It's a rare treat to find a book to film translation that sticks so close to the source material as The Last Man on Earth does to the novella I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. In fact, were I Am Legend to be assigned reading in high school, The Last Man on Earth would provide a near perfect substitute for the time-minded student. Matheson's book has been filmed a couple of times since the 1964 Ubaldo Ragona version, once as The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and most recently as a vehicle for Will Smith, the only version to retain the title of the book.
This version from 1964 offers a better retelling than either of it successors. Part of this success might be due to Matheson's involvement with the screenplay, part too may be due to Vincent Price's portrayal of the titular last man, Dr. Robert Morgan as he battles legions of the undead while trying to maintain his sanity in the face of overwhelming loneliness. Shot on a shoe-string in stark black and white, and rarely deviating from an almost documentary style cinematography, The Last Man on Earth carries and air of creeping dread rarely seen in horror films of the modern age. The locations shots, in Rome, offer an additional air of otherworldliness of the film too, the apartment blocks, supermarkets, and streets are almost alien. The suburban neighborhood where Dr. Morgan and his family live is closer someone's illustration of a suburb than an actual place. All of this adds up to a very weird feel for the film.
Since The Last Man on Earth was made for about the cost of a pair of Airwalk sneakers (adjusted for inflation), the filming uses post-production dubbing which allows a level of freedom for both the film makers, who can redub the film into any language as well as English. The post-dubbing practice was extremely common in Italian films from the birth of cinema right through the 1970s, especially when the end product was meant for export )think Spaghetti Westerns, Fulci horror films, or Antonio Margharetti's Macaroni Space Operas). Post dubbing plays to The Last Man on Earth's strengths, as the only voice we will hear for the first half of the film is Vincent Price's, who's alone and narrating. Later, other characters appear in flashback and the post-dubbing is more noticeable but not distracting.
The film follows most of the sequence of the book as well, we meet Robert Morgan, (Robert Neville in the book) as he begins his nightly vigil against the vampires. He tries the radio, then gives up, pours a drink then hurls it across the room. His loneliness is epic. And each night as the sun dips below the skyline they come, legions of undead, to shout for Morgan's head, to pound against his fortress-like home, to smash his windows and hammer against his doors. He knows only that some disease has struck them all down, and that possibly, a bite from a vampire bat during his youth, has immunized him. The disease has taken everyone, even his beloved wife Virginia and their daughter; it's taken his best friend Ben Cortland (Giacommo Rossi Stewart), who howls for him every night in the darkness.
Morgan and Cortland were two of the scientists trying to isolate the germ and develop a cure, but the disease spread so fast that not even modern science could match its pace. Society collapsed as all recent dead had to be burned in massive pits in the center of town. The disease wasn't just killing people, it was turning society against itself. Through this nightmare Morgan persisted, until none remained but him. We see all of this in a long flashback tracking the last days of man's reign. Society collapses around Robert but retains hope of a cure until his daughter and then wife succumb to the plague. These scenes are wrenching to watch, a testament to the documentary style direction I think, and the tight script.
Now Robert prowls the daylight for supplies and to find the undead who sleep among the shadows. He drives stakes through them and watches as they shudder and die.
When Morgan find a woman, Ruth (Franca Bettoia), the entire equation changes. Is he really the last man, or are there more?
This film is more than worth seeking out, especially if you've seen Omega Man or I Am Legend and have an interest in the way the film version evolved.
At any rate, The Last Man on Earth is a long overlooked classic that deserves a place in any horror fan's collection. The book (as the lead story in a larger collection) has also seen a recent re-release to coincide with the Will Smith movie and well worth as read.
SPOILERS AND A DISCUSSION OF THE NOVELLA BELOW
The Last Man on Earth deviates some from the book, for example the inexplicable name change of the main character. The span of time that the events take place is shortened too, we meet Robert in 1968 or so, some 3 years after the great plague has killed everyone else, whereas the book spans an additional five or six years from this point before Ruth comes into the picture, and the events that in the book take literal months, like his taming on the dog (who dies only a week after being in Robert's house) occur in seconds. But, in the language of the film it sort of works. At the very least you can tell that the screenplay at least references the events of the book.
The film too, never really gets to the point where Robert accepts his place in the universe as he does, for a while, in the book.
Finally, the ending — While The Last Man on Earth follows the events of the novella more closely than any of the subsequent remakes, it does still differ from the shockingly nihilistic end of the printed version. I think, because the time span of events has been considerably shortened for the film, and that allowed the film to further explore the idea that Morgan could cure the plague.
Admittedly this turn of events significantly humanizes Robert Morgan, but it was also a logical alternate end of the novel.
Now, instead of Morgan's death being the effective last event in pre-plague civilization, it is a tragedy in that he is killed before the cure can be spread; a defiant death rather than a death of transition.
Robert's last words, "they were afraid of me," echo the theme of the novel very well. The new people, the half-vampire people, who had inherited the post-plague Earth were terrified of Robert as he indiscriminately killed them as they slept. Now he was theirs to punish. He was their monster. He was their legend.
The final line of the screenplay further reinforces this these. "There's no reason to cry," Ruth says to a child come to witness Robert's murder, "there's nothing to be afraid of anymore."