THE OMEGA MAN has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it on cable as a teenager. I would later read the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (love it) and see the first adapation LAST MAN ON EARTH (pretty good) and third one I AM LEGEND (in some ways the best adaptation, despite its flaws). The story of all these versions is of a scientist (usually named Robert Neville) who is immune to a plague that wipes out most of the population and turns the rest into vampires/ghouls/mutants.
So during daylight he’s alone in the city, at night he hides in his well-stocked home, holding off the attacking hordes, as he searches for a cure. It’s the holing up, of course, that kept coming to my mind a few weeks into Washington state’s shelter-in-place order for the Covid-19 pandemic (if I read that sentence six months ago I would’ve thought it was a reference to some sci-fi movie). I’ve mostly been looking for escapist entertainment – I’m definitely not planning on watching CONTAGION again, as seems to be popular – but I’m doing okay with genre movies that have parallels to the situation. So I watched THE OMEGA MAN again.
The opening scene is incredible. Charlton Heston as Robert Neville, wearing shades, driving around in a red Ford XL convertible on a pleasant day in L.A., no traffic or people anywhere, tires squeaking slightly as he takes the corners as fast as he wants to. He pops in an 8-track of a mellow, jazzy version of the love theme from A SUMMER PLACE. He smiles, tilts his head back and forth, enjoying the gentle tinkling of piano, the mellow vibes (both mood and vibraphone).
Suddenly he comes to a stop, looking over at a building, stands up in the car (the film speeding up at this point), firing off machine gun volleys at a silhouette passing inside a window. Sits down, drives off, a pile of littered documents blowing out of the street in his wake, and the cool-ass theme music comes in.
(By the way, while admiring this beautiful vintage WB logo I noticed there seems to be a car way back there behind him. Whoops!)
Neville continues his drive as the funky yet mournful theme plays (Music by Ron Grainer, Doctor Who, The Prisoner), and the camera pulls away from him a little to very matter-of-factly display some of the tableaus of tragedy he passes – rotted corpses in lawnchairs on a balcony, surrounded by children’s toys, a classroom with broken windows and cobwebbed desks. He gets a flat tire swerving from the scene of a crashed armored car, dead bodies around, money and gold bars unclaimed. He makes a joke, takes his gun and gasoline can, and goes to find a new car. That’s his life. “Another day, another dollar” he’ll later joke.
One thing I’ve always thought seemed believable, and that rings even more true during this pandemic, is that the horrible state of the world doesn’t stop him from having a little fun sometimes. It’s something I love about DAWN OF THE DEAD too. It’s not making light of anything, but it’s a way to deal with unspeakable tragedy without going crazy. Neville has lost his entire world, and everyone he knows. But he’s able to drive around on a nice day, and go on free shopping sprees, or to a theater to watch (and project) a movie.
WOODSTOCK was an interesting choice for him to watch. The idea of famously conservative Heston only having a hippie documentary to watch, and finding something moving about it, has always been a good joke. And it makes sense that, as the apparent only human on earth, it’s amazing to look at that crowd footage. It would work now, too, because I miss being in crowds. But it still kind of creeps me out to see them, too.
(Incidentally, I wonder if he’s already gotten sick of A.K.A. CASSIUS CLAY, which appears to be playing down the block at the Tower? Furthermore, what was playing at the Rialto, which I found two buildings away on Google Street View, though it’s now an Urban Outfitters?)
We don’t get to roam around, loot the stores and take over the movie theaters, of course, but things are definitely weird. And it’s okay to appreciate the novelty of mostly empty sidewalks, of walking in the middle of streets, of hearing the birds all day because there’s so little traffic sound, of the nightly ritual of making noise out the window at 8pm, ostensibly as a thank you to medical workers, but also a reminder to me that there are people in my building and across the street and on the next block and up the hill, who I can’t see, but they’re right there, navigating this strange situation just like I am. Or the problem solving challenges of adjusting to our current life situation – learning how to avoid people, how to not touch things, limiting grocery store runs, jury-rigging masks, cooking more. Watching more, reading more, if you’re working less, or have less to do, or both.
At night Neville coops up – or shelters in place, as we know it now – in his house, stocked up with canned food and booze, and ways to pass the time like listening to records, playing chess against a bust of Julius Caesar, wearing his old colonel hat. Sure, dudes in robes jump out and try to light him on fire when he gets home, but he just has to shoot at them, get in, lock up, turn on the lights and he’s good for the night, except for the occasional exchange of gunfire when they try to catapult firebombs into his window. (We don’t have that yet.)
One thing that’s relatable now: he enjoys track suits. And he forgets what day it is.
But he tries to remember and have rituals to make sure the days are different. “Sunday, I always dress for dinner.” Which means a shiny velvet coat with Austin Powers style ruffles.
In an explanatory montage of how it went down, the disease starts in crowded cities, people are told to stay in their homes, hospitals are overwhelmed. (Later we see one abandoned, rows of bodies in beds in the garage.) The race for the vaccine was only fast enough that Neville, having survived a helicopter crash, injected the right random test vaccine into himself. Too late to save civilization.
