Four years before George Romero is supposed to have revived the genre, the zombies are already alive and kicking (well, shuffling) in 1964 in The Last Man on Earth, a lurid yet oddly static example of a genre movie with all the signs of something knocked out with little respect for its audience. Unsurprisingly it got little respect back in return.
It does have a few things in its favour, though. Vincent Price as the titular last human, and a story by Richard Matheson which would be repurposed a number of times, most famously as The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend, with Will Smith.
There’s a legend surrounding the movie too. Namely that Fritz Lang was going to direct it at one point. This seems highly unlikely since at the time Lang was nearly blind and hadn’t made a film in four years. Maybe the Hammer studio, which was lining up to shoot the film in the UK, dangled the name in front of Matheson to get him on board to write the screenplay. If so, he took the bait, though later regretted it. Another odd story that doesn’t quite fit known events is that the film ran into trouble with the British censor. Really? Before it was made? Having watched it, this seems doubly fanciful – there’s no nudity, no swearing and the violence consists mostly of zombies waving bits of wood about weakly.
Whatever the backstory, in the end the Americans took over. “King of the B’s” Robert L Lippert assumed production duties and American director Sidney Salkow was drafted in as director – “Well, there’s a bit of a drop,” Matheson is reported to have said when he was told it was going to be Salkow not Lang. As for shooting, the whole thing shifted to Italy, where Ubaldo Ragona took on much of the direction.
The film is at its best, as The Omega Man and I Am Legend are, in its opening scenes – we meet Dr Robert Morgan (Price) as he goes about his daily grind, sourcing materials and food, shoring up his defences, disposing of the dead, before battening down the hatches as the sun goes down, because that’s when the zombies come out to play. Zombies they may be – shuffling, groaning, undead zombies – but they don’t like mirrors or garlic, and have a strong reaction to crucifixes and wooden stakes (a Hammer leftover?). Dr Morgan drives on deserted roads, fills up his car from abandoned fuel trucks and visits empty supermarkets. In the evening he listens to music, while the zombies bang away ineffectually at the door. They are a listless bunch, and look to be the direct inspiration for Romero’s.
Just to return to a detail – “disposing of the dead”. Which dead would that be? Dr Morgan has been the last man on earth for three years now, his self-pitying voiceover tells us. So where have the corpses outside his front door come from?
No time for that now. On the film goes into its least successful section, the extended flashback sequence, when Morgan was a scientist working on infectious diseases and he was a happy man with a wife and daughter, both of whom… let’s not go there. Morgan is the sort of specialist scientist who uses the words “infectious” and “contagious” interchangeably, and doesn’t know that the singular of bacilli is bacillus, those whoopsies indicating that Matheson had by this point left the production (he’d later have his name taken off the credits). Small details, but ones which, like the dead bodies, show someone couldn’t be bothered to tidy up.
It’s tastefully shot in black and white – DP Franco Delli Colli, cousin of the legendary Tonino Delli Colli (The Leopard), could go lurid, in sexploitation like Strip Nude for Your Killer or horror like Lamberto Bava’s Macabro, but he’s restrained here, which is more than you can say for the score (by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter) which blams and blares constantly, its stabs of “drama” only making more obvious how little of it there is on the screen.
The acting is so bad it must be the director’s fault. Price is wooden, which he often was of course, but so are Emma Danieli as his wife, Giacomo Rossi Stuart (father of Kim Rossi Stuart) as his old friend, now a zombie who hangs around outside the house like a spurned lover, and Franca Bettoia as the real, live human being the good doctor bumps into one day, a plot turn that will ultimately spell disaster. The action is also so spectacularly bad that the jeopardy aspect of Doctor Morgan’s situation is never felt. These zombies are literally a pushover.
But there is something to be said in favour of The Last Man on Earth – it doesn’t hang about, and it’s saved from total ignominy by its premise. Even absent, Richard Matheson is the star of this show.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022