Warning: contains spoilers.

Post-apocalyptic stories frighten me, whether they’re young adult books (such as Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah) or made-for-TV movies (like the 1983 The Day After ). I saw The Omega Man on a Sunday matinee TV show when I was a kid, and it scared the bejezus out of me. I watched the whole damn thing, sure of a happy ending. I had never seen a movie that didn’t have a happy ending. Ha. Well, there’s always a first. I slept with the lights on for more than a week.

The Omega Man was released in 1971. It starred Charlton Heston as Dr. Robert Neville, “the last man on Earth”, and was directed by Boris Sagal. The movie is based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson; the screenplay was written by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington. The story in a nutshell: biological warfare is eminent. Dr. Neville is carrying an experimental vaccine that might save mankind, but his helicopter is shot down before he can deliver it. He injects himself, and therefore survives the plague unharmed. For the first part of the movie, Heston’s character wanders the streets of a deserted L.A., taking what he needs from stores and conversing with a bust of Caesar for company.

Of course, as the movie tagline stated, “The Last Man on Earth is Not Alone.” A few people have survived the plague, but have mutated into raving, albino zombies known as “The Family”. They are light-sensitive and only come out at night; lead by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), they’re out to destroy anything left of scientific culture or knowledge—anything that could have lead to the Armageddon that has occurred. They’re big on book burning and none too fond of Dr. Neville.

Rounding out the cast are Rosalind Cash as Lisa, the tough hippie chick love-interest who’s sporting a huge afro, and a band of kids and a pre-med grad student who have miraculously not yet succumbed to the effects of the plague. They join forces with Dr. Neville against “The Family” as Dr. Neville searches for a way to use his own blood to create a serum to keep them from becoming creatures of the dark.

As mentioned earlier, I expected a happy ending. It didn’t come. In one particularly frightening scene, Lisa comes out of a building, unwraps a kerchief from around her head, and takes off her sunglasses, revealing the tell-tale white hair and eyes of “The Family” members; she had become one of them. Dr. Neville ends up being stabbed; although different reviews of the movie disagreed whether or not this actually killed him, it looked like a mortal wound to me. The only hope remaining was that the med student would be able to come up with a working vaccine before he and the kids, too, join “The Family”.

The Omega Man is the third film made from Matheson’s book; the first was 1961’s The Last Man on Earth, which starred Vincent Price, and the second was the Spanish Soy Leyenda (I Am Legend), produced in 1967. The fourth and most recent is 2007's I Am Legend, starring Will Smith and directed by Francis Lawrence . 1

Despite the cheesiness of this movie (mentioned by virtually every reviewer), it’s worth renting. I actually prefer it to I Am Legend, despite the fact that Will Smith is much more charismatic and has MUCH better teeth. In The Omega Man, the monsters have formed a cult and have a purpose, however misguided, beyond just locating food. I find that more interesting AND more frightening than bloodthirsty CGI'd fiends. "The family" in The Omega Man are still humans--they don't climb up lamposts like manic mutant monkeys. The cinematography is well done, and the Christ-like nature of Heston’s character (whose blood might literally prove to be the salvation of the few remaining survivors) adds an interesting angle to this frightening tale.

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Stats: (Straight from sciflicks.com): USA. 1971. 98 minutes. English. Technicolor. Rated PG.

Production team: Directed by: Boris Sagal Written by: Richard Matheson John William Corrington Joyce Hooper Corrington Original music by: Ron Grainer Produced by: Warner Bros. Distributed by: Warner Bros.

Cast: Charlton Heston -- Robert Neville Anthony Zerbe -- Matthias Rosalind Cash -- Lisa Paul Koslo -- Dutch Eric Laneuville -- Richie Lincoln Kilpatrick -- Zachary

Sources: 1 James O’Ehley, http://www.sciflicks.com/the_omega_man/ http://www.tvguide.com/movies/database/ShowMovie.asp?MI=9267 http://www.imdb.com/Title?0067525

. . .and my own spotty memory. Please /msg me with any corrections or additions.

Now go read DejaMorgana's writeup on Richard Matheson.

traditional spoiler warnings apply

Moderately disturbing neo-fascist propaganda in the form of a 1971 US film. Charlton Heston vehicle proposes that the hippie movement will weaken Western civilization to the point where we fall to biochemical attacks from either the Russians or the Chinese. Those unfortunate enough to survive, diseased cultists all, burn books, shun technology and wear funky shades like the hooded, scabrous albino freaks they are. Our hero, Dr. Neville, provides the conflict by being the sole individual possessing immunity, through having been injected with experimental vaccine, and having the virtues of a gun-toting, gas-guzzling consumer, scientist and property owner. Most disturbingly, Moses morphs into Jesus in an underdeveloped scientist-as-savior theme: Neville's antibodies save all of humanity, but unfortunately he catches a spear in his midsection and sadly dies in a Jesus Christ pose.

Why I liked it as a kid:
exciting, action-filled, brain-dead action flick in the guise of being science fiction. I totally missed the (now blatant) political subtext and focused instead on the genuinely creepy visuals.

Why it's still worth watching now: camp value, fake violence and a really hot female lead. Highlights include:

  • Seeing Heston wearing a dunce's cap, strapped to a cart and publicly harassed by an angry mob. (Would make a nice coda to Bowling for Columbine.)
  • Watching Moses mock Woodstock.
  • Soul-sister Stepford Wife toting a semi-automatic as she leaves the room, asking sweetly, "Honey, can I borrow the credit cards?"

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