The Omega Man (1971) ***
Like the earlier The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man is based on Richard Mathesonís I Am Legend, the first (and, in my opinion, still the best) modern revisionist vampire novel. Unlike The Last Man on Earth, however, almost nothing of Mathesonís novel remains in this movie. In these hands, the classic story of the planetís last living human struggling for survival in a world dominated by zombie-like vampires has become what may well be the only post-(man-made)-apocalyptic Christian allegory ever committed to film.
In that light, it is scarcely surprising to see the part of Mathesonís hero, Robert Neville (Colonel Robert Neville in this version), being played by Charlton Heston. We first see him driving his 1970 LTD convertible at high speed through the curiously deserted streets of a major city that I must admit I donít recognize. Just about the time that someone who hadnít read the book or seen the earlier movie would be wondering where all the people are, Neville screeches to a halt, stands up in his seat with a World War II-vintage submachine gun in his hands (I canít remember the weaponís designation, but itís the one the soldiers used to call the ďgrease gunĒ), and sprays bullets at a shadowy figure moving behind the curtained window of one of the buildings.
Afterwards, Neville drives on beneath the opening credits, through scenes of increasing desolation. We start to notice how much debris is in the streets, what poor condition the storefronts are in, how generally unmaintained everything looks. Finally, Neville rounds a corner and nearly crashes into a wrecked armored van, of the sort that banks use to transport their money. The van is turned over on its side, with the dead bodies of its crew lying beside it, and, most disconcertingly, huge amounts of cash and even gold ingots are scattered in the street all around it. If you hadnít realized yet that there isnít a single human in this town apart from Neville, that should drive the point home. To his great frustration, Neville knocked one of his tires off the rim dodging the wreck. But instead of changing the tire, he takes his gun and a gas can and walks down the street to a Ford dealership, where he goes inside and, after pretending to haggle with a non-existent salesman, picks out a 1970 Mustang (good choice) and drives it through the showroom window.
When Neville gets home, it finally becomes clear what has happened to the world. The sun has set by the time he reaches his house, and he is ambushed in front of his garage by a group of pale-faced men in hooded, black robes, wearing mirrored sunglasses despite the fact that itís dark out. Though they nearly destroy his new car by fire, Neville kills them all and goes inside, where he activates his homeís defense systems: a set of security cameras, a series of armored doors, and some super-high-powered spotlights on the outside front wall. The glow of the spots reveals more of the black-robed albinos, who flee, screaming about the light. On the sidelines, Mathias (Anthony Zerbe, from The Dead Zone and KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park), the leader of these mad monks, and his sidekick, Brother Zachary (Soylent Greenís Lincoln Kilpatrick, a black man made up to have dead-white skin and hair-- probably the creepiest-looking thing in this whole movie), watch the action. Between Nevilleís flashbacks and Mathiasís speeches, it is revealed that the world as we know it was destroyed by the fallout of a bacteriological war between China and the Soviet Union. The resulting plague killed most people more or less instantly, but one could argue that they were the lucky ones. Those who, for whatever reason, were more resistant to the disease were transformed into brain-damaged albinos whose eyes and skin are so sensitive to light that they must sleep during the day and only come out at night. But understand this right now-- these are not the zombie-vampires of Mathesonís novel. They more closely resemble the people whom Mathesonís Neville encounters at the end, who have the disease and some of the symptoms, but for whom it has become an endemic, rather than epidemic, infection. There really is no analog for Mathesonís vampires in The Omega Man. So why isnít Neville affected by the plague? In this version, he was a scientist with the armyís bio-warfare research laboratory, and he administered to himself the only dose made of an experimental vaccine shortly before the world ended. Apparently, the vaccine was a success, because Neville has absolutely no plague symptoms, apparently alone of all the people left on Earth.