You know what else is crazy? A fuckin TV commentator is the villain! Somehow I didn’t pick up on that for years. Matthias (Anthony Zerbe, THE DEAD ZONE, STEEL DAWN, THE MATRIX RELOADED) is the leader of the white-skinned-and-eyed, robe-and-sunglasses-wearing cult called The Family, who taunt him at night and whose nest he tries to find during the day. But in the flashbacks he’s a talking head. Neville never acknowledges the ridiculousness of being at war with some dick from TV.
I don’t think Matthias is meant to be a right winger. The Family has more of a hippie vibe. But it fits with today’s times that the villain is a TV pundit who’s against science and art. A literal book-burner. Matthias calls Neville “that creature of the wheel, that lord of the infernal engines and machines.” He does a good job of making it sound evil even though it’s kind of idealistic – biological warfare caused the disease, so he thinks he’s preventing a repeat. When he tells Neville “You’re the angel of death, doctor. Not us,” it’s sort of the equivalent of the very end (and title) of the book, but it’s pretty early on, and it’s not the same horrifying realization. I don’t think it causes Neville to do any soul-searching.
The Family has also moved beyond racism, or so he tells his right hand man Brother Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick, THE LOST MAN, THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER, FORTRESS). But Brother Zachary is kind of a blashphemer – he secretly has a gun. There are a few signs that members of The Family cling to some of their individuality. Notice that some robes are more glittery, and at least one is brown. So there is a little bit of room for self expression. Creativity finds a way.
Admittedly, most of the stuff that makes me love the movie is in the first half. It drastically changes at the midpoint when Dutch (Paul Koslo, MR. MAJESTYK, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, ROOSTER COGBURN, ROBOT JOX, DESERT HEAT), a former medical student in an aviator helmet and leather jacket with a middle finger on the back, rescues Neville from The Family. He’s the sidekick of Lisa (Rosalind Cash, KLUTE, TALES FROM THE HOOD), the “last woman on earth” Neville once glimpsed in a department store but decided was a hallucination.
A major difference from the book and other movie versions is that Lisa and Dutch have their own little commune of survivors, mostly children, hiding in a compound up in the hills. It’s implied they could even be who he was shooting at during his drives. They explain that some of the younger people have a resistance that has held off the disease that Matthias and his people have. But Lisa’s brother Richie (Eric Laneuville, Quincy from BLACK BELT JONES, director of the M.A.N.T.I.S. pilot) is starting to turn, so Neville applies his skills to developing a serum from his antibody-filled blood.
The romance between Neville and Lisa is on one hand kind of laughable (would she really go for this dude?), on the other hand completely groundbreaking. And it’s pretty funny how their flirtation is interrupted by having to blow Brother Zachary out the window onto the wrought iron fence, then they immediately start going at it on the floor.
There was a time when what became I AM LEGEND directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith was going to be a Ridley Scott film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I always thought that was funny (and cool), but on this viewing I finally realized how much the ‘80s action hero persona has in common with Heston’s Neville. He’s a scientific genius, but also good with guns and motorcycles, and when a robe-wearing albino mutant cult kidnap him and put him on trial, he says, “Tell me something – are you fellas with the Internal Revenue Service?” Perfect character for Arnold.
We get some fighting, some motorcycle and car stunts, they shoot arrows at them, he blows them up. It makes sense that director Boris Sagal was mainly a TV guy – there’s something very ‘70s TV movie about some of the scenes with Richie, especially. And maybe with the heavy-handedness off the ending. Then again, would the optimistic ending of a TV movie leave Charlton Heston dead (in a Christ pose) in a fountain full of his blood? I don’t know.
Sagal had been directing since the ‘50s on anthology shows, Mike Hammer, Peter Gunn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the mini-series Masada, etc. One of his feature films was GUNS OF DIABLO, a Charles Bronson western featuring a young Kurt Russell. He died in 1981 while filming the mini-series World War III. He got out of a helicopter and walked the wrong direction, right into the tail rotor. Apparently some people pretend there’s a curse because this was a year before Vic Morrow’s helicopter death, and Sagal had directed Morrow in an episode of Combat. Yeah, I don’t know, man. Maybe just terrible things happen sometimes.
The script was by the husband and wife team of John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington. They had previously written the Roger Corman-directed VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN and went on to write BOXCAR BERTHA, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE ARENA (the one with Pam Grier, though they’re also credited on the 2001 Timur Bekmambatov one) and KILLER BEES. Pretty good b-movie pedigree there. In the ‘80s they wrote for the soap operas Texas, Capitol, General Hospital, One Life to Live and Superior Court, and after Mr. Corrington passed away Mrs. Corrington was an executive producer and story editor on The Real World. Whatever part that may have played in leading to the real apocalypse, I’m glad we have THE OMEGA MAN to help us through it.
P.S. The Wikipedia entry for the book quotes from a review by sci-fi author and critic Damon Knight:
“The book is full of good ideas, every other one of which is immediately dropped and kicked out of sight. The characters are child’s drawings, as blank-eyed and expressionless as the author himself in his back-cover photograph. The plot limps. All the same, the story could have been an admirable minor work in the tradition of Dracula, if only the author, or somebody, had not insisted on encumbering it with the year’s most childish set of ‘scientific’ rationalizations.”
I love that – someone being so dismissive of a book that, six decades later, has been adapted into three movies and inspired another movie (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) that itself became a massive horror subgenre. And this is not some random know-nothing, either – Knight is the author of the short story “To Serve Man” that was adapted into the famous Twilight Zone episode!