The contemporary zombie movie makes a protean appearance in the 1964 Ubaldo Ragona/Sidney Salkow film, The Last Man on Earth. Starring Vincent Price and a cast of all Italian actors, this adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend has many of the elements that, a generation later, define the parameters of the world of the zombie apocalypse. Produced on a low budget and differing significantly from Matheson's novel, The Last Man on Earth is nevertheless successful in its stark imagery, sustained mood, and the precise, restrained performance of the great Vincent Price.
In the year 1968, the world is three years into a plague that has killed billions, and turned untold numbers into vampire-like creatures who shun sunlight, hate mirrors, and are repelled by garlic. Shambling, stupid, and weak, these undead don't pose much of a threat to our antihero, Dr. Robert Morgan (Price), who roams the city by day exterminating the sleeping undead, then holes up in his fortified house at night.
At the start of the plague, three years earlier, Morgan had been researching a cure, not realizing that he was in fact immune, having been bitten by a vampire bat in Panama some time before. As Morgan seeks to find a cure, the plague is killing people by the thousands, and the government has decreed that bodies of the recently deceased are to be burned to prevent them from returning as the undead. Mogan's wife and daughter succumb to the plague. His daughter's corpse is burned, but Morgan manages to arrange a burial for his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli). But she, now undead, claws her way out of her grave and shows up at Morgan's door one horrible night. Morgan must lose his wife all over again.
Back in the apocalyptic present, Morgan, who has survived by creating a regimented existence for himself, struggled to sustain his ongoing project of ridding the city of undead. For Morgan's character -- and Price plays him as a weary mix of grief, hope, obsessiveness, and black humor -- to continue the work must at times appear to be a futile task. There are millions of undead; his quest is absurd. If he were to find a cure, how would he go about implementing it? Every now and then, it appears Morgan has a lachrymose evening in his wife's crypt or a boozy night watching home movies, but he's up the next day to turn wooden stakes in the lathe and go a-killin' all over again.
This changes, naturally, when Morgan discovers a young woman, Ruth (Franco Bettoia), off in the distance on his daily rounds. Morgan chases her down, convinces her to come back to his house, and, after a time, she reveals to him that she, too has the plague. The difference is, however, Ruth is part of a group of survivors who are under treatment and have managed to avoid the whole undead thing. They are starting a new society, and Ruth, in fact, was sent to spy on Morgan, who's managed to destroy some of the new breed in his daily rounds. When Ruth falls asleep, Morgan takes a chance and gives Ruth a transfusion of his blood, which, containing antibodies for the plague, cures her. It is, however, too late, as the militia of the new breed arrive to rid the world of Morgan, who is seen in their eyes as a monstrous remnant of the old world.
For viewers seeking gore and gruesomeness, keep in mind that the film was made in 1964, so, being under the motion picture code, there was no way to go beyond the consensus censorship of the period. The undead are extra pale, have shadowy rings around their eyes, and extreme cases of bed-head, but are otherwise intact in appearance. They talk a little, and say things like, "Morgan! Arrr! Come out, Morgan!" They can hit things with sticks and throw rocks, but generally have a hard time getting around given the rigor mortis in their joints.
The most frustrating aspect of this otherwise effective film, in truth, is the new breed -- the hybrid undead, so to speak -- who appear in the last twenty minutes of the film. Their presence in this post-apocalyptic world is so poorly explained and unexplored -- though their hatred of Morgan is clear enough -- the waste of a good idea becomes all the more nagging the more one reflects on the film. Another understandable annoyance is the poor dubbing in post-production, a flaw no doubt inevitable as all the actors but Price must have been speaking their lines in Italian-accented English.
Neither of these shortcomings detract from the strengths of The Last Man on Earth. It presents a compelling dramatic situation made all the more tortuous by the internal conflicts Morgan faces both as a scientist and a family man; The settings of urban environments starkly empty of people are all the more chilling for the effective use of black-and-white film. First and foremost, Vincent Price's performance will be a surprise for many in its emotional nuance and control -- there's not a moment of camp and scenery-chewing to be found. Most of all, The Last Man on Earth, as it offers the first glimpses of what would become a whole richly explored genre of horror film, carries with it the suggestion of yet-unexplored areas of the premise. Just how long can a survivor last -- and why bother? How strong are the bonds of family between the living and the undead? If the undead develop a culture of their own, how does it happen, and what does it look like?
Richard Matheson, the author of I Am Legend, preferred this version of his book to 1971's The Omega Man, but ultimately didn't care for the casting of Price or for some of the director's choices. Matheson helped with the screenplay, but used the pseudonym Logan Swanson in the film credits rather than his own. It would remain for George Romero and others to work out the movie world of the zombie apocalypse in the years to come, but The Last Man on Earth is still the first word.