Romero ripped off Vincent Price’s The Last Man on Earth (1964)
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) has the same themes and the same message as The Last Man on Earth (1964), including shambling monsters and a big bad plague. Both of these films owe a debt to Richard Matheson’s book, I am Legend, published in 1954. The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price pretty much follows the novel, except for a few minor changes. Will Smith starred in a more crappy version of I am Legend in 2007, but I prefer The Last Man on Earth for its themes of isolationism, change, and vampire murder.
I don’t think this is a vampire or monster story, despite many people claiming otherwise. I am Legend (2007) would have you think it is a twisted science fiction thriller, with CGI monsters thrown in to plague Will Smith. However, all the versions I’ve seen contain a good amount of emphasis on the theme of isolation. This is especially true of the Vincent Price version. It is a story about the apocalypse, and a man trying to survive.
Vincent Price starred in The Last Man on Earth in 1964 and it was directed by an Italian film duo, Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow. Price plays scientist Robert Morgan and he spends most of the movie alone and depressed, though active in his fight to ward off the vampires outside. Morgan is apparently one of the only survivors of a deadly outbreak, which claimed of the lives of everyone around, including most of civilization.
The Last Man on Earth has vampire monsters who are scared of mirrors, garlic, and repelled by the cross. However, they chase Morgan into a church at the end and don’t seem to be afraid of holy ground, the cross, or much else. Are they changing or evolving? We know from the book that the people chasing Morgan are a new breed of vampire, much different from the shambling monsters that have been outside Morgan’s house for most of the movie. The vampires have discovered a way to fight the disease, and view Morgan as the monster, as he viciously murders by day, quite an inhuman thing in their mind. They want to kill him and be rid of this menace to their new society.
Morgan must have felt quite helpless at the end of the movie, upon realizing that the new society of infected was becoming the norm. Like a wounded animal, Morgan tries to run and hide, unable to cope and fearful for his own life. He is literally being hunted, like an animal in the jungle, and he’s no longer able to control his own life. The pseudo-vampires have discovered a way to start a new society and he’s not invited. In fact, he’s so different that they seem more afraid of HIM. It may be an allegory for communism, discrimination, abuse or all of the above.
George Romero picked up on the themes of isolation and locked up a host of people in a house so he could do a character study. That’s the best part of Night of the Living Dead. The disease and the science is secondary. There is not much difference between Romero’s zombies and the pseudo-vampires in The Last Man on Earth. They both can return from the dead and want to get at the last survivors. In a 2008 interview, Romero cited The Last Man on Earth and Richard Matheson as a big inspiration for his movie.
Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for The Last Man on Earth, but wasn’t happy with his work. In a 2001 interview, he repeated his dislike for the script. I’m not sure why he doesn’t like the movie, as it certainly seems the closest film adaptation of his work that I’ve seen. Perhaps it was because of some of the changes, even though they seem minor to me. His main character is Richard Morgan, not Richard Neville as in the book, and book ends differently. Matheson is a very bitter man and gave the following comment in an interview:
Interviewer: Vincent Price was a fine actor, but do you feel he was right for the part of Robert Neville, and why did they change the character’s last name for the film? If you do not feel Price was the right actor, whom would you have chosen to play the part?
Matheson: Vincent Price was a wonderful actor who did marvelous performances for the films I wrote for American-International. He was mis-cast in The Last Man on Earth however. At the time, I thought maybe Jack Palance would be good. Now I would pick Harrison Ford. But that will never happen.
I’m not sure what qualities Matheson was looking for, but Price had it all, in my opinion. He had the family man bit down pat, and played a determined man pretty well, capable of surviving just like the story said. Jack Palance is older than Vincent Price and I’m not sure what he offers over Price. Price is expressive and doesn’t camp it up, as in House on Haunted Hill (1959).
I think Vincent Price’s characterization is perfect for Richard Morgan aka Richard Neville. He is dulled to human existence as the movie opens and kills vampires without much thought. He is tormented by living out his days alone, marking up a calendar to show the passing days, like a man in prison or on a deserted island. He invites a survivor into his home, but Morgan is paranoid and thinks she is one of the infected. He is now a prisoner of the changing society, an apocalyptic change that has forgotten him. This is the true horror.
One of Matheson’s influences was the paranoid era of the late 60s, including the Manson murders and trials. The paranoia and violence isolates Morgan and creates a great mood for the movie, as he tries to escape the vampires, like many people in the 60s were trying to escape. When the flower people movement ended, people still tried to escape through drugs, quite a different sentiment.
I think the movie’s gloomy, dark mood is a great accomplishment, which is another thing that George Romero copies and gets right. The Last Man on Earth doesn’t go far enough, while Night of the Living Dead commits itself to the horror and even shows it. I think the script’s themes are stronger in The Last Man on Earth though.
All in all, I think The Last Man on Earth is an underrated classic. It paved the way for Night of the Living Dead and for the zombie genre in general. I think it IS faithful to Richard Matheson’s story, despite him not agreeing with me. I think the theme of isolation and the mood established by the movie create some great scenes. Vincent Price does a good job and shows why he is a versatile actor, and he doesn’t need any CGI do it.