Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) was a scientist looking for a cure for a plague sweeping the Earth. That was three years ago, now he lives alone, apparently the sole survivor of humanity, and the plague has turned the remaining humans into shambling vampires. Every day, Morgan has to seek them out and stake them, and every night he must barricade himself into his house and listen as the undead hammer on the doors and windows...
Richard Matheson's classic horror novel I Am Legend was first adapted for the big screen by himself, but the script was revised by William Leicester against his wishes to become the Italian/American co-production The Last Man on Earth. Consequently, Matheson hated the adaptation, but it actually sticks pretty close to the book, certainly closer than The Omega Man, the second adaptation made during the early seventies. It's mainly the noticeably low budget that harms the realisation of post-apocalyptic story.
As with many of those stories, there are effective shots of a deserted city in the early stages to set the scene. The mundanity of Morgan's life is underlined by Price's weary voiceover as he replaces the garlic hanging around his door, and notices the mirrors have been broken again (the vampires can't stand to look at their own reflection). He goes to top up his car's petrol tank, and commences yet another day of finding the vampires hiding in the ruins and staking them, then loading up their bodies in the back of his hearse-like vehicle and taking them to the burning pit of bodies just outside the city.
The nights consist of Morgan playing jazz records at full volume while the vampires try in vain to get into the house (as in the book, his neighbour constantly calls for him). It's at this time he reflects on the past life, which is the cue for a lengthy flashback. The film has a curiously sombre quality, reflecting Morgan's yearning for the past to return. He takes no joy in killing the undead, it's become a mechanical act for him.
Price looks less convincing as a family man than as a modern day Van Helsing, but the flashback has an understated pathos, whether it's from watching his wife and young daughter succumb to the plague ("I can't see, I can't see," his daughter laments pathetically) or the small crowd being held back as the army disposes of their loved ones. When Morgan's wife dies, he buries her, but then the full horror of what is happening hits him hard after what happens next.
Fortunately, Matheson's theme about the only normal man left turning into a monster feared by the surviving majority is intact, if a little awkwardly handled. The Last Man on Earth is one of the many films credited with inspiring the George A. Romero zombie movies, and you can see why when the vampires swarm around Morgan's house. But Price's muted performance, the lack of gore, and the atmosphere of loneliness and despair are responsible for a less sensational telling of a now familiar story. Music by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter.