The Omega Man and Will Smith in 2007's I Am Legend. As good as those two films are, the first film version may be the best, 1964's The Last Man on Earth.
It is 1968, and it has been three years since an unknown plague-like disease turned seemingly everyone on Earth into a variation of zombie and vampire. Among the wreckage, one man, Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), somehow survived the pandemic and has lived completely on his own for three straight years. He has created a routine, finding supplies, roaming the city and most importantly, protecting himself. Every single night, the zombie vampires descend on his house and is led by his best friend and co-worker, Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). Feeling a variation of survivor guilt while missing his wife and daughter, Robert edges ever closer to insanity. Can he find some way to keep on surviving before the armies of mutants finally get to him?
While I liked both 'Omega' and 'Legend,' neither film really stuck close to the source material Matheson presented in his 1954 novel. Wouldn't you know it? It sticks pretty close to the novel, and it is significantly better for it. Sure, certain things have been tweaked and changed. Matheson's undead were highly intelligent, fast-moving vampires who played mind games with the last man on Earth, trying to drive him mad each night to the point he hands himself over to them. In 'Man,' they are much more zombie-like, slow-moving and not intelligent at all. Morgan hangs garlic and mirrors and lightly bars his windows and doors so not exactly a fortified house. Famous zombie director George Romero even admitted that Matheson's novel and this film were a major inspiration for his classic Night of the Living Dead. So yes, there were changes made, but they allow the true nature of the story and movie to work so well.
Without the huge star power of Heston and Smith, Vincent Price is nonetheless a great choice to play Morgan, the last surviving human being on Earth. An actor predominantly known for his niche in horror and sci-fi films (typically playing some variation of bad guy), Price rises to the occasion, doing a great job portraying Morgan. As was the case with the later movies, it is a part that most actors would dream of. The spotlight is on you and you alone. The nature of the part is perfect because it allows for some interpretation. Price tries to keep his routine and stay calm about it, but it's easy to see he's quickly losing his grip on his isolated reality. In an extended flashback, we see why he's been drive to this point, meeting his wife (Emma Danieli) and young daughter (Christi Courtland) while also seeing a pre-vampire Ben in some eerie, unsettling scenes.
Beyond the acting of the isolated man, these movies transition well because of the premise, one man exploring an empty world. Yep, don't forget, the vampires can't go out in the day, allowing Morgan a chance to drive around safely. We see his routine in a great extended sequence over the first 20 minutes. He visits a grocery store for fresh garlic, investigates buildings for the vampires sleeping/hiding away the day, burns their bodies in an ever-growing fire with a billowing smoke cloud, and occasionally visits his daughter's "grave." This is a film made mostly with Italian backing and was filmed on-location in Rome, giving these scenes a different but oddly appropriate Euro-look to the story. This isn't NYC, Chicago, or L.A., it's an isolated, unnamed metropolitan city that serves as the backdrop for Morgan's life. Nicely done to directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona (the Italian part of the equation).
Like 'Omega' and 'Legend,' this 1964 version suffers some in the third act when we find out that maybe Morgan isn't alone. He meets Ruth (Franca Bettoia), a young woman who managed to survive the spreading disease but is now showing the early signs of the zombie-like transition. It's not that these segments are bad or uninteresting. They're just not as interesting as the build-up. Thankfully, the twist in the final scenes sticks closely to Matheson's novel ending, righting the ship with the best ending possible. Happy ending? Oh, no, not at all, but this isn't a story that calls for a happy ending. Yes, there are issues here. The Italian-to-English dubbing leaves something to be desired, the budget places certain limitations on the scale, but for me those were minor issues. I rank it with I Am Legend as the best version, and I feel safe recommending it to Matheson fans, or just someone looking for a smart, well-written sci-fi/horror classic. I included a trailer link below, but if you want to watch the full version, check it out HERE at Youtube. Fair warning; it's far from a good print.
The Last Man on Earth (1964): *** 1/2 /****