Last Man on Earth, The (1964)

The Last Man on Earth (1964), directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow.

This low-budget Italian horror film may be the first zombie apocalypse movie. It is the first film version of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, followed by The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston, I Am Legend with Will Smith, and the direct to video I Am Omega, not seen by me.

In the future of 1968 a plague has wiped out most of humanity, with a few shambling remnants resembling classic vampires: they dislike sunlight, mirrors and garlic. Their blood clots quickly, hence the need for a stake in the heart to prevent the wound from closing.

Scientist Vincent Price is the sole uninfected survivor. He is depressed, lives like a slob and drags himself around to his daily duties: collecting supplies, maintaining his generators and defenses. He does radio broadcasts but no longer expects an answer. Mostly he systematically hunts down vampires during the day and kills them. "Why" is never clear: he can't kill them all, can he? Maybe he is just trying to eliminate the local threat. He hauls the bodies to a huge pit and burns them.

This is a dark, despairing, world-as-death-camp vision. In a long flashback we see the initial progress of the plague, collapse of society, and the illness and death of his little girl and wife, all very sad. The wife comes back and says "Let me in."

We don't think of Price as an action hero, but that strangely enhances his character, emphasizing the tragedy. Horror means not being able to cope. He's the wrong man for this apocalyptic survival situation, he knows it and we know it. Do not expect a happy ending.

On the down side: it's cheap. That's not necessarily bad; I've seen shoestring budget films that produce more chills and dread that big budget efforts, but when you become aware of the budget it's distracting. The living dead are ineffectual, just lumbering around his house and banging on the windows. The final act is rushed and it's not clear what Price intends to do.

This is the only version I've seen that retains an important plot point from the original story: not all of the infected are vampyric, but our hero has been staking them all indiscriminately. He didn't know. That explains the original title, "I Am Legend": he has become a boogeyman to the children of the new race, the demon who kills them in their sleep.

The film is in the public domain and cruddy quality copies are easy to find, For example I have it in the "Mill Creek Chilling 20 Movie Pack": it's cropped to about half the proper width, blurry, and has constant film damage.

My thumbnails are from a much nicer MGM flipper disc with Panic in Year Zero! (1962) on the reverse. MGM owns the American International catalog and must have access to better quality sources. Both films have the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and subtitles.

Later: a Blu-ray appeared.