

Eventually, 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.

You worked hard at the Institute, with your friend, Ben - dismissing his talk about the rumors going around. Rumors about It's gonna get worse, you two.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...

Then 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.

And 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....

Too late. You opened the door, didn't you?

Didn't you?  DIDN'T YOU??!!

Yes, 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! Come out!"

One 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, "What's the use?"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.

The next day he buries a burlap bag with a stake driven through it.

But 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.


And 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 end.

There 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.

Price 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 Did Corman produce this, too?  Turn up the heat!Vincent prepares to make his famous spaghetti.(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.

While 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.

Contrast 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.

Bad child acting.Then 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.

Though 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.

I 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.

A 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.

Is there a cure for this? No. Doesn't mean I have to like it, though.

Speaking 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: Omega Man.

Yes, 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!)

Boo hoo, etc.  Christ, I need a beer!All 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.


Crap. Now I'm depressed.

- October 17, 1999