Directed By: Boris Sagal
Starring: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash
Tag line: "Pray for the last man alive. Because he's not alone"
Trivia: Warner Brothers originally wanted Diahann Carroll for the role of Lisa.
Ah, The Omega Man. I go back a ways with this movie. Not to the beginning, of course; I was only two when it was first released. But I did see this 1971 film for the first time in the mid-‘80s, when it played on television, and I adored it. Whenever someone asks me what my favorite adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is, The Omega Man is always my answer, and even though I can now spot a few flaws that escaped notice before, it still has plenty going for it.
Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is convinced that he’s the only man left on earth. Years earlier, a simple border conflict between Russia and China escalated into all-out war, during which one side resorted to using chemical weapons. Alas, the deadly toxin released into the air soon spread around the world, killing hundreds of millions while turning those lucky enough to survive into near-crazed albinos who, due to an extreme sensitivity to light, can no longer venture out during the day. An army scientist at the time, Neville injected himself with an experimental vaccine designed to combat the toxin, and is therefore immune to it.
By day, Neville scours the abandoned streets of Los Angeles, looking for a group of night-dwellers known as “The Family”. Led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), The Family has, in turn, been harassing Neville for years, in part because he’s killed some of their own, but mostly because Neville represents a past that they believe failed them. Each night, Matthias and his followers try to lure Neville out of the small L.A. flat he’s transformed into a stronghold (complete with a generator, plenty of assault rifles, and all the liquor he can drink), only to be turned away by his advanced firepower.
Then, one day, Neville makes a startling discovery: he’s not alone after all! Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and her brother Richie (Eric Laneuville) are helping former medical student Dutch (Paul Koslo) watch over about a dozen or so children who have yet to suffer the full effects of the toxin. Using his blood as an antibody, Neville believes he can prevent Lisa and the others from “turning”, but will Matthias and his brood catch up to him before he has a chance to save them?
Without a doubt, the strongest scenes in The Omega Man come at the beginning, when Neville is cruising in his convertible down desolate roads, littered with trash and decaying bodies. He pauses a few times: once to shoot at a shadow in a window, which he assumes is one of Matthias’ followers, and again to watch a movie in a derelict cinema (ironically, the film is Woodstock, a documentary featuring about 500,000 people!). Neville also crashes his car, and is forced to get a new one (from a used car dealership). Speeding to make it home before sundown, he’s attacked right outside his garage by members of The Family, and after shooting them dead, he heads upstairs, where he passes the evening playing chess with a bust of Caesar as Matthias and the others taunt him from the streets below.
Heston is excellent in these sequences, displaying his usual strength but also adding a touch of comedy with his running monologue (after switching on a closed-circuit monitor in his apartment, he looks at an image of himself and says “Hi, Big Brother. How’s your ass?”). But we also see that the years of isolation have taken their toll on him, causing him to hallucinate (during his trip through the streets, he thinks he can hear phones ringing all around him). Along with setting up the story, this opening fills us in on the lead’s state of mind, and Heston handles it all wonderfully. Equal in every way is Rosalind Cash, whose Lisa is a bad-ass through and through, not to mention the perfect girlfriend for a guy like Neville (for the early ‘70s, this interracial love affair was rather groundbreaking).
Where The Omega Man falters is in its depiction of Matthias and The Family. In the other film versions of Matheson’s story, notably 1964’s The Last Man on Earth (with Vincent Price) and 2007’s I Am Legend (with Will Smith), the night dwellers were more enigmatic, which, in some scenes, made them downright creepy. By dedicating screen time to The Family, during which Matthias preaches about how the illness has cleansed his mind, allowing him to see the evils of the “regular” world, the movie takes the edge off of him and his group. In fact, considering that The Family is multiracial and against science and big business, I wouldn’t be surprised if a portion of that original ‘70s audience was rooting for them! The make-up effects are fine, and Zerbe is quite good as Matthias, but when the chips were down, I wasn’t as afraid of him or his followers as I should have been.
Still, I’ll continue to rank The Omega Man as my favorite I Am Legend adaptation, partly for sentimental reasons, but also because of Heston and Cash, as well as the convincing manner in which director Boris Sagal depicts the end of the world (making L.A. appear as abandoned as he did couldn’t have been easy).