The Last Man on Earth
out of ****
A solitary men wakes up
in the morning and, shuffling about as if he is doing his normal,
daily custom, he gets dressed, has some breakfast, opens his
front door, and pulls a wreath of garlic and a broken mirror
from his windows. “I’ll
need to replace these,” a voiceover says routinely. He
walks out his front door. We notice various corpses lying about
the lawn and driveway. He goes to his garage and turns on a machine
that allows him to carve homemade stakes. “Another day,” the
voiceover mutters in a bored tone.
that for an attention-grabbing opening? But wait; it gets better:
Guided by this voiceover,
we proceed to watch this strange man throughout his day. As
the title implies, his city is totally empty and rundown, save
for him and corpses scattered here and there. He checks his
radio to see if anyone will answer his frequency. They do not,
because there is no one left to answer. He drives his car to
a grocery store and mirror shop to replace his house decorations.
He picks corpses up off the road, drives stakes through their
hearts, and throws them into a gigantic, burning pit on the
edge of town. Just before nightfall, he drives back to his
house, places the garlic and mirror on the windows again (“They are
allergic to garlic and hate to look at their reflection,” he
explains), and settles himself down with a meal and a nice
jazz piece on his phonograph.
That’s when the hammering and knocking starts on his
door. “Morgan, we’re coming for you!” ghoulish
voices shout. The man, Morgan, is repulsed but not terrified. “It’s
the same thing every night,” the voiceover says sadly.
Outside, pale, scruffy men and woman slowly bang on the door,
calling Morgan’s name longingly. They are the living dead,
and they are hungry for his blood.
Since this was the pre-Romero era of horror movies, the film
(and the book that it is based on, I Am Legend by Richard
Matheson) calls these unique creatures “vampires,” or
at least some version of them as created by an unspecified virus
that turns its victims into the shuffling, malevolent dead. In
the post-Romero era, we refer to these creatures as “zombies,” and
can consider the creatures in The Last Man on Earth as
Last Man on Earth preceded Night
of the Living Dead by five years, and it pretty much
served as its template. It is to Romero’s first zombie film
what Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress is to
George Lucas’s original Star Wars: The fountain
in which their inspiration came. Romero freely admits that his
film was a direct rip-off of Matheson’s novel; I would be
a little less harsh in my description and say that Romero merely
expanded the author’s ideas with deviations so completely
original that Night is expelled from being labeled a
true “rip-off.” Romero would go onto lean less heavily
on his source material and create his own, fully unique apocalyptic
vision in his opus Dawn
of the Dead (arguably the greatest zombie film ever made,
and if you disagree, you’re probably wrong); in the meantime,
The Last Man on Earth doesn’t make his Night
of the Living Dead any less powerful, but it does render
it perhaps a little less original.
The influences, in fact,
are obvious from the first frames of the picture and continue
into its conclusion: The gritty black and white, the grain,
the low-budget documentary-style of filmmaking, the social
commentary about the fear of the Red Scare (it’s
no coincidence that the virus comes from Europe and that Americans
are terrified that it is going to sweep into their country and
pollute them), the hungry undead trying to break into a barricaded
house, a grim ending that reeks of pessimism and desolation.
Even the zombies in Night of the Living Dead look and
sounds like the ghouls of The Last Man on Earth (sans
the verbal taunting).
similarities couldn’t stay hidden forever: The Last
Man on Earth has been rediscovered and is generally now correctly
considered as the first modern zombie film (“modern”
meaning a deviation from the Haitian origins of zombies and the
use of the term as a flesh-eating ghoul as established by Romero).
If Romero ultimately gave us a tighter, more confident film with
a clearer purpose and more terrifying ghouls, it cannot be denied
that he owes the basic plot threads and images of Night of
the Living Dead to this B-thriller.
influence notwithstanding, how does The Last Man on Earth
hold up today? Surprisingly well. Directors Sidney Salkow and
Ubaldo Ragona and star Vincent Price (giving a poignant, straightforward
performance) are able to conjure up some genuine chills here,
mainly in the use of stark, black-and-white images and the underlining
mood of the piece. The most haunting images include those of shrouded
bodies being tossed into a blazing pit and Price’s sulking
face as he plays jazz and tries to muffle out the sound of the
moaning dead outside. The film could have been an over-the-top
camp piece, but its makers are able to make most of it play very
subtly, slowly getting under our skin as Morgan’s despair
and madness eventually overtakes him.
Also, the ending contains
a very interesting twist that, of course, I will not give away—I will only say that it at
first seems to rival Romero’s own bleak ending, but in
retrospect, I don’t think that it is entirely without hope.
It only carefully robs Morgan of that hope and gives it to some
much unexpected late-in-the-game players.
reason that Romero’s film instantly became a classic while
this film fell into obscurity is mainly due to Romero’s
superior and cleverer storytelling skills: In his stripped-down
plot, explanations are kept to a bare minimum as the human characters
attempt to survive again each other and the dead. Ultimately,
the important, more clear use of social subtexts, both in the
story and in the zombies themselves, keep Night several
notches above its B-grade competition. Romero was also unafraid
to push the boundaries of censorship, implementing images of cannibalism
that even this gritty Italian production wouldn’t dare to
attempt. All the gore, of course, was part of the commentary that
society was eating itself alive, and the film therefore worked
on multiple levels. In The Last Man on Earth, the commentary
is present, but it seems like a footnote, and perhaps too much
time is spent explaining the phenomenon (the voiceovers quickly
get tiresome) with too little action happening.
there are plenty of good things to be seen here, and the film
deserves recognition if for no other reason than its contribution
to issuing in a new era of horror film. Shock-wise, it is tame
by today’s standards (and it was probably tame by its own
era’s standards), but it still conjures up plenty of simple,
offbeat chills that both compliments Romero well and stands on
its own as a bleak vision of a fully-realized apocalyptic world.
If the upcoming Land
of the Dead is truly the purported final chapter in Romero’s
Dead saga, The Last Man on Earth works an en effective
prologue to the series.
A.KA. Naked Terror, The
Night Creatures, Wind
Vincent Price: Robert Morgan
Rossi-Stuart: Ben Cortman
Emma Danieli: Virginia
Christi Courtland: Cathy Morgan
A film presented by American International Pictures. Directed
by Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona. Written by William Leicester.
Based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. No M.P.A.A.
rating, but contains no offensive material save a few tame images
of violence. Running time: 88 minutes. Original United States
theatrical release date: March 8, 1964.
here to read my review of Night of the Living Dead.