Crash Analysis: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (Italy/USA, 1964) – My 1,500th Horror Movie

Isolation and hopelessness leads to suicide by vampire

Waiting to die

Writer Richard Matheson thought the Grand Guignol, Vincent Price was miscast for the   the-last-man-on-earth-movie-poster-1964-1020144093 role of Dr. Robert Morgan, but the actor captured the essence of a man with truly nothing to live for, which mirrored his role as THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER’s (1960) patriarch.

This classic tale “I am Legend” tale from Matheson, who has been writing stories and scripts for nearly sixty years, including many beloved “The Twilight Zone” episodes, and much more, deals with isolation like few films do.

What THE LAST MAN ON EARTH brings us is, supposedly, the only man left alive on our little blue ball after a virus turns people into a bizarro vampire-zombie hybrid – they’re slow and hungry for blood, but have intelligence. And we enter the story three years after the fact to find Morgan in his decrepit home, counting down the days. He has coffee and orange juice, then he’s off to stake any vamps he can find in the city around him, and hurls their bodies into a fiery pit, once dug long ago to burn victims who had perished from the plague. Morgan, as one can imagine, is forlorn and mentally destitute. After all, he’s lost everyone and everything to the plague. There’s nothing left – except that internal fire for survival. But the days are taking its toll, and that fire has become a fading coal.

Morgan’s biggest mistake is residing in the same home he once shared with his wife and daughter. Granted, one may want such a daily reminder, as if a last bastion to normalcy and comfort, but after time, the longing for a past that will never return must tear down the psychological walls. And it’s not as if the Morgan household looks like it once did. The house is a shambles, and Morgan sleeps on the couch on the first floor. Debris blocks the stairs to the second – and thinly boarded windows keep him a hair’s breath away from the vampires that taunt him each night – including old friends like, Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart).

Cortman once worked with Morgan at a local lab, where a dedicated team struggled like mad to find a cure. Interestingly, as bodies fell and society collapsed, none of the scientists tried to see how their own blood stood up to the virus. If they had done so, they would have discovered Morgan’s immunity, and could have created antibodies to save the planet.

***** SPOILER ALERT *****

Morgan ultimately discovers that he’s not alone, however, and soon meets up with a human-vampire half-breed, Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia). Morgan saves her from slipping into full vampirism by sharing his blood – but her friends, all male it seems, don’t want to hear about a possible cure. Instead, the hunter becomes the hunted, and the men go after Morgan to bring him down for good. Otherwise, the good doctor might stake them while they’re sleeping. Why it took them three years to launch an attack against one man is beyond logic.

Regardless, Morgan’s had it, and stands tall, calling the group “Freaks!” before they take him out with bullets and iron spears. Sure, he could’ve fought better, even smarter, but what’s the point? No one had answered his daily radio calls, and one can take so much fear and loneliness. In effect, this was the suicide he couldn’t pull off himself. Morgan had to go down fighting, maybe as Morgan wish he had long ago.

After all, if Morgan had really wanted to live, he would’ve setup camp somewhere other than his homestead. He had the pick of office buildings to live higher up for protection (even though he’d have to climb stairs). He could’ve created an impenetrable compound and lived in luxury. Instead, he lived in dirt and squalor, as if punishing himself for not saving his family and the world. Talk about survivor’s guilt.

***** END OF SPOILER *****

The disease, however, is interesting. At first, people feel run down, then they go blind, then they die, only to rise up, and see again. Why the blindness? Is it to avoid visually witnessing their demise? Talk about a sick and cold-hearted disease. One can’t imagine the fear, especially when one knows what’s coming next. Horrific for certain.

Director Ubaldo Ragona did a pretty decent job, considering this was his third film out of four (and one is a documentary). Giorgio Giovannini’s set design was fine, but there was many a missed opportunity in presenting a world of true dystopia. For instance, the grass had been cut – everywhere. And no, Morgan didn’t roll around on a riding mower as he hunted vamps during the day. Additionally, Morgan even found a dead human or two on the streets. After three years, they would not have been so pristine.

Matheson’s disturbing tale of pure loneliness in the face of calamity has been retold since, most famously in 1971 with Charlton Heston in THE OMEGA MAN, which seems to be the best received, and most loved, of the trio. The third, is the extremely disappointing I AM LEGEND (2007) with Will Smith. The first act amazed, the second faltered, and the final sequence was as hokey and ill conceived as it was ludicrous.

For all its faults, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is strong, and the black-and-white film adds to the drab factor that reigns supreme to showcase Dr. Morgan’s plight. Vincent Price delivers a solid and tortured performance, though not as strong as it could have been. However, the movie relies on the notion of being the sole survivor of an entire species, that’s enough to give any socially connected person chills.

What is your favorite of the notable threesome?

2.5 out of 5 stars

(Photo from Movie Poster Shop.)

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