Even if it had never been adapted for the screen even once, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend would still be a science-fiction/horror classic, one of the greatest triumphs ever in fusing psychological realism with the fantastic (in this case, an apocalyptic vampire/zombie plague). It was cited by George A Romero as one of the chief influences on his film Night of the Living Dead, and its influence (directly or indirectly) stretches across the entire modern zombie genre, even though the vampires of its story aren’t precisely zombies at all. But it has been, three times in fact, and a few more than that in spirit, and it’s become something of a horror movie standard due for a new version every generation or so.
The first time I Am Legend was brought to the screen was in 1964, starring Vincent Price. The Last Man on Earth is a low budget affair but has always been my favorite movie version based on Matheson’s novel. The man himself might disagree, though, since after his original script for the project was subjected to unsatisfactory rewrites he had his name removed from the credits. None of the movies based on I Am Legend capture its bone-deep loneliness, with the “Vampiris” plague employed as a haunting metaphor for alienation and isolation as it exists in the real world, but The Last Man on Earth probably comes the closest thanks in large part to Price, filling in any emotional gaps the film’s script might have with a very affecting performance. If you’re used to seeing Price’s campy villains in stuff like the Dr. Phibes films or House of Wax, you might be surprised to see how convincing his Robert Morgan (changed, for some reason, from the novel’s Robert Neville) is in the way he goes about his daily routine even in the face of the literal end of the world.
If you’re a fan of titular lines, Price gets to deliver his in The Last Man on Earth with unforgettable relish. But the ending of the film, as indelible as it may be, demonstrates one of the key problems that I Am Legend has had in being adapted for the movies. You wouldn’t know it from watching them, but I Am Legend is called that because at the end of the novel Neville has been captured by the vampires and sentenced to death for killing so many of their number, and he realizes that in his activities since the plague began he has become a “legend” to be feared by the newly born vampire society in much the same way vampires used to be feared by humanity. This is not a particularly complex moral idea but it’s apparently too much for any mainstream filmmakers to tackle, since none of the big screen versions of I Am Legend — including the one that retains Matheson’s title! — have explored it.
Just seven years after The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend got the big budget studio treatment with The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. The Heston version of this story is a sociopolitical minefield, and an early sequence shows Mr. Cold Dead Hands himself cradling a rifle in an abandoned movie theater talking along with Woodstock of all things (some have described Heston as mocking the film during this scene, but to me it seems like he’s adoring it, even if only because there’s nothing else in the world for him to watch). The band of human survivors he encounters in this version of the story include Rosalind Cash’s character, purportedly developed as a response to the Black Power movement of the time, and who shares one of the first interracial kisses in a Hollywood film with Heston. Heston’s gun-toting establishment figure teaming up with a group of counterculture youths to take down “The Family,” who aren’t vampires in this version, but albino cultists who blame modernity and technology for the plague, which was actually caused by a puzzling Russian/Chinese war. Fascinatingly, The Omega Man features a murderous quasi-religious cult called The Family and came out the same year that the trial of Charles Manson, who had an infamous Los Angeles Family of his own, wrapped up.
The most familiar version of this story today is almost certainly the 2007 I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. I Am Legend 2007 is a slick scifi/horror blockbuster that seems equally inspired by the then-current zombie craze touched off by 28 Days Later (itself heavily inspired by Matheson, with its opening scenes of Cillian Murphy waking up from a coma and wandering around a seemingly deserted London) than by the novel it’s nominally based on. A somewhat infamous ending that sought to hew relatively closely to Matheson’s ideas was axed and replaced with a more traditionally heroic one, and this along with substandard CGI effects make this a disappointing (albeit extremely popular) effort at bringing Matheson’s novel to the screen, albei, despite a good lead performance from Smith and the most convincing illusion yet of a New York City that’s been completely deserted by humanity.
Is it time for yet another version of I Am Legend? The 60s, 70s, and 2000s got their own with their own unique hangups and fixations, and personally I think it’s time for another take on what’s become a genre standard. Is America ready for an Omega Woman? The subtextual possibilities for a story about a humanity-destroying contagion and the extreme social distancing that follows go without saying, and given that I’m surprised that such a production hasn’t already begun.
For now, we have Matheson’s classic novel and three pretty good movie versions, plus a 1991 comic book adaptation that I unfortunately haven’t been able to get my hands on yet. And virtually every modern zombie story, from 28 Days Later (pictured above) to The Walking Dead to Zack Snyder’s new Army of the Dead, owes at least a little something to Matheson’s masterpiece.