But it turns out that he isnít quite The Omega Man, as the title promises. One night, when Neville is captured by Mathiasís cultists (and that is the right word; he has created a sort of extremist Luddite church dedicated to the eradication of any last remnants of the mostly dead world of technology, along with any surviving ďPeople of the WheelĒ-- like Neville, for instance), he is rescued by a gang of youths who appear, at first sight, to be plague-free. They arenít, but as their leaders Dutch (Paul Koslo, of Cleopatra Jones) and Lisa (Rosalind Cash, who went on to appear in The Monkey Hustle and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension) explain, they have somehow been spared its worst effects. That is not necessarily a permanent condition, however. Lisaís little brother, Richie (Eric Laneuville, from Black Belt Jones), has recently gotten much worse, and is now well on his way to becoming a ďtertiary caseĒ like Mathias and his cult. Thatís why they rescued Neville-- Dutch had been a med-school senior when the apocalypse hit, and he had read all of Nevilleís papers about his research into a cure for the plague. Now, you may recall that I said that this movie turns I Am Legend into a post-apocalyptic Christian allegory; this is where that angle first comes out. You see, that vaccination Neville (who has this curious habit of getting tied up in attitudes suggestive of crucifixion) gave himself has turned his blood into a cure for the plague. Are you following me here? Nevilleís blood holds the power to redeem the world! Sound familiar?
Anyway, Neville shoots up Richie with some of his blood, and sure enough, the kid gets better. Richieís bright idea is to go to Mathias and offer his people a cure; this is about the point where everything starts to go to shit for Neville and company. Not surprisingly, Mathias doesnít want to be cured. This is a man who has made a big name for himself by convincing people that the plague was a punishment from God for the use of technology. Nevilleís cure for the plague was-- duh-- arrived at by technological means. By the tenets of Mathiasís new religion, to accept such a cure would, in fact, be to accept damnation. You can imagine what this means for Richie, and you can probably also imagine what it means for Neville, who will of course feel compelled to go rescue the boy. After all, we all know what has to happen to a savior for him to do his work properly.
It has been my experience that most people who like this movie donít know about, or at least have never read, the book that it is based on, and that most people who have read I Am Legend donít like The Omega Man. But it should be obvious by now what a contrarian I am, so it should come as no surprise that I like them both. Frankly, there isnít a lot of basis for comparison, seeing as the movie jettisons all but the skeleton of the book, and then uses that skeleton to say something completely different. I Am Legend makes, to me, a more interesting point-- that in his efforts to survive in a world full of vampires, Neville, the lone human, has become the new vampire societyís mythic figure of chaos and evil. Itís sort of like a more articulate version of that old Bugs Bunny cartoon in which, at the climactic moment, the hair-and-tennis-shoes monster looks out into the audience, screams, ďAAARRRGH!!!!! People!!!!Ē and runs away. The Omega Man, meanwhile, opts for allegory of a sort that one almost never encounters in a modern horror film. Fortunately, it isnít nearly as heavy-handed as it might have been-- though there are a couple of missteps, some of them fairly laughable. For example, the final image of Neville lying in a bloody fountain, in a pose that mimics to the last detail that of most crucifixes Iíve seen, is a bit much. Similarly, I find it very difficult to hear one of the little kids who hangs around with Dutch and Lisa ask Neville (Charlton Heston, remember), ďAre you God?Ē without instantly blurting out, ďNo, but he is Moses.Ē But if the filmís treatment of this angle doesnít seem offensive, on the whole, to a dyed-in-the-wool heathen like me, then it canít be that overplayed. Also in the movieís favor is the relationship that develops between Neville and Lisa, which-- face it-- was a pretty brave fucking move in 1971. And as a final plus, Heston isnít even too hammy in this one (though one could argue that his teeth do all the hamming this movie needs; check out the fade to black that ends the scene of Neville in the fountain-- those teeth are the last thing you can see). The Omega Man may not be too satisfying as an adaptation of I Am Legend, or as a remake of The Last Man on Earth, but itís just fine taken as a free-standing movie all its own.