“Another day to live through. Better get started.” Those are the first weary words spoken by Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth (based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend), and the resignation in their delivery reflects that in a world gone to hell, perhaps the most dangerous thing of all is not the undead knocking outside on your door, but the loneliness and guilt that live with you on the inside. These painful emotions gain even deeper meanings as the film unleashes empathy along with its creatures of the night, making it an entertaining, thought-provoking, and timeless addition to Halloween movie marathons more than 55 years after its initial release.
While Price brought an eclectic array of mischievous and macabre villains to life on screen throughout his career, in The Last Man on Earth, he plays a character with no hidden agendas or evil schemes. He is merely Morgan: a man trying to survive, a brilliant scientist who lost his wife and daughter to a vampiric plague that swept the world and seemingly turned everyone into a zombie-like mob with blood on their minds—namely his own.
When we first meet Morgan, he is enslaved to survival. Any joys or sheer elation at being lucky enough to live while millions of others have perished have been worn down with time. His survival is a prison, and routine is the warden that keeps him in check: wake up, gear up, and hunt the living dead that sleep during the day. Stray from those steps or let your emotions take over, and you risk losing your identity and being lost in the ranks of the undead, or worse: becoming their next meal. While he used to spend his days on the cutting edge of science in the lab, Morgan’s life is now one of lonely monotony—the same droll dance day in and day out. Through his somber performance, Price shows that there’s nothing exciting about being the last man on Earth, especially when you’re weary of the world, wallowing in your own loneliness, and haunted by the ghosts of your past… sometimes quite literally.
Visiting Morgan’s doorstep every night like moths attracted to a flame, the undead are led by Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who was Morgan’s best friend and one of the first people to take the plague seriously as a possible uprising of vampires. Through the movie’s flashbacks, we see that Ben’s early methods of vampiric repellants (garlic and mirrors) are what Morgan uses to survive now, and that tragic irony isn’t lost on our protagonist, especially when Ben knocks on his door every night, demanding him to come out. Much like George A. Romero’s flesh eaters that would shamble across screens just a few years later, the undead in The Last Man on Earth are horrifying because they are recognizable. They are not mutated bat creatures, but instead an altered version of mankind. They retain just enough humanity to remind Morgan of what he lost. Similar to how the undead hate looking into the mirror that hangs on Morgan’s front door, Morgan struggles to look at the horde that gathers outside his home each night, their pale faces a distorted reflection of the world that has been taken from him… one that he must kill a second time to truly find peace.
[Spoiler Alert] Much like Matheson’s novel, however, directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo B. Ragona show that there are no easy answers when it comes to the post-apocalypse, forcing us to view this new undead world through the eyes of other survivors (with their own gut-punch of a secret) who have been watching Morgan and view him as a murderer who resorted to killing the infected when other avenues could have been taken. These survivors resemble the next evolution of the human species—one that Morgan and his sharpened stakes are standing in the way of. The introduction of this new group makes you question all of Morgan’s lethal actions throughout the film, and therein lies the brilliance of Matheson’s novel and its first film adaptation. It's easy to view Morgan as a hero from his point of view, but if you look at things from the other side, you can begin to empathize with the infected. Morgan may seem like Abraham Van Helsing, but to the infected that now rule the world, he’s Dracula. He’s the boogeyman that haunts their nightmares in the daytime, the Sandman who sneaks into their sleeping hideouts and brings them the gift of eternal slumber. It’s in the third act that The Last Man on Earth presents the argument that you could view its narrative as The Last Monster on Earth, for when everyone else has already become the monster you fear, you become the monster of their story. For Morgan, the tables have been flipped. In a world that's completely infected, Morgan is now the virus.
I still like to think of Morgan as a protagonist, though, one who killed for survival and never took pleasure in it, but the film’s compelling third act is nonetheless a fascinating exercise in empathy and how the monsters we fear may view us as the monster that must be destroyed. It's all a matter of perspective, and in this way, The Last Man on Earth is timeless. You can watch the film through multiple points of view and debate it over hot apple cider afterwards, but no matter how you view its story, it never ceases to thrill, chill, and above all else, entertain.
Purchased in the months leading up to 2007’s I Am Legend, Matheson’s 1954 novel was a gateway horror book for me, one that showed me that before there was King, there was another Master of the Macabre hard at work behind the typewriter. The Last Man on Earth is equally as epic as its source material in my eyes, and I was lucky enough to watch it for the first time in the company of lifelong friends several years ago at one of our annual scary movie marathons. It remains one of our favorite films that we’ve ever screened in the 16 years that we’ve done the marathon, and I sincerely hope that it can find a home in your own Halloween season viewing. Watch it with cherished friends and family to keep the film’s lonely chill at bay, and on a lighter note, you can even play a drinking game by taking a shot every time Ben yell’s Morgan’s name (or maybe every five times to be on the safe side…).
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