Sunday, August 31, 2003

A Reminder of Hell: The Omega Man (1971)

Based upon the classic Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend (which was earlier adapted to film in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price), The Omega Man is a ridiculous yet thoroughly entertaining science-fiction action film that bears little resemblance to the book. Regardless, the film makes for great late-night viewing.

A war between China and Russia has erupted and biological weapons have been unleashed upon the world. Madness, plague and ultimately death now hold dominion over us all. Charlton Heston plays Robert Neville, the last man on earth, or so he thinks. By day our intrepid hero stalks the deserted streets of Los Angeles hunting for any members of a ragged-assed band of infected albinos known as The Family. He also likes to catch a matinee of his favorite film, Woodstock (1970). By night, Neville retreats to his high-rise compound (which is fortified with enough guns and ammunition to start a small war) to wait out the end of the world, while Mathias (Anthony Zerbe) and his gang of black-robed albino Luddites try to take him down. To Mathias, Neville represents all that is infernal about Western Culture, and the quicker that he’s destroyed the better for all mankind. The days and night flow into one another with brutal regularity, but it’s a routine that keeps Neville sane. But one day, something changes. He spots a young black woman during one of his daylight patrols and pleads for her to talk to him when she runs off. He loses her, but now he knows that he’s not alone. Eventually, Neville learns that the black woman, named Lisa (Rosalind Cash), lives in the hills high above the city with a group of children and a zonked-out hippie med-student, played by the terrific Paul Koslo. And when Lisa informs Neville that her younger brother Richie (Eric Lanueville) is infected and will soon die if they don’t treat him, Neville reveals that he’s just the man to save the world.

I make no excuses for loving this film, despite some of the more ridiculous elements in it, e.g. like where do all of the zombie albinos get their mirrored-sunglasses and finely tailored shiny black robes? And if Charlton Heston truly is the last man on earth (as I’m sure he felt like circa 1971 when this film was released), why can other automobiles be seen in the distant during some of the daylight scenes? Nevertheless, The Omega Man has some great moments in it, especially during the first 45 minutes or so. Heston, who is thoroughly committed in the role, displays a fine sense of humor and melancholy throughout. Some of the best scenes are when he’s alone his ritzy pad, chock full of gadgets and accoutrements from a world that no longer exists, wandering through the rooms talking to himself or playing chess with himself. Occasionally, the illusion of sanity and normalcy snaps, leaving Neville with the cold stark horror of his isolation. It’s brilliant stuff indeed, especially when you consider how loopy and dated (many of the albinos speak with funky street slang) the rest of the film is. But it’s still great fun and one of my favorite B-movies from the era.

The Omega Man is now available on DVD from Warner Home Video. It contains a short video introduction with stars Eric Laneuville, Paul Koslo and co-screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington. A vintage promo film called, The Last Man Alive –- The Omega Man, is also included and contains some very bizarre footage of Heston speaking with anthropologist Ashley Montagu while on the set.

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