Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Last Man On Earth

In 1964 Italy’s Producioni La Regini was looking for a film that they could make on a low budget and then distribute internationally as a second feature for drive-in theatres and second run houses. Armed with a script by author Richard Matheson, they hired director Ubalso Ragona and their result was L'ultimo uomo della Terra, better known in the English speaking world as The Last Man on Earth.

Between Poe adaptations for AIP, La Regini were able to hire the legendary Vincent Price as Robert Morgan, the lone remaining normal human being on a planet devastated by a plague of vampires.

During the day Robert Morgan rules the world.

It’s just another morning as the viewer follows Morgan around an abandoned Rome, standing in for 1968 Los Angeles

With a sad resignation Morgan goes about his business finding fuel, keeping himself well supplied with mirrors and garlic, maintaining his food supply, burning dead bodies from around his house.

Mostly though Morgan spends his time methodically moving from house to house, driving stakes through the hearts of any of the “sleeping” people he finds with-in.

At dusk everything changes when Morgan barricades himself inside of his home where with a mixture of loud music, whisky and self loathing, he attempts to block out the hordes of shambling dead things, vampires, circling his home in a shuffling gait, constantly calling for Morgan to come out to them.

A fetid sirens call that’s becoming harder to resist.

Chief among the vampire hordes is Morgan’s old friend and lab partner Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). It seems that Ben is just a bit smarter, a bit more aware then the rest of the dead. Sure Cortman wants Morgan’s blood just as much as the next corpse, but he just seems sort of ticked off that Morgan gets to survive with a suntan while he’s stuck as a smelly dead husk without even the cool DA haircut he sported when he was alive. And so it’s Ben who is at Morgan’s door first every night and it’s Ben who is the last to leave. It’s Ben who shouts for Morgan every night.

The days come and go with Morgan and the dead things repeating their endless dance of hiding and killing, killing and hiding without too much changing. There is one eventful night where after falling asleep at his late wife’s crypt, Morgan has to fight his way across town and safely back into his house, losing a car and almost his life in the process. 

Another day while walking through a park, Morgan comes among the bodies of three vampires with large metal spears sticking through their hearts, vampires that he hadn’t killed. But mostly it’s just death and monotony.

 In the sequence where Morgan falls asleep at his wife’s crypt there is an extended flashback showing life to a birthday party for Morgan’s daughter where everything seems all smiles with Robert, his wife and their old friend Ben. 

But things aren’t as calm as it appears and soon enough millions are dying from the plague, including Morgan’s daughter whose body is taken away for burning while Morgan struggles with solders to stop them. And soon his wife dies and Robert takes her out to the desert and buries her. And later that night Morgan gets an unpleasant surprise when his resurrected wife appears at the door hungry for blood.

Deeply depressed after his near fatal time out after dark, Morgan is about at wits end, and that’s when he sees the dog.

Stunned at the sight of another living creature, Morgan frightens the ragged animal away, but slowly over a period of days, he manages to gain the dogs trust and finally get it into the relative safety of his house. But Morgan’s joy is short lived when he discovers the dog is infected with the vampire plague as well.

The next morning as he buries the dog in a park, Morgan gets his second shock in as many days when a pretty young woman in a dress and combat boots walks right past him. Calling out to her she panics and runs but eventually Morgan catches her and after a brief struggle the woman passes out and Morgan takes her back to his house.

That evening as Cortman and the mob make their nightly rounds, inside the house, Ruth (Franca Bettoia), now recovered and Morgan have a tense conversation, with neither really seeming to quite remember what having another person around is like. Suspicious, Morgan, presses garlic in her face, making her gag, but not causing the complete revulsion shown by the undead outside, leaving Morgan uncertain what to do next.

Despite her best efforts to fool Morgan it quickly becomes clear that Ruth is infected with the plague, but is somehow still alive. Morgan makes it clear that he is considering killing Ruth when angry and afraid she reveals that she had been sent by a group of survivors, who have the plague but aren’t vampires, to spy on Morgan in preparation to a attack planned against Morgan in the very near future.

Apparently in his haste to stake every vampire he runs into Morgan had managed to murder large numbers of living plague survivors as they lay asleep.

Overwhelmed by the realization of his actions, Morgan refuses to follow Ruth’s advice that he get away while he can. And the next evening as the vampires gather around his house for what will be the last time, several vehicles filled with men in sunglasses and black clothing appear and proceed to kill everything that moves, including Ben Cortman.

Realizing his fate, Morgan makes a break for it but is cornered in a nearby church and is impaled with a metal spear, and falls down before the alter in Ruth’s arms and dies, arms spread out like Christ, his last words to call those who come after him “freaks”.

Ruth gets up and walks away from the “Last Man’ past women and children gathered around to see the dead monster from their nightmares, she brushes a child’s hair out of its face, turns and walks out of the church.

The Last Man on Earth is a surprisingly solid film for something shot on such an obvious low budget. Rome in the early 1960’s still had enough wreckage left over from World War II to make an effective “dead” city. The black and white used for budget reasons gives good effect with the various scenes of vampires shambling about with a disturbingly “normal” way to them. A style that a few years later George Romero would admittedly borrow to amazing effect in Night of the Living Dead. They also made a wise decision to have extended periods without dialogue and just a voice over for Price, that is effective and as I understand it also made for easy dubbing for viewing around the world.

But most of all, The Last Man on Earth has Vincent Price.

The thing about Vincent Price is that as an actor he was capable of a great deal of subtlety and naturalism, but because of the parts he got, Price was normally called upon to play broad, almost comical characters. But in Last Man, Price gives a stunning, natural performance of a normal, everyday guy, whose world has gone insane. Along with his Matthew Hopkins in the Witchfinder General, and of course ol’ Anton Phibes, Robert Morgan is one of my favorite Vincent Price performances.

The Last Man on Earth, was easily the closet filmed version to Matheson’s original book, since it was Matheson who wrote the screenplay, however Matheson himself disliked the movie and had his name taken off of it. He hated Price in the part and thought the film over all looked cheap.

I won’t dare to judge Matheson’s opinion on the film, but regardless, I disagree with him. Despite a limited budget and a inexperienced director, The Last Man on Earth manages to have some honestly creepy moments, lovely shots of a desolated city and one of Vincent Price’s very best roles.

I would say it is my favorite version of I Am Legend on film, but that one is for next time.

In the meantime and since The Last Man on Earth is in the public domain, enjoy.....

Next: Get your Stinking Paws Off of Me, You Damm, Dirty, Mutant, Hippies

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