Fast on the heels of 1960's The Last Woman on Earth, we now have 1964's The Last Man on Earth, which is based on Richard Matheson's novel I am Legend. I've never read this, just never found the time or the interest back when I had the time and the interest, and now I definitely don't have the time, though I sorta kinda have the interest. Still with me? The Last Man on Earth is the first of three adaptations of this novel into movies. The second was The Omega Man with Charleston Heston and the last was I am Legend with Will Smith, neither of which I have seen yet.
We open in Los Angeles, California and meet our film's main character. Doctor Robert Morgan is a normal guy, a virologist who once worked for a prestigious laboratory, earning enough money to have a brand new 1964 Ford station wagon and a very nice house in the valley. Morgan also had a rather pretty trophy wife half his age and a cute precocious little daughter about seven-years old. All in all not a bad life, I'd say.
Robert Morgan, played by legendary b-movie star Vincent Price.
Except that Morgan is the now titular last man on earth, besieged by legions of undead vampires! Rah!!! It's now 1968, three long years since a worldwide plague turned everyone into vampires. Everyone except Morgan, that is. The first third of our movie brings us into Morgan's daily life in this post-apocalyptic new world, guided along by his own voice-over narration.
During the day he fixes stuff around the house, eats nice meals, cruises around the city looking for supplies and food, and tinkers with his ever-silent ham radio. He also schedules the time to go out and stake sleeping vampires and throw them into a burning pit! Eeek! Following established movie traditions, the vampires "sleep" during the day, making them easy prey for Morgan and his bag of sharpened table legs. The only way to make sure they are dead for good is to burn them, which he does by tossing them into this huge pit dug years ago and torching them with gasoline. In this way, by systematically going from street to street during the day, he hopes to eradicate the vampire population one at a time.
Morgan replacing his garlic strands and broken mirrors before the next night.
At night they come out to try and get him back, but he's always securely in his house by nightfall. The vampires, also following what Hollywood has always told us, are held back by garlic and mirrors and crosses. Our movie's vampires are also like zombies in that they are slow and easily avoided, a shove is all it takes to knock them over. At night they do little more than stumble around his house and weakly hit at it with sticks and rocks. The only real scary thing is that one vampire keep calling his name over and over (this is from the book, I understand).
The vampires at the door, too dumb to work a crowbar. The one who knows his name used to be his coworker.
All this tension wears Morgan down at times, both emotionally and physically, but he copes with alcohol and home movies and jazz records. The sight of him up late at night nonchalantly sipping brandy and listening to Cole Porter while swarms of bloodthirsty vampires pound on his doors is unforgettable. Vincent Price really does a very good job in this movie portraying a man slowly loosing his mind from the stress and the solitude.
The obvious question is "why isn't he a vampire, too?". The answer comes to us much later but I'll tell you here. Years ago, Morgan was in Panama doing research and was bitten by a bat. He suspects that this bat (surely a "vampire bat") had the plague virus in it, but the virus was diluted and strained by the bat's own blood, so Morgan had a chance to develop an immunity to it. Seems pretty logical, actually, especially if that bat was carrying an early strain of the virus, before it mutated into something beyond immunity.
The middle third of the movie is an extended flashback to three years ago (that is, 1965) before all hell broke loose. We hear that even then the "plague" was ravaging across Europe and there was very real fear that it could jump the Atlantic. Everyone is jittery and nervous, and sure that the government is hiding important news from them. Rumors and hysteria are beginning to take over from reason and you can just tell the end is near.
I realize that the Polaris program cost a ton of money back in the 1960s, but a sea-based nuclear deterrent, especially one with the Polaris' unique second-strike capabilities, might have been the only thing keeping the Russian bear out of Western Europe. Oh, and that plague thing is apparently airborne, which sucks for everyone.
We fast-forward a few months or weeks to when the plague has indeed made it to America and is currently infecting people at a phenomenal rate. People are getting sick faster than medical help can arrive, not that there is any known cure or even a treatment for the plague. First people go weak and numb, then they go blind, and finally they die, all in rapid order.
Morgan and his wife lament the days of death.
The Army is working nonstop taking dead bodies out of houses and hospitals and burning them in a huge pit they've dug down by the aqueduct. A raging fire consumes the corpses, which is the established method for trying to contain a plague outbreak of most kinds, as well as exterminating vampire hoards. This is the pit that Morgan is continuing to toss bodies into years later.
