One of Vincent Price’s more unusual vehicles from the 1960’s was The Last Man On Earth. It found him taking a brief respite from Roger Corman’s string of Poe adaptations to appear in an unusual Italian/American coproduction that attempts to adapt Richard Matheson’s classic horror novel I Am Legend on an A.I.P.-level budget. Like most adaptations of I Am Legend, it falls short of its inspiration in some key ways but represents the most faithful adaptation of the book to date.
The Last Man On Earth is the tale of Dr. Robert Morgan (Price), a scientist who appears to be the only survivor of a vampirism-inducing plague that swept the earth three years ago. His daily life is a numbing slog: the sunlight hours are spent hunting and killing vampires while the nights are spent barricaded in his home as the nocturnal vamps rise up to attack his abode.
Flashbacks reveal Morgan was once a happy family man and slow to recognize the danger of the plague until it was too late. Just as it seems he is on the verge of cracking up, he discovers a sign of hope: a female survivor (Franca Bettoia) that he talks into returning home. However, she is not the only survivor in the city – and Morgan discovers that there are some fates worse that post-apocalyptic isolation.
The Last Man On Earth offers a strange mix of attributes and defects. On the plus side, it boasts excellent black and white cinematography from Italian genre vet Franco Delli Colli and a compelling first half-hour that conveys Morgan’s paranoia-inducing isolation. The script for this film is the closest of all I Am Legend adaptations, recreating several key scenes: it’s worth noting that Matheson wrote the original script but his work was rewritten, leading him to take the pseudonym “Logan Swanson” in the credits.
On the minus side, the low budget hampers the film’s attempts to portray a post-apocalypse big city and the direction, credited to both Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona, is too workmanlike to capture the alternately feverish and gloomy moods of the storyline. Action or suspense scenes that should be thrilling are given flat, unimaginative staging that makes them look cheap and dull. Finally, the post-sync dubbing on an extended flashback section of the film is noticeably slipshod.
The film’s best asset – and the element that will probably keep most new viewers watching – is a strong performance from Price. The narrative requires him to carry long stretches of the film by himself and he does so with charisma and skill, effectively tapping into the kind of silently expressed gloom that he only got to touch on in Corman’s Poe films. He brings enough conviction to the material to keep it going even when the direction falls behind.
Thus, The Last Man On Earth is a mixed bag but it connects often enough to make it worth a look for fans of the novel. Hopefully, a filmmaker will get this novel right one day… until then, this adaptation will remain an interesting footnote in its tortured cinematic history.