The first of several adaptations of the classic Richard Matheson short story “I Am Legend,” The Last Man On Earth casts Vincent Price in the titular role, and the quality of his performance allows the film to transcend its low budgets into something more memorable.
The Production: 3.5/5
The Last Man On Earth is the first of several adaptations of Richard Matheson’s classic short story, “I Am Legend.” With Matheson on-board as screenwriter (he was credited under the pseudonym Logan Swanson alongside William F. Leicester), this version hews closest to the source material compared to later versions. (The 1971 version with Charlton Heston, titled The Omega Man, discards much of Matheson’s quiet dread and plot detail in favor of a more 70s disaster feel. In many regards, the 2007 version, the only one to retain the story’s name, captures the isolation of the protagonist with a fabulous performance from Will Smith, but falls apart in the last third as it barrels towards an ending that completely misses the point of Matheson’s story.) Though Matheson was ultimately underwhelmed with this 1964 version, it probably ticks off more of the boxes from the source material than anything that’s followed.
The film begins in 1968 (a few short years into the future from the perspective of the audience), where Vincent Price, as Dr. Robert Morgan, is presented as the last human survivor in a world that’s been decimated by a deadly plague that turns its victims into creatures that have the stereotypical traits of vampires (an inability to stand sunlight, fear of mirrors and garlic) with the lumbering gait of zombies. By day, Morgan goes out hunting the sleeping creatures, trying his best to exterminate all he can find, returning to his home by dark to stay out of harm’s way when the undead come out of hiding. An extended flashback reveals that in the before times, Morgan had been a scientist who had lost his family to the plague. Morgan hypothesizes that a prior bat bite from years earlier had granted him a form of immunity, and works on a vaccine as the world collapses around him. Back in Morgan’s present, during his daytime excursions, he comes across Ruth (Franca Bettoia), the first person he’s encountered in years, who he suspects of keeping secrets from him.
A Robert L. Lippert production, directed by Sidney Salkow and released by American International Pictures, the film follows the template of many similar productions of the era, filmed in black and white on a lower budget that was kept down in part by shooting in Rome with a mostly Italian cast and crew. Given that the majority of the film has Price alone in empty indoor and exterior settings, this is not as noticeable a substitution as it might have been with another story. Though Matheson felt Price was miscast, he’s easily the most compelling thing about the film. If he’s not quite as young as the story’s protagonist, he brings a gravitas and weariness to the role that gives the film its staying power. While Salkow’s direction here isn’t likely to be the study of any scholarly tomes, it’s efficient and unobtrusive, allowing the the film’s greatest assets (Price and the sparse locations) to shine through.
It’s perhaps impossible to consider The Last Man On Earth in the year 2021 without thinking of the covid-19 pandemic. Scenes during the flashback sequence that feature doctors and scientists debating whether or not the plague is even real or worth combatting despite the mounting evidence of doom piling up around them seem eerily prescient. The film’s final act contemplates in its own way whether it is better to remain pure as the last representative of a society that no longer exits, or whether the better course of action is to adapt to live in a changed world by accepting that the old ways are gone and establishing a new normal. There is no easy answer to be found in Matheson’s source material, and The Last Man On Earth preserves some of this ambiguity.
3D Rating: NA
The Last Man On Earth is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, courtesy of a transfer provided by MGM. (It is the same transfer used for the earlier Shout Factory Blu-ray.) Prior to the DVD/BD era, the film had fallen into the public domain and for a long stretch had only been available in poor quality versions. Though this disc won’t be news to anyone who has seen the earlier official MGM DVD edition or Shout BD, it’s a major step up from the many prior public domain releases of yesteryear. The image is generally stable and steady, preserving a film like appearance. The black and white imagery is often striking, with good contrast and detail. As a lower budget production, the film’s opticals are not of the highest quality, with multiple examples of dirt and debris within those brief moments. However, setting aside those fleeting imperfections (which have always been part of the film), the bulk of the presentation here is quite good.
The film’s original monaural soundtrack is faithfully preserved in a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Much of the sound design is centered around Price’s narration, which is cleanly recorded and easily discernible within the mix. Given that much of the cast were native Italian speakers, a great deal of the dialogue has been dubbed, and there are moments where the ADR work is less than perfect. However, it is important to note that much like the poor opticals, this is simply how the film was made and has always been, and not a fault of the transfer. At any rate, those moments comprise such a small percentage of the film’s running time that they should not be seen as dealbreakers. It sounds like what it is: a well-preserved if unflashy monaural track from 1964.
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentary by Richard Harland Smith – Newly recorded for this Kino reissue of the film, Smith’s commentary is a treasure trove of information for fans of the film. Mostly reading from prepared notes, with the occasional detour along the way, Smith enthusiastically covers a lot of ground, from the history of the Matheson’s short story all the way through each of the different film versions. Smith is able to effectively place the film within the context of its original time, while also exploring how the film’s stature has grown in more recent times. Smith even describes the unusual experience of recording a commentary on a film about a plague in a time of a pandemic, allowing the commentary to serve not only as a scholarly work but also as a time capsule of sorts. This is a first rate track that is well suited to both the film and the times we live in.
Richard Matheson: Storyteller (6:24) – Carried over from the earlier MGM DVD circa 2005, this standard definition featurette has Matheson recounting his involvement with the film.
Trailers From Hell with Joe Dante (2:23) – Film director and horror aficionado Joe Dante offers his commentary on the film and its trailer in this brief yet informative featurette, presented in HD.
Alternate Ending (0:58) – Presented in cropped 4×3 standard definition, this brief alternate ending is simply a slightly trimmed version of the ending scene in the film proper. (Apparently, many public domain prints had used this shorter cut of the scene.)
TV Spots (0:40) – Two brief TV spots, in 4×3 standard definition, are offered together as a single viewing option.
Italian Trailer (3:55) – The film’s Italian-language trailer is presented in a widescreen standard definition format.
Trailer (1:51) – The film’s shorter English-language trailer is presented in HD.
The disc also includes trailers for Master of the World, The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors, The Tomb of Ligeia, Scream and Scream Again, Theater of Blood and House of the Long Shadows.
The Last Man on Earth probably plays better today than it did in 1964, with a noteworthy performance from star Vincent Price and plenty of end-of-the-world atmosphere. Kino’s Special Edition offers a good presentation of MGM’s previously available master, along with an insightful new commentary and a couple of short but rewarding extant featurettes. The packaging includes a handsome slipcover which reproduces the original poster art. Those who already own the previous Shout Factory Blu-ray will have to consider whether the commentary is worth the price of an upgrade, but for fans without a copy of the film, this edition is easy to recommend.
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