Beta-testing the Zombie Apocalypse
- The Last Man on Earth review by Count Otto Black
Firstly, if you're the kind of person who hates spoilers, tough luck! The poorly-spelled synopsis on the General Info page you've just read gives away the entire plot. Unless of course by the time you read this, it's been rewritten by someone who can do their job competently.
Anyway, this film has a special place in the history of horror cinema, because without it, we'd never have had "Night of the Living Dead" and the ever-growing genre it inspired. This is not technically a zombie movie. The monsters are plague survivors (well, semi-survivors) who coincidentally have many of the traits of supernatural vampires, and not-so-coincidentally even more closely resemble the zombies George Romero would invent a few years later. But for all practical purposes, it's the first zombie film in the modern sense, even beating Hammer's "The Plague of the Zombies", despite never once mentioning the word "zombie".
Based on Richard Matheson's novel "I am Legend", later filmed under that title starring Will Smith, and in between the two, as "The Omega Man" starring Charlton Heston, this Italian version starring Vincent Price (have any three more different actors ever played the same character?) is at its best when it's a straight horror movie. Hordes of uncoordinated half-undead slowly, clumsily assaulting the hero's house with moronic determination, and relentlessly coming back night after night. His ghastly daily routine of scouring the city for randomly slumped bodies and disposing of them in such a way that they won't get up again at sunset. And in the flashback "how it all began" scenes, the awful way that he finds out exactly how bad this disease is.
Unfortunately it's very flawed in other departments. Price is horribly miscast. He's obviously there purely because he's a generic American horror star, therefore his presence will sell the movie in the lucrative US market. In totally unrealistic situations where he can overact like mad, rolling his eyes and quoting Shakespeare while throwing his foes to starving rats or whatever, he's just fine! Here, as an ordinary man in an extraordinary predicament who for large stretches of the film has no-one to talk to except himself, in hideously clunky voiceover exposition, he often seems very awkward, especially in the flashbacks to pre-plague days, where he's downright wooden, though to be fair, everyone else is even worse (possibly lousy dubbing from Italian is partly to blame). In fact, the entire script, except where it directly quotes the source novel, is so bad it's just as well there's less dialogue than usual. And the low budget doesn't help. In particular, his home is so inadequately fortified that the inability of the zombies/vampires/whatever to get in, despite three years of trying to for hours on end every single night, makes them seem too useless to be all that menacing.
In the end, it's a very minor film with big ideas it couldn't properly bring off, a big star badly misused, and a disproportionately huge future impact. It's not without good bits, but mainly it's a historical curiosity.
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