Detour: The Last Man on Earth


1964

Director:  Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow

Cast:  Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomi Rossi-Stuart

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7).  It’s a dream setup:  Vincent Price as the titular character in a post-apocalyptic world filled with vampiric zombie plague victims.  How will he survive?  Should he?  Turns out the film is a little sluggish, and it’s definitely a sad film with a tragic ending.  Watch it if you like Price or are fascinated with the basic idea, but don’t expect a lot of action or even a deep and meaningful plot.  Instead, it’s a sad film about the end of the world—which it does well, though not with a lot of style.

Introduction

We’ve already seen this story once before—it’s from Richard Matheson‘s novel The Last Man on Earth which was made into two other films, The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston and I Am Legend starring Will Smith.  In a bad sign, Matheson, who co-wrote the screenplay, was unhappy with it, and used a pseudonym in the credits (apparently you have to be credited to receive royalties).  However, Vincent Price was said to have been “fond” of the film, and it’s not without redeeming characteristics—as long as you accept the film for what it is.

On the surface, the film has it all:  Vincent Price as the last man on Earth, all others having been killed in a horrendous plague which animates the dead in a horrible parody of life.  So…Vincent Price, vampire-zombies, stakings, a fight for survival, the discovery of another survivor…what went wrong?  Why isn’t the film wickedly fun?

Well, it’s not supposed to be fun.  It’s a tragic tale about the end of the human race and a missed opportunity to save it.  And in that sense, it achieves exactly what it sets out to do:  it shows us the end of the world, and the end of the human race, more or less.  The film strips away everything that Dr. Robert Morgan (Price), values in his life, and then it offers a glimmer of hope—only twice to dash that hope against a harsh, cruel reality.

One other thing:  this film is now in the public domain, so you should be able to find it for free out in the wilds of the Internet…

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy is the last man alive in the whole world.  By day, he hunts and stakes the sleeping vampire-zombies.  By night, he returns to his home, which the zombies are too stupid to be able to get into.  He has adventures with the vampire zombies who try to kill him.  In a flashback sequence, we see him working in a laboratory with his best friend as the plague sweeps Europe.  His daughter catches the plague and dies while he is at work.  His wife calls the doctor, and military personnel throw the child’s body into a pit where the bodies are burned.  Boy’s wife gets the plague, and he buries her rather than burn the body.  She comes back to life and comes home as a zombie-vampire.  Fade to black.  Boy finds dog, and looks forward to having a pet.  Boy realizes dog is infected.  Boy stakes dog (offscreen—we only see the burial).  Boy meets girl, another survivor, but quickly realizes that she is infected.  Boy catches girl injecting herself with a mixture of blood and antibodies, and girl admits she is infected, and part of a group trying to rebuild society.  Some of boy’s vampire victims have been the semi-cured, and they sent girl to spy on him.  They’re coming for him tonight because they fear him, and she urges him to run.  Instead, boy cures girl with his own blood, but then the semi-cured arrive.  Boy flees, but not in time, and is killed in a church, standing in front of an altar.  Girl comes in, and holds boy while he dies.  The day is…well, this is a fine mess, isn’t it?

Impressions

I expected a stylish, fast-paced film with eerie hallmarks and a slightly sinister protagonist who would strike fear into the hearts of all who encountered him, a subdued but edgy psycho vibe.  I thought I’d see some reasonably fast-paced action, alongside a slowly building horrible realization that the protagonist, Dr. Robert Morgan, had been killing the good guys.  I expected a slow burn as we realized that Ruth was actually one of the infected, and that her community of in-betweens represented a terrible danger to Morgan, even though Ruth herself liked Robert.

That isn’t what I got at all.

I am certainly the victim of my own expectations here, created in part because of who Vincent Price is, and in part because of my knowledge of the tale from The Omega Man and my research into it.

Take the film as it is, however, without any expectations, and it’s a rather subtle and effective piece of tragedy.  It has some limitations, but overall, it works exactly the way it’s supposed to.

