In 1971, I went to see an unusual science fiction film starring Charlton Heston. It was about a man, Robert Neville, who thinks is the lone survivor of a biological warfare accident that has killed off human life on Earth. He spends his days driving around, going to watch the same film in a cinema, and helping himself to anything he needs from the deserted shops of Los Angeles. But he has to be back home by nightfall, as the city is also home to plague-affected survivors known as The Family. They cannot cope in daylight, but at night they constantly try to attack Neville, and he has fortified his home against them.
In his comfortable house, Neville plays chess against himself, and tries to keep his mind active, to prevent going insane with loneliness. He relies on generators for power, keeping his house well lit against attack, and has a large supply of weapons to use to defend himself against the marauding Family members. One day, he finds another person, a young woman unaffected by the plague, and she tells him of a group of others that live outside the city. He was one of the doctors who worked on the original vaccination against the contagion, so decides to replicate the drug, to help the group of young people survive.
This was imaginative and exciting, and despite Heston’s usual rather wooden style, he was ideally suited for the role, with his strong physique, and determined nature. The Family, led by Anthony Zerbe, are quite scary, and suitably obsessed with destroying Neville, as well as all the technology that they blame for the apocalyptic event. Set pieces are very good, but the star of the film is the deserted streets, empty shops, and the ghostly, eerie atmosphere that comes across so well.
I later found out that this was a remake. The second adaptation of the novel, ‘I am Legend’, published in 1954. The first film had been called ‘The Last Man On Earth’, released in 1964. and starring Vincent Price. But I hadn’t seen that film, and still haven’t.
In 2007, a second remake was released, now called ‘I Am Legend’, like the book, it starred Will Smith as Neville, the ‘last man’, and the story is much the same. Though Neville now lives in New York, has a dog, and The Family are known as ‘The Darkseekers’. Of course, it benefits from modern technology like green screens and CGI, so some very nice effects are delivered as a result. But that polish makes it feel flat, and less affecting as far as I am concerned. And Will Smith only ever plays Will Smith, so we knew what to expect.
I still like the 1971 film, and I am sticking with that, until I see the Vincent Price version.