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The Last Man on Earth (1964)

by on 2011/10/17

“The beginning of any society is never charming or gentle.”

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The Last Man on Earth is one of many fun flicks I discovered through Off Beat Cinema. Having discussed that amazing programme fairly extensively in the past, I won’t bother to do so again. I will say, given its late-night timing, I often videotaped it. Last Man was an unfortunate case of the show being delayed, and my running out of space before the end.

Set in an alternate late 1960s — presumably New York from the street names — the movie begins by following a day in the life of scientist Robert Morgan (Vincent Price). After three years of living in a post-plague wasteland, he has developed a standard routine of feeding, inspecting his shelter, maintaining a power supply, checking the radio, fashioning weapons, and exploring blocks of the city, one by one.

From the ropes of garlic, mirrors and crosses, the carving of stakes, and the unpopulated daylight, it quickly becomes apparent he’s dealing with vampiric aggressors. In practice, they resemble more what we think of today as zombies. (Shall we call them “Zompires”?) Neither sleek nor feral, the reanimated corpses move slowly and clumsily, yet remain capable of basic speech and feeling pain. It’s difficult not to have a sense of pity for these “monsters”.

Somehow Morgan is immune to whatever caused the infection spread. (The eventual explanation is, frankly, laughable.) He spends his time sequestered alone, using music to distract himself from the frequent sieges and his own recurring nightmares. We learn more of his past through flashbacks, as his composure gradually slips.

I was struck by the overriding darkness. I tend not to think of the early Sixties as an angst-ridden period. We are shown children suffering, corpses piled up and burned, and a sad and silent resultant desolation. In a modern interpretation, I’d expect a twist, that the inexplicably spared hero was deluded, dead, or dying. I’d also expect to find his survival tied to his being the plague’s cause. Neither being the case here was — though more realistic — both disturbing and anticlimactic.

Disturbing because it means all the darkness we see is “really real”. Anticlimactic because the mystery lacks a satisfying explanation. If I wanted realism, I could turn on the evening news.

On the other hand, if realism is the intended approach, its documentary grit is subverted in various ways. The terms “germ”, “virus”, and “bacilli” are used interchangeably, however, they are not truly equivalent terms. Scientists should know better. Then again, these scientists also inelegantly explain things to each other of which they’re already aware.

Furthermore, while I can accept the conceit of a scientific explanation for undeath, it doesn’t coexist well with traditional vampire trappings: death by staking, definitely; aversion to sunlight, perhaps; allergy to garlic, unlikely; fear of mirrors and crosses, not so much.

The issues continue past the script, into the production itself. The staging is amateurish, with action beginning a noticeable beat after certain cuts. The acting is, to be charitable, uneven. On occasion, location recordings are nearly incomprehensibly poor. The frequent over-dubbing is equally bad. Scenes of driving by night are intercut with daylight close-ups.

And now that I’ve finally seen it . . . the ending! Oh dear, what an ending. I don’t want to spoil it with details, but it devolves into absurdity. I see what the filmmakers were attempting, but I don’t believe they succeeded. Frankly, I would have been better off to imagine my own finale.

Now, none of this criticism must reflect on Vincent Price. As the title’s last man, he delivers what is — in my experience — easily his single best performance. Much as I admired Tim Curry in the cesspool of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, so too did I enjoy Price here. He demonstrates a range and subtlety I didn’t see in The House on Haunted Hill or even Laura.

On top of his on-screen presence — despite my usual reaction — I also rather enjoyed his voice-over narration. With most of the movie lacking dialogue, and so few sounding boards, his words made sense describing his trains of thought. He didn’t simply itemize the actions seen on-screen, he suggested otherwise-unclear motivations and occasionally contradicted himself. For example, he’d counsel patience, juxtaposed with a frustrated fit.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Vincent’s voice is easy on the ears.

For years I didn’t know how the movie ended. I probably own the Richard Matheson story it was based on, but have never actually read it. The closest I’ve come is to see other efforts based on it, like The Omega Man and I Am Legend, or similar variations, like Night of the Living Dead and The Quiet Earth.

Now, things have come full circle. I’ve seen the original again, finally caught the ending and, despite several things to recommend it overall, was left slightly disappointed. The Last Man on Earth is a fun performer giving an unusual performance, on a rickety stage that’s falling apart around him.

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Full movie (public domain) available here:


86 minutes

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