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USA 1971
Directed by
Boris Sagal
98 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Omega Man

The central concept of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, a near-futuristic scenario about a man who believes himself to be the sole survivor of an epidemic that has wiped out the human race is intriguing enough to have earned multiple filmic incarnations. It was filmed in 1964 as The Last Man On Earth, a tin-pot US-Italian co-production directed by Sidney Salkow with Vincent Price playing Dr Robert Neville that in its ham-fisted, bargain-basement way was more amusing than credible. Boris Sagal’s 1971 version although infinitely better made is close enough to the exploitational to provide its own mixed bag of pleasures.

Charlton Heston is now the unlucky Dr. Neville who wanders deserted Los Angeles by day knocking off members of a cabal of mutant survivors of the plague who call themselves The Family and are led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). In the best cult tradition they have inverted the world as they know it to make themselves the arbiters of truth and are hell-bent on destroying Neville as a remnant of the old, evil ways that have brought about the pestilence that has affected them.

Most of the film is given over to the ongoing battle between Neville and the mutants although the script by Joyce and John Corrington introduces a sassy black gal (Rosalind Cash) who becomes Neville’s squeeze and introduces him to a group of human survivors living in the hills. The action sequences are an improvement on the lame efforts of the original film but are often enough still quite laughable and when Joe Canutt (who did Heston's stunts in Ben-Hur) stands in for our chisel-jawed hero, crudely interpellated into the main drift. On the upside, however, the introduction of the Afro-American aspect (Mathias’s No 2 is also A-A), the hippie references (Neville plays Woodstock over and over and it is not too long a bow to relate The Family to Charles Manson’s group of the same name) speak to contemporary values in interesting ways with a surprisingly bold depiction of inter-racial sexual relations. On the same side of the balance sheet there are plenty of fun campy elements like the playing up of Heston’s gut-suckin' action man image that culminates with an overt Christological ending.

The Omega Man is one of those rare movies which exert a strange fascination despite their evident shortcomings and although far from one of the best, is one of the most memorable movies of the 1970s.

FYI: Continuing to reflect the change in social values the story was re-filmed in 2007 as I Am Legend with Will Smith in the lead.




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