Originally filmed as the Last Man on Earth in 1964, another film attempt at the novel I Am Legend appeared seven years late, this time with with added Charlton Heston, in The Omega Man. While the original version was all mood and restraint, with the delightfully mincing narration of the delightfully mincing Vincent Price, the remake is built on action, quips, Heston’s glistening, hairy chest and hubris. And it’s great.
Instead of arthritically shuffling around his empty town like Price, The Omega Man opens with big, bad Chuck H, belting through the streets of an abandoned downtown Los Angeles in his candy apple red convertible. Like Price’s Robert Morgan, Heston’s Robert Neville is a man of science, looking for a cure to the plague that turned the rest of humanity into vampire like monsters. Unlike Price’s Morgan, Heston’s Neville is also a stone cold ass kicker. Morgan hand turns wooden stakes on a lathe, Neville amasses an arsenal of automatic weapons. Morgan sports a nice a cardigan, Neville busts out a blue jumpsuit and naval officer’s hat to show he really means business.
Another difference between the two films, the cause of the plague is left a little ambiguous in The Last Man on Earth. In The Omega Man? A border conflict between Russia and China results in chemical warfare with effects that reached all the way to America. You see, there’s no way the great nation of the United Stated of America could ever cause something like this to happen. It was those damn commie Ruskies and Chinese. And now it’s up to one great ‘Merican to put things right and fix the world.
It also diverges from 1964 version in its depiction of the infected. Instead of the slow, incompetent, almost mono-syllabic, almost zombie-like creatures of Last Man, Heston has to contend with a cult of known as “The Family”, conscious former humans of sound body and mind who can actually think of a plan to take him down and follow it through. His one advantage is their fear of technology. Blaming modern science for the plague, they refuse to use things like electricity and guns (but are somehow cool with sporting a pair of Ray Bans to help with their light tolerance issues). These baddies make a much more convincing threat than the bumbling boobs in 1964.
Eventually, Heston meets other survivors, followed by sustained moments of getting it on, before things ramp up for one last, winner take sit all smack down with The Family. At first, I thought it was clueless 70s cheese with extra machismo forced into the movie by Heston, but as it went on, I became more and more convinced that The Omega Man might actually be full aware of its cheese and machismo, making it all the better. While affection for The Last Man on Earth seems to be based on its campy, Z-grade charms, The Omega Man is the real deal. A legit actioner with a charismatic lead performance, a threatening antagonist and even a few intentional laughs.