The virus resists treatment or even classification, despite the best medical minds on the planet working on it. This includes Morgan, who, along with the rest of them, is amazed at the rapid pace of infection and the seemingly unstoppable airborne transmission method. Worse yet, there are rumors of the unburned dead coming back to life! The government and the Army are suppressing these rumors, but even that's not enough to keep the already spooked population from panicking.
Eventually, Morgan's young daughter gets the plague and dies horribly. The scenes of this little girl writing in pain and begging for help as her vision fails are truly difficult to watch, but they do hammer home the viciousness of this plague and the helplessness of those left behind. The Army takes his daughter's corpse away against his wishes, and he chases after the truck. Morgan even tries to go to the pit where they are burning the dead, hoping to get his daughter's body back. In one of the better moments of the film, a harried MP pulls him away and says, "A lot of daughters are in there, including my own."
At the pit, Morgan realizes that there is nothing he can do but tend to those still living.
Morgan's wife then gets plague and goes blind before dying in agony. Distraught, he takes her body out at night and buries it in the ground, he's unwilling to see her tossed in that pit. In the last scene of the flashback, however, Morgan's wife rises from the dead and comes back home! She scratches at the door and moans "let me in", which Morgan does and the screen fades to black as we see his horrified look as she shambles in towards him.
My wife looked like this one Friday night...
The rest of the movie is back in "real time" (1968) as we rejoin Morgan as he goes about his lonely life of staking vampires and drinking booze.
But things change quickly when he spots a survivor! It's just a dog, a shabby injured cocker spaniel, but it's still apparently the first living thing he's seen in years (which suggests that even other species have been infected). The dog becomes his best and only friend for a while, and Morgan seems to be genuinely overjoyed to have someone to talk to, even if they can't respond. The depths of this man's loneliness are hard to imagine and I'm not sure I could go that many years without human contact. Sadly, the dog is infected and Morgan must put him down for his own good.
Morgan buries the dog, staked through a burlap bag.
More surprises come then, as he happens across a number of dead vampires that have been staked by someone else! This tells him unequivocally that there must be other survivors in the city, survivors who are doing the same thing he is with the vampires.
And it's not long before he comes across a lone woman out in the daytime! She's a pretty young thing named Ruth, and she seems to be a "normal human". After some hesitancy, Ruth goes back to Morgan's house and they get to know each other. The scenes with the two of them here are some of the best in the movie, as Morgan tries to wrap his head around Ruth's story while still being amazed that he's not alone anymore. And kudos for not forcing some sort of romance between these two, which would have ruined the pacing and the somber tone.
Ruth, showing once again that a vampire apocalypse is no excuse for not having great hair.
It turns out that Ruth is infected with the plague! But she's able to control the "vampire symptoms" with the use of a special serum developed by her community. They remain infected but can life somewhat normal lives, which is not the best solution, but better than becoming vampires. They, too, have been out staking "real" vampires, much as Morgan has been.
The shocking twist is that, even with the serum, these people still have to sleep a lot during the daytime. Which means that Morgan has been killing a fair number of them over the last three years by accident, thinking he was killing vampires! In fact, Morgan's name is an infamous legend now, a boogyman used to frighten kids and give shivers to adults. Morgan is seriously taken aback by this, he didn't know, and profoundly apologizes to Ruth.
His scientific mind kicking in now, Morgan gives her a blood transfusion from his own veins, and miracle of miracles, Ruth is cured! She can now stand garlic and mirrors and the nasty plague germs in her blood have been overcome by the antibodies from Morgan's blood. They can save humanity now by giving transfusions to all the survivors.
Blood transfusion, which doesn't exactly look very sanitary.
But time is not on their side. Ruth's fellows are coming this night to kill Morgan! Ruth admits that she was sent here to "keep him occupied" until they arrived, but now has obviously had a change of heart. Morgan flees his house as the vigilantes arrive, toting machineguns and iron stakes. Determined to kill this "monster", they don't stop to listen to the protesting Ruth and storm after Morgan.
He doesn't get far, sadly, and is cornered in a nearby church. Impaled on a stake, he dies a cruel and needless death, giving a great final monologue as he expires beneath the alter. The man becomes the monster, as the story goes.