First, let’s look at the negatives.  The scenery is bland and uninspired.  Instead of striking visuals of a devastated landscape, the film gives us an empty (and small) town.  There are no signs of weathering or decay, and it’s not particularly spooky.  Though the film is replete with the symbology associated with vampires—crosses, garlic and mirrors—they don’t create much in the way of atmosphere.  Even the graveyard, which resembles Arlington National Cemetary with row upon row of white crosses, does not create any spooky impressions.  Morgan himself wears an ordinary v-neck cardigan sweater and jacket which would not be out of place today.  Ruth, his fellow survivor, is similarly ordinarily clad.

The music is also a bit on the boring side.  It’s effective, in a melodramatic sort of way, but it’s hardly stirring.

Budget constraints probably influenced these two factors.

The performances are…well, they aren’t flat, exactly.  They’re just ordinary.  Price, as Dr. Robert Morgan, does a nice job showing the requisite emotions—fear, horror, despair, and hope—but he’s not particularly unusual.  His character has been numbed by the death surrounding him, and the loss of all he knows and loves, though he is animated and emotional in the third segment of the film, after the first and second glimmers of hope…so Price delivers a fairly nuanced performance, which is not what I expect from him.  It’s not over the top; it’s appropriate to the film.  Be aware, however, that it is a departure from his normal range.

Franca Bettoia, as the semi-infected Ruth, has a really tough job, and she actually does a nice job with it as well.  She’s hysterical when she first encounters Morgan, barely speaking and trembling with fear.  She slowly realizes that Morgan is not the monster her people have made him out to be, and comes to trust him—but too late to do much good.  In any event, Bettoia delivers the goods in a difficult role.

There are some problems with the plot.  As I mentioned, the zombie-vampires are horrendously ineffective.  Their chief weapons seem to be boards.  They aren’t even boards with nails in them.  They’re just boards.  As threats go, they’re ludicrous.  They can’t even get into a simple house once the door is locked or barred.  So they don’t seem all that dangerous, because they aren’t.  Robert Morgan, the protagonist, kills them because they’re out for his blood, presumably literally, but it isn’t actually necessary, since they seem incapable of real harm.  Instead it’s just sort of sad—as is Morgan’s predicament, that of being alive and completely alone.  That may be the point…

The other element of the plot that doesn’t work very well is the speed with which we discover what’s going on under the surface, as it were.  It all comes spilling out in a torrent in under ten minutes.  There are no signs that something deeper is going on until Morgan discovers that someone is staking the undead, and he quickly discovers Ruth at that point and gets distracted.  Everything spills out almost immediately.  I would have preferred a slow burn there, with more signs that something was going on from the beginning…

There are a few moments of genuinely silly ideas buried in the film.  Though it’s a science fiction horror film, and the key issue is one of disease, the bacterial nature of the disease is really just a smokescreen so we can get on with the plot.  The bacterium is capable of animating the dead, for starters, and there’s no real explanation for how that can be.  Even worse, for some reason regular blood and a vaccine together allow some of the victims to stave off the effects of the disease.  The mirrors, garlic and sunlight are odd, to say the least, and should add a great deal of atmosphere; perhaps in another context or with some sort of explanation they might have.  Finally, Morgan hypothesizes that the reason he’s immune to the disease is because he was once bitten by a vampire bat…

I’ve discussed the Matheson novel in my review of The Omega Man, and I won’t go into it again here.  But The Last Man on Earth is much more faithful to the novel, with one glaring omission:  Dr. Morgan never really becomes the monster.  After he’s been staked, a mortal wound, he cries out that the semi-infected are all freaks, and that he is the last true man on earth.  There’s no realization that he’s become a monster, which might have been more interesting.

Wrap-up

All told, this is an immensely sad film with a terribly dismal premise.  It’s difficult for me to evaluate it on its own merits, because I was expecting something so much different from what I got—stylish thriller with a menacing protagonist versus a tragic story of a man who slowly loses everything.  It isn’t a standard three act tragedy, mind you (the three acts all function on their own without any real need for the other two, and the second act is a flashback instead of a part of a rising action sequence, and that’s assuming that three act tragedies actually exist anyway).  The first act shows us Morgan after he’s lost it all, in a numb and hopeless state;  the second act, a flashback, shows us how he got there; and the third act offers hope for the future, which the film snatches away.  As always in tragedies, it’s what the characters don’t know that gets them in trouble.

