Movie Review – The Last Man on Earth (1964)
by NIR SHALEV
The Last Man on Earth opens with a sunrise over an empty city. Houses, buildings, and cars are unattended and dead bodies litter the streets. Dr. Robert Morgan, played by Vincent Price in a contained and human performance, awakens to live another day. He goes through his daily routine of checking the radio frequencies for survivors (of whatever brought forth the apocalypse), making sure there’s gasoline in the electric generator, marking a map for locations he had swept, and carving stakes.
His house is boarded up (windows and doors) and cloves of garlic hang from every door frame. He leaves his suburban home and drives around the neighboring cities searching for vampires that are sleeping during the day. He stakes them, loads the carcasses into his station-wagon, and drives to a giant burning pit, dumping them into it.
Such is the chosen life of the last man on Earth.
Dr. Morgan had a wife and a child but one by one they had succumbed to the then-unrecognized epidemic. This we are told in flashbacks showcasing the concentration of Vincent Price as his character learns of the unavoidable. We understand that Dr. Morgan’s philosophy as a scientist, before the great fall, is that a universal disease is impossible. He looked for a rapidly-transmitted virus while his scientist buddy Ben Cortman became convinced of the vampire theory through popular word of mouth. All the symptoms of vampirism are present; those infected are weak to sunlight and garlic.
We also learn that years back while in Panama, Dr. Morgan was bitten by a vampire bat that carried the vampirism virus and he eventually believes that he is immune due to that huge coincidence. But he takes it as a sign that he must continue to fight for as long as he can because the bat bite was not a complete accident, it provides a purpose to exist.
The film is shot in black and white, probably due to budgetary constraint, but is better off that way. It is easier to showcase night scenes involving vampires and the brooding thought that only one man lives while the rest of the population are undead. The film was shot in Italy but does a good job at making it look like California.
The story does not base itself on giving a good reason for the epidemic; we do not know why vampires are suddenly present. Is the epidemic a metaphor for the Black Plague or is it signifying that if a pandemic was to occur we, the human race, would turn on one another instead of seeking others’ guidance? We don’t ask these questions because we are fascinated by the characters and their developing nature.
Since Robert was a man of science he was trying to find a vaccine and cause for the epidemic, but ever since he lost his family and most of the population of the world died he dropped his scientific ways and had returned to good old fashioned barbarism. The irony of his character is that because he is immune to the vampire epidemic his entire purpose in life is to continue to exist. If it means killing vampires all day, every day so be it.
This is an excellent example of a low budget horror film in which the actors’ performances and the complexity of the philosophy in the plot show up the emptiness in “big” films with overblown budgets or a ridiculous amount of special effects. This film has no special effects at all, unless you count horizontal wipes and fades as special effects.
This movie showcases an excellent performance by Vincent Price, who is usually looked upon as an average actor because most of his career was spent making “B” horror films; however, many of them are actually good films. Notably, when Price worked for Roger Corman’s production company in the early-mid 1960s he starred in excellent adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe short stories that contained great production values and his awesome presence and performances. This is another of his good films, and his performance alone makes it worth watching.
The Last Man on Earth is based on the short story “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson. The screenplay was also written by Matheson but the adaptation is slightly different, especially the ending. But this is still the best of the several adaptations, both as adaptation and overall film. If you’ve seen The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007), now would be a good time to see the earliest and best version of the same story.