Author Richard Matheson passed away this week at age 87. Though he is not as well known as his mid-century sci-fi contemporaries, Matheson’s work in TV, film and fiction is directly responsible for the enduring popularity of zombie and post-apocalyptic films in the latter half of the 20th century and today. Some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone were his, including the infamous “Terror at 20,000 ft,” and my personal favorite “Once Upon A Time.” He wrote the Jekyll-and-Hyde episode of Star Trek where Kirk splits in half, as well as the spooky thriller Hell House. Even with all of these credits to his name, Matheson’s most famous work is the 1954 story I Am Legend.
Most likely, I Am Legend is best known through its three fairly successful film adaptations: The Last Man On Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007). Matheson’s original story is set in the ruins of Los Angeles after an airborne virus (possibly the product of germ warfare) has wiped out the majority of the world’s population, and turned the rest into vampire-like undead. Robert Neville is the last remaining human, and he details the lonely monotony of his daily fight for survival as he kills vampires by day and barricades himself in his house at night. This bleak pattern is eventually interrupted by the appearance of Ruth, an infected woman who reveals to him that the vampires he assumed were monsters have actually been building a new society. Neville is captured by the vampires, and he realizes that in this new society he is the monster. Neville kills himself before his execution, thinking as he dies that he is “…a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”
Where I Am Legend stood out was its new take on the undead. Matheson’s vampires were scientific instead of supernatural in origin. Divorced from their original carnal connotation, these shambling hoards were the beginnings of modern zombies. Up to this point, zombies had been individuals cursed by voodoo, but George A. Romero admitted he borrowed from I Am Legend to create the creatures from The Night of the Living Dead in 1964.
Considering this connection, it’s surprising that none of the film adaptations of I Am Legend are zombie movies. Matheson’s infected evolve to become the embodiment of each decade’s fear: proto-zombies in The Last Man On Earth, an albino Manson Family-like cult in The Omega Man, and finally cannibals caused by a cancer cure in I Am Legend. Each film reflects contemporary concerns, and so each moves farther from its source material.
The Last Man On Earth is the first, most faithful, and most anemic adaptation of Matheson’s original story. A low budget B movie shot mostly in Rome, The Last Man On Earth stars Vincent Price as a scientist named Robert Morgan. Like its source material, The Last Man On Earth is best at world-building, and the film takes its time. The majority of the movie is spent watching Morgan go through his daily rituals of survival. The vampires he stakes and disposes of look uncannily like Romero’s zombies two years later: they shamble, they moan, their bad makeup is caked on unevenly, and they’re rendered quickly useless by a well-placed shove.
The film remains faithful to the its source material until the last act. Eventually Morgan meets Ruth, a half-vampire, and cures her. She informs him of the vampire society and their decision to kill him. Unfortunately, the film does away with the central moral lesson of I Am Legend. Morgan forgoes any possible introspection for an unsatisfying chase through a church, where he is killed on an altar after screaming “Freaks! You’re all freaks!”
The Omega Man picks up where the last-minute religious themes of The Last Man On Earth left off. The Omega Man combines a Christ figure, Cold War paranoia, thinly-veiled commentary on 1960s social movements, and a dash of The Planet of the Apes to create a brightly colored mess of a camp classic. As Neville, a military scientist, Charlton Heston is a Scientific Savior, if, instead of dying for the world’s sins, Jesus died to cure a bunch of kids of a disease that turns them into albino cult members.
The cult in question is the film’s answer to Matheson’s vampires: a light-sensitive legion of Luddites called the Family. Their rhetoric is a perverted echo of 1960s optimism. The Family preaches togetherness between races (now that they’re all the same color), and a refusal of the violent technologies that brought about the world’s downfall. They’re not wrong about that last point – in this version, germ warfare caused the apocalypse – but while they preach peace, they burn books and kill children. Neville is the hero of this post-apocalyptic nightmare only because he’s slightly less terrible than the Family, and doesn’t need sunglasses during the day. The Omega Man paints a psychedelic, pessimistic picture.
I Am Legend bridges the adaptation gap between the very faithful and the loosely adapted. Like The Last Man On Earth, I Am Legend takes its time with world-building. As Robert Neville, Will Smith traverses a New York City reclaimed by nature after the disappearance of humans. Aided by some unfortunately cheap-looking CGI, grass grows wild and deer run through Times Square. The vampires get a CGI makeover as well.
By 2007 zombies had become a fully-realized genre, and vampires were one year away from sparkling in the sun, so I Am Legend chose to create a mutant/vampire hybrid known only as the Infected. The Infected are the byproduct of a measles-based miracle cure that killed most of the world. This “lethal vaccine” plot has cropped up increasingly frequently in zombie movies, a product of real-world vaccine paranoia. This vaccine caused monsters that burn in the sunlight, have a thirst for blood, and look like those see-through anatomy dolls from your high school biology class. The infected are animalistic, but apparently smart enough to trap and track Neville. Still, any implications about a new breed of human or a belief in the sanctity life are abandoned when Neville blows his lab (and the alternate ending) to oblivion. Unfortunately, despite strong hints at a deeper film, I Am Legend ends up being nothing more than a Will Smith action movie at the end.
When he wrote the original I Am Legend in 1954, Richard Matheson synthesized ideas that had been floating through science fiction into a single story that catch the Cold War zeitgeist. Post-apocalyptic worlds, a lone survivor, and a disaster caused by human meddling were all popular mid-century subjects, but Matheson brought them together to plant seed that would blossom and continue to feed audience fears through to today: how do I stand out from the masses? What happens when science goes too far? Do we really have a chance without modern comforts? Matheson’s shambling, moaning legacy is a genre that allows us to look those fears in their undead eye. He just had to end the world to do it.