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Barbarians? You call us barbarians?

The Omega Man
(1971)

(SPOILERS) Chuck Heston battles albino mutants in 1970s LA. Sure-fire, top-notch B-hokum, right? Can’t miss? Unfortunately, The Omega Man is determinedly pedestrian, despite gestures towards contemporaneity with its blaxploitation nods and media commentary so faint as to be hardly there. Although more tonally subdued and simultaneously overtly “silly” in translating the vampire lore from Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, the earlier The Last Man on Earth is probably the superior adaptation.

The blame must be partly placed at the door of TV director Boris Sagal (did Chuck really ask Orson Welles?). Sagal embraces a style-free approach that fails to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in atmospherically deserted streets or the loneliness of being the last man in existence. However, the screenplay from John William and Joyce H Corrington doesn’t help matters either. They were responsible the Corman/Scorsese Boxcar Bertha and went on to the least worthy (and last) of the Apes series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Vincent Price’s protagonist was made a scientist in The Last Man on Earth, but Chuck’s Robert Neville is deliriously capable. He’s not only a scientist and MD but also a US Army colonel. With terrible fashion sense, particularly unforgivable as he has the entire city’s shops at his disposal. Actually, the green velvet blazer isquite groovy, but given so much 70s gear has taken on a retro chic, it says something that his duds look so awful.

Rosalind Cash as affro’d fellow survivor/ love interest/Family member also feels like a cynical (and half-hearted) attempt to cash in on trends. Indeed, Chuck seems a bit out of place here. He doesn’t wear this SF role nearly as well as he earlier did in Planet of the Apes and a couple of years later Soylent Green. As such, it’s telling that he seems to have a hand in the most unearned of symbolic gestures (the speared Neville and “crucifixion” at the climax). That said, you could easily imagine Arnie in a remake of this version (he and Ridley Scott planned an I am Legend in the late 90s that failed to get off the launchpad), but not so much either of the others.

Neville: Well, they sure don't make pictures like that anymore.

Chuck drives around. He watches Woodstock so many times he can repeat all the words (this seems an odd choice for a colonel, but I guess surviving global devastation will do that, unless he previously had an MK Ultra role in engineering the hippy movement). He also finds sausages and drinks a lot. Oh, and he shoots mutants, the “poor miserable bastards”. That element, of his being an unjust brutaliser of the new normal for humanity, is paid little more than lip service; there’s no great revelation involved, since it’s established early on that there’s a clash of ethos with the Family (the Manson associations are surely intentional). He seems as indifferent to the possibility of “saving” them with the serum derived from his blood as they are opposed to being saved.

Matthias: The very foundations of society are beginning to crumble under the dread assault of that horror, long-feared, germ warfare.

Where the source of the virus in The Last Man on Earth was never discovered, here it results from biological warfare used in a Sino-Soviet war. Neville wasn’t naturally immune. Rather, he managed to inject himself with an experimental vaccine when his helicopter crashed (the visualisation of this is especially inept, with Chuck in rags – because that’s what happens to your clothes when a helicopter crashes – covered in very 70s red paint). And it worked! 

Neville: They're sick, you know. They're vermin.

But then, the ravages of this plague are idiosyncratic to say the least. We are informed “The first symptom appears to be severe choking, followed by immediate unconsciousness. Death occurs within minutes”. As its spread escalates, the instruction “Stay in your homes!” is issued, with summary execution as the penalty for disobedience. By the time three years have passed, those surviving have invariably turned albino, with an aversion to sunlight and shocking white hair. And matching black robes. None of which really encourages suspension of disbelief. That’s the kind of science a doctorate in chemistry will buy you (writer Carrington). To wit:

Matthias: Definition of a scientist: a man who understood nothing, until there was nothing left to understand.

The most interesting – if not so much aesthetically – part of the picture comes with Anthony Zerbe as Matthias, head of the Family. We’ve already seen him as the newsreader warning of the coming plague: judgement in the form of billions of microscopic bacilli. It would be a satirical twist anywhere else that the opinion makers become the religious leaders after the dust has settled, but any wit in that choice is all but lost. Matthias forwards a pronouncedly anti-science viewpoint, which is understandable, all things considered. He’s also keen on a very popular concept just now, that of the reset, whereby “We’ll simply erase history from the time machinery and weapons threatened more than they offered”. Then there’s the gag about Planned Parenthood, although Bill Gates’ dad doesn’t feature. Still, quite close to the bone, given the eugenicists couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.

Quite a few 70s movies took the churn ‘em out approach of employing TV directors to deliver cheap sequels (Planet of the Apes, Dirty Harry). Simultaneously, the auteurs were like pigs in shit for much of the decade. Of course, Heston was stumbling about trying to find his place at the time too, occasionally securing a nice fat villain role (The Three Musketeers) or plum SF movie. More often, he was to be found propping up the disaster cycle. It would be very easy to assume he was looking for something that would match his last big hit, Apes, for success here, which would probably explain the PG-horror approach. Unfortunately, The Omega Man needed considerably more style and depth to be anything other than a charmlessly functional reworking of Matheson’s novel (he felt it was so different as to be not worth getting upset about).


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