BOOTLEG FILES 126: “The Last Man on Earth” (1961 Italian horror film starring Vincent Price).
LAST SEEN: Available online at LikeTelevision.com.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A lapsed copyright and an initially poor reputation.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Just as a PD title.
BOOTLEG OPPORTUNITIES: Plentiful.
In 1961, Vincent Price was enjoying a career rejuvenation thanks to his performances in a series of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired movies directed by Roger Corman. Curiously, Price opted to withdraw from Hollywood while his star was rising and relocate to Italy to appear in three movies that were to be made in Rome. Two of the films, “Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile” and “Rage of the Buccaneers,” were anemic no-budget costume dramas that barely found their way into theaters.
But the third film of Price’s Roman odyssey proved to be very different: “The Last Man on Earth,” based on the Richard Matheson novel “I am Legend.” At the time of its creation, it was ignored by audiences and slammed by critics. But over time, “The Last Man on Earth” has grown in stature and is considered to be a classic of its genre. Indeed, it is the best Vincent Price movie ever made.
“The Last Man on Earth” takes place in an unidentified city. As the film opens, it appears that all life has vanished. Roads are empty, buildings appear vacant, and there aren’t even birds flying in the sky. But the city is not entirely vacant: Robert Morgan (Price), a chemical engineer, lives alone in a house which looks as if someone had tried to physically tear it apart. Someone actually had: at night, a small army of zombies routinely attack the house, tearing at its shutters and banging against its doors.
The zombies are the result of a catastrophic virus that wiped out civilization. Morgan, through a strange quirk of fate (he was bitten by a vampire bat in Panama years early), was immune to the virus. But the world around him was not – those who died from it were burned in a large pit, but after some time the virus overtook the entire population and those who were not incinerated returned as a vampiric living dead.
The zombies cannot go out in the daytime, so Morgan is able to move around the city in an attempt to locate them and drive wooden stakes through their hearts. After they are killed again, he brings them to the aforementioned large pit to be burned.
Morgan’s scientific know-how helped him keep several generators running, allowing him to refrigerate food (especially garlic, which he places around his house to scare off the zombies). It also gives him electricity for his home, where he creates new stakes on a woodworking drill in his basement.
Morgan has lived this way for three years, with no sign of outside normal life. He often attempts to broadcast via shortwave radio, but he has never gotten a response. One day, though, signs of life begin to appear. A small dog show up at his home – but Morgan’s examination of the dog’s fur reveals that it is diseased with the virus and thus he needs to kill it.
But then he finds a woman walking through the empty streets during the daytime. Chasing and capturing her, he brings her to his home and discovers she is part of an underground community that created its own vaccine to stop the spread of the virus. Yet the vaccine cannot eradicate the disease, so this community is actually a new mutant race: half-human, half-zombie. The woman also informs Morgan that the community is aware of his zombie-killing actions and are planning to kill him – because, it seems, many of the zombies he killed were not zombies at all, but rather the members of this new breed of people. Morgan, unaffected by the virus, is literally the last man on Earth.
Shot in a rich black-and-white, “The Last Man on Earth” is an eerie apocalyptic tale that rests heavily on Price’s talents. Unlike his beloved performances in the Corman movies, Price keeps his hamming in check and delivers an astonishing portrayal of a doomed man who survives almost against his will. One scene is particularly effective: watching home movies of his long-dead family taken at a trip to the circus, Price is amused by footage he shot of a slapstick clown routine. Weary from the pain of isolation, he finds joy in the silly clown material and begins to laugh. His laughter grows louder and grander, almost out of scale to the antics he is watching. When it becomes volcanic in its power, it abruptly shifts to crying – of an equally forceful volume. It is a painful and heart wrenching moment, and its offers a brilliant reminder of how talented Price could be given the right material.
The material itself went through a convoluted history. The legendary British studio Hammer Films originally optioned Richard Matheson’s novel, but abruptly decided not to produce it. Instead, they offered the project to Robert L. Lippert, an American producer. Lippert became aware of Price’s availability in Italy and (taking advantage of the considerably cheaper costs of making movies in Rome) arranged for the actor’s services. Matheson was hired to adapt his novel into a screenplay, but Lippert was unhappy with the script and brought in William Leicester to work further on the script. Matheson was outraged at the changes to his work and withdrew his name from the screenplay (he used the pseudonym Logan Swanson instead).
Price was the only American actor working among an Italian cast in “The Last Man on Earth.” To accommodate Price and the Italians, two directors were hired to helm the project: Ubaldo Ragona for the Italians and Sidney Salkow to work with Price. Ironically, no print of the film lists the co-directors together: the American prints omit Ragona’s name while the Italian release dropped Salkow from the credits. The Internet Movie Database also lists Ragona and Furio M. Monetti as having contributed to the screenplay, but the American prints don’t have them among the contributors.
“The Last Man on Earth” was shot in 1961, but it took three years before it was released in the U.S. American International Pictures, the producer and distributor of the Corman-Poe-Price series, picked up the rights (AIP’s head Samuel Z. Arkoff has credit in the prints as “executive producer,” though whether he had any direct involvement with the Italian-based production is unclear).
For some reason, AIP had problems selling the film to the moviegoing public. Reviews were terrible (as they were with most of the Price horror films of the era), but people who couldn’t get enough of the Poe-inspired movies did not respond to this film. It was later withdrawn and re-released over the years under a variety of different titles including “The Night Creatures” and “Wind of Death.” AIP eventually lost faith in the film and carelessly allowed its copyright to lapse into the public domain; another production based on Matheson’s “I am Legend,” the Charlton Heston sci-fi epic “The Omega Man,” was released in 1971.
But being a public domain title eventually helped “The Last Man on Earth.” As bootlegged dupes of the film circulated (first on 16mm prints, then videotapes, then DVDs), the film’s reputation began to grow. Many people noted striking similarities between the film’s zombies and the George A. Romero zombies in his “Night of the Living Dead.” And for Price’s legions of fans, the film has become one of the most popular titles in his canon. Today, “The Last Man on Earth” enjoys a considerable cult following and is regarded as being among the finest horror films of its era.
Excellent quality dupes of “The Last Man on Earth” abound and the film can even be viewed in its entirety via the LikeTelevision.com web site. Not unlike the zombies of its plot, this film came back from the dead – but this resurrection literally brought a happy ending.
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