‘The Last Man on Earth’ (1964) Review

“I can’t live a heartbeat away from hell – and forget it.”

After last week’s 50 Underrated Movies You Need to See I ended up with both a list of movies I really need to see (and you should too), and a nagging suspicion that if I really wanted people to watch the movies I contributed to the list, then I should probably review them. I have reviewed a few, including The Black Hole, Constantine, Body Snatchers and Mystery of the Wax Museum. (I even did one of Waxwork, which was a Vincent Kane contribution to the list.) There are a bunch that I still need to get to, though – and I plan on spend the next few installments of Fear Flashback on the horror related films, starting with the Vincent Price classic, The Last Man on Earth.

I read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend pretty late in my sci-fi reading history. I’d already seen and read a dozen things that were inspired by (or blatantly ripped off) the book, but it still had power, and is well worth a read if you get a chance.

While you can see its influence in things like the original Night of the Living Dead, I don’t think anyone’s really done the original story justice – official adaptations included. The Last Man on Earth comes the closest, however. Omega Man has its own cheesy glories, but as an adaptation of the novel it fails miserably. I Am Legend was a fun movie – and in some ways captured a bit of that epic loneliness of the main character – but it’s an action movie at the end of the day, more concerned with the CGI monsters and action set pieces.

No, Last Man on Earth – despite the slow pacing, bad acting (except for Price) and the low-budget feel to the whole affair – is the most faithful. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of opinion. I happen to think it’s the best of the bunch – with at least some of the changes from the novel being necessary. At one point in time Fritz Lang was mentioned as a possible director – and I can’t help but wonder what that would have looked like.

Though Richard Matheson expressed a disappointment with the film – going so far as to say Vincent Price was mis-cast – there’s a reason much of the screenplay is as close the original story as it is. Screenwriter Logan Swanson is actually Richard Matheson’s pen name, a combination of his wife’s maiden name as well as his mother’s.

The Medium
The Last Man on Earth is available on a large number of free streaming services, including Tubi, Pluto, The Roku Channel and Popcornflix (though do yourself a favor, and make sure it’s not the ‘colorised’ version).  It’s also available for subs on Fandor and Classix, as well as for rent and purchase on Amazon and Vudu.

Scream Factory released a Blu-ray version as part of its Vincent Price Collection II, and it’s fantastic. It’s also out of print, unfortunately, and hard to find. The picture is a revelation compared to the low-quality versions I’ve seen on TV and DVD. The picture is sharp and detailed and the contrast is much improved, providing a depth sorely lacking in previous releases.

The Movie
It’s the end of the world and we know it. The sun rises on an empty LA. Bodies and debris litter the streets. In a residential neighborhood, in a house festooned with garlic and mirrors, the Last Man on Earth is waking up.

The bleakness of Morgan’s existence is made obvious early on in Last Man on Earth. The shots of various parts of LA (or more likely, parts of Italy) with corpses strewn about, empty streets, debris everywhere. Then there’s Morgan’s house – full of just the most essential things, piled up everywhere. His living room includes a record player, but it also has a shortwave radio setup and a lathe where he makes stakes. There are what look like blood splatters on the walls. This is a man who is just surviving – and really, if you’re the last person on earth, who do you have to clean up for?

Normally I dislike narration, but I’ll make an exception for Vincent Price. It’s really a one-man show, this movie, and he does a fantastic job – alternately stoic and on the edge of breaking down. I do think it might be better if the opening sequences were silent, though. It’s grim as is, but I think it would be worse.

It’s an average day for Morgan, bleak as it is. Need garlic and gas. Pile the corpses he finds outside of his house into the back of his station wagon and drive them to a smoking pit where he dumps the bodies. Then it’s a trip to the grocery store, past piles of corpses.

At this point the rational part of your brain has questions. Generators still working, gas still available after three years? Food still neatly stacked on shelves? Corpses EVERYWHERE? In a modern movie all this stuff would be smashed, the food taken during the collapse of society – but it was a different time.

A good portion of Morgan’s day is going door to door, room to room, killing what can only be described as vampires. It’s gotta be vampires, right? We’ve got garlic, mirrors, and stakes. Yet they look and act more like zombies. Especially once he returns home just before sundown and the creatures come out of the dark to assault his house. He turns on some music, pours himself a drink, and tries to ignore the scratching and pounding and the moaning of his name.

That look on his face as they assault the house. Imagine three years of that. Gah.

The next day Morgan goes to visit his wife’s crypt. One eerie detail – the cemetery is jammed with the rows of cheap, makeshift crosses. He falls asleep and by the time he wakes up the sun has already set. He’s forced to run a gauntlet of the creatures to get to his car and back to the house.

Dude. Despite the trappings they’re not vampires. They ARE zombies. Slow-moving, fairly weak, trouble in groups. Zombies.

This must have been one of the first post-apocalyptic movies that had all these elements. A wrecked city, a lone survivor watching films of his family, checking on the radio for survivors, slowly going mad. Vincent Price is really good in this. I mean he’s good normally, but just really understated and effective here. If you’re used to the bombastic, over-the-top performances of his Poe cycle (or almost any horror movie he’s been in) you might be surprised at the subtlety he shows in this role.

We eventually get a flashback to life before, when the plague was just getting started, and geez, that’s an effective flashback. Here’s what life was like – before your daughter was taken away to be burned by the military. Before your wife came back from the grave to try and kill you. And your best friend is the monster trying to kill you every night. We get a very good sense of how things are falling apart. And they actually the word “vampires.” (Zombies were still of the Haitian voodoo variety in movies at this point, four years before Romero changed everything.)

Unfortunately, nobody is a really good actor in this film so far except Price. It’s not horrible, as most of the film is just him, but it’s noticeable when any other actors have lines.

While the cheapness and occasional ham-handed moment of SCIENCE! (Morgan may be immune because he was… bitten by a vampire bat once?) causes these sequences to suffer in comparison to the earlier segments, there are some effective moments of horror. There’s a bit in the flashback where the military has come and taken Morgan’s daughter, who has been infected. He rushes to the pit where they’re burning bodies – the same pit he’s dumping at in the earlier part of the film. The military won’t let him pass and he wails that it’s his daughter in there. The soldier’s reply:  “Mister, a lot of daughters are in there. Including my own.”

That is some dark shit right there.

You know, it’s small bits that stick out to me. That he doesn’t clean up the sawdust from making stakes. The joy on Morgan’s face when he sees the stray dog. The horror at the return of his wife. It’s awesome – awful, but awesome.

Eventually Morgan finds someone else IS alive. A woman named Ruth that runs when she first sees him, though he’s able to catch up to her and convince her to come with him. What’s interesting (at least to me) is that he’s less overjoyed at finding her than he was at finding the dog. Maybe it’s the suspicion that things will all go wrong. He’s right about that, and Ruth is hiding a terrible secret. One that will eventually lead to Morgan’s death.

The ending is substantially different from the book, but it is more exciting, with a chase, a gunfight and a final confrontation in a church. There’s some dialogue with Ruth about him being just as much a monster to those he’s killed as they are to him, but it gets a bit muddled in the rush. (And I wish he’d called them monsters instead of ‘freaks’ for some reason.) There’s no real representation of a new order taking the place of the old – it’s just a bunch of people in black rushing about with guns, suddenly.

The Bottom Line
It’s definitely a low-budget movie, but The Last Man on Earth is a more effective and interesting film than I think it’s given credit for. Vincent Price is great and if the rest of the cast doesn’t measure up, well, who does? Like the other adaptations of I Am Legend this one is flawed, but even a flawed gem shines if you tilt it just right to the light.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.