All that said, it’s a good film, though not a great one, which is hindered by a low budget.  It’s not a fun film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s still worth watching.

Comparisons, as they say, are odious, but there’s no way I can finish without touching on Charlton Heston in The Omega Man.  It, too, is a sad film with a tragic ending—the staking of Morgan at the altar, and the spearing of Neville in the pool are similar in tone and even in the religious undercurrents—but the two films couldn’t be more different.  Heston brings a bit of style to the role, and The Omega Man is a more energetic film with more even pacing and some subtleties lacking in the very straight-forward and much bleaker Last Man on Earth.  Perhaps that’s because Omega Man is character-driven while Last Man is event-driven.  At any rate, The Last Man on Earth is worth watching, so you should try to find it online (or just click here), settle in, and prepare to be depressed.

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4 Responses to “Detour: The Last Man on Earth”

  1. Another top-notch review of a great film — probably the best adaptation (in my opinion) of the famous book…. What’s your favorite of the three adaptations?

  2. Wait, you think The Omega Man has more subtleties? I found it to be a campy mess…. frustratingly silly.

    • Before I start…I’ve got to say this before someone else does. Nerdwar!

      I didn’t say that The Last Man on Earth lacked subtlety (in fact I called it subtle and effective as a tragedy). But I stand by my assertion that The Omega Man is a more subtle piece of fiction. Subtle isn’t the same as good or better; it’s a description of a layered and complex film. That’s not a value judgement; The Last Man on Earth isn’t as complicated but it’s emotionally more powerful, perhaps because of its simplicity.

      The most obvious point is the religious symbolism, all that stuff going on under the surface of The Omega Man. Neville is quite literally a Christ-figure whose blood can save others (“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I in them,” John 6:56), and the film’s final moments only underscore that conceit. Matthias’ Family is also a quasi-religious outfit led by a charismatic, if perhaps insane, leader (a former newscaster). The cult-like aspects are emphasized by the Manson connection (Manson called his followers the Family as well, and don’t think that didn’t have resonance for viewers at the time of the film’s release).

      The race issues the film brings up are another point. You might argue that the film hits you over the head with race issues (an interracial romance and a Klan analogue featuring whiter-than-white cultists wearing black robes who attempt to lynch the film’s protagonist), and that’s so, but it adds another level to the film. Some commentators have seen a fascist sort of “if you’re not for the American way, you’re against us and deserve to die” message in the film—while I personally don’t see that, it emphasizes that the film can be viewed in different ways by different people in terms of content and meaning.

      The characterizations have been called flat and formulaic, but at the same time, there are little nuances and touches of genuinely human interest in The Omega Man. Heston’s Neville almost seems to be enjoying himself when he’s alone, and he may not be sane—I’m not sure if the phone actually rang, for example, or if Neville only imagined it. Neville’s chess game with the bust of Caesar, his review of old television broadcasts (and that would have taken some doing, frankly) and his habit of dressing for dinner in frilly clothing, make him something other than a really depressed guy who’s just going through the motions of survival (though that something isn’t necessarily better, it’s just different). Rosalind Cash’s Lisa reflects the real complexities of a real human being, because she goes from action heroine with spunk and flair to victim during the events of the film, and it seemed believable to me.

      Contrast those elements to The Last Man on Earth. It’s not layered, and there aren’t ambiguities and points to argue over in terms of meaning or cultural relevance. The story is a more simple one, which doesn’t make it a bad story—it isn’t supposed to be complex. It’s supposed to have all the subtlety of a freight train bearing down on the heroine tied to the tracks. That’s how the narrative gains its power: you know it won’t end well almost from the beginning. If I’d said it was a straight-forward film which doesn’t bog down in inconsequential details or lose its focus on the tragic ending, I would have meant the same thing.

  3. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here. Gotta say, I can’t agree with you on this film’s lack of subtlety. I think Price brings a lot to the role of Morgan, and his lack of understanding, even at the end, that he’s the real monster adds more pathos to the proceedings for me. He’s the outmoded man in the face of the harsh super-vampire society that’s replacing him, a final crushing loss that he never even understands.

    The stuff about the vampire bat bite is silly, though, and unfortunate in a film that otherwise deals so well with this particular vampire apocalypse.

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