Today’s Trillion Dollar Movie, Last Man on Earth, has been acknowledged by George A. Romero as one of the major works he “ripped off” in creating Night of the Living Dead. It’s an eerie, atmospheric adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the first of four movies based on that same tale, also including The Omega Man with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend with Will Smith. Here, Vincent Price portrays the stoic hero, presumably the last man alive, battling to survive against hordes of zombie-like vampires that awake each night to stalk the Earth.
The premise: A pandemic bacterial plague has wiped out everyone except Price, spared by virtue of having once been bitten by a vampire bat in Panama, inoculating him from the disease. He leads a lonely, monotonous existence, scavenging by day for food and supplies, and seeking out the vampire lairs so he can put them out of their misery by driving wooden stakes through their hearts. At nights, he retreats to a boarded-up sanctuary, blaring jazz records and drinking scotch, while the vampires gather outside, clamoring for his head.
The film’s official tagline sets the tone, “By night they leave their graves crawling, shambling, though empty streets, whimpering, pleading, begging for his blood!”
Britain’s Hammer Films originally acquired the rights to Matheson’s story, but passed along the project to American International Pictures, which produced the 1964 film on a shoestring budget in Rome, Italy. Matheson helped to co-write the screenplay, but withdrew his credit (going under the pseudonym Logan Swanson) after having creative differences with Price. Still, this is probably the one I Am Legend adaptation that best captures the mood of the book, while adhering most literally to its narrative twists.
Some modern viewers find it a little too languid and slow-moving for their tastes, but its groundbreaking importance can’t be denied. Its influence can be seen in practically every zombie movie made over the last half-century, notably Night of the Living Dead, but also Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Enjoy and return next Friday for another Trillion ($) Movie.