Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

18 Nov 2011

(Movie - 1964) The Last Man on Earth directed by: Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow

(Reaction) Last Actor on Earth by: Jose Angelo Singson

The film The Last Man on Earth has long been considered a pillar of the zombie-horror film genre and the inspiration for George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The Last Man on Earth preceded Night of the Living Dead by a total of five years, and as such, can be considered as the progenitor of the zombie horde horror film genre itself.

The influences of The Last Man on Earth on Night of the Living Dead can be clearly seen from the first few frames of the movie and continue to be seen clear into the end. Both movies (Night of The Living Dead and The Last Man on Earth) use grainy, gritty black and white film. Both movies are shot using documentary-style film making and both are on an obviously shoe-string budget. Both films are social commentaries of their time and are both thinly veiled references of the Red Scare (hence both films have their viruses coming from Europe and sweep into the heartland of America). Last but most definitely not least, both films feature the flesh-starved ghouls trying to break into a fortified house and both films end on a terribly grim, bitter note that is redolent with cynicism and bleakness. Even the zombies in Night of the Living Dead look and sounds like the ghouls of The Last Man on Earth.

Comparisons aside let us consider this: how would The Last Man on Earth hold up to the current standards of horror? My answer is this: it can still hold its own but you have to have an appreciation for the more subtle nuances of horror to enable you to enjoy the film fully. The movie is able to conjure up some genuine chills here, not by the use of in your face violence or the slow burn build-up of tension but through the use of austere, black-and-white images of the desolation brought about by the virus and amplifying the underlining hopelessness that pervades the mood of the story. They don't make films like this anymore and I seriously doubt if modern film makers could duplicate the overall dour-ness of The Last Man on Earth.

One of the most haunting scenes in the movie is where the protagonist, Dr. Morgan, played by the perpetually sour-faced Vincent Price (for those who don't know, Mr. Price is the voice behind the monologue portion in Michael Jackson's Thriller, he also played the ne'r do well Egghead in the 60's TV series Batman) garbed in his trench coat and his iconic gas-mask tosses the shroud wrapped corpses of both victims of the plague and the ghouls he's recently slain into an immense pit where he burns them.

Visually impressive, the scene is shot in full daylight but the smoke from the burning bodies casts an ominous shadow over Dr. Morgan as if to say that even in the daytime he is never truly safe from the vampires/ghouls that he hunts. It also speaks to me as a visual metaphor that the world as we know it has been reduced to this: a vast, ever-burning heap of human refuse...

Another very striking scene features a close up Price's/Dr. Morgan's brooding face as he faces another evening, alone, tired from dispatching ghouls dormant during the daylight hours, trapped inside his fortified house, which at this point might as well be his prison. The close up shot of his face reveals the defeat and loneliness that has already started to erode his sanity. In this particular scene he fires up his music player and puts on an improvisational (?) jazz score in an attempt to drown out the sound of the moaning, taunting undead outside (yes, the undead in this film are still capable of some speech but not coordinated attacks).

This scene could have reduced this film into an over-the-top kitsch/camp piece, but the film makers are able to maximize it and play very subtly. They initially show a defiant Dr. Morgan, shouting retorts at the undead crowding around his house then they show his resolve slowly weakening. Slowly Morgan's despair, the bleakness of the situation and emotional strain overtakes him and the scene ends with a broken man, weeping in desperation, curled up on a dilapidated sofa.

The film ends with an interesting twist. Apparently, there is a small pocket of survivors remaining on the planet. They are not bloodthirsty undead ghouls like the monsters that harry Dr. Morgan night after night but they are unfortunately, however, also infected by the same contagion that turns dead bodies into vampiric abominations. They are alive and they keep the disease at bay with periodic injections. As a result of their infection they also possess the weaknesses of the vampires such as intolerance for garlic, sensitivity to strong light or daylight, and mild aversion to their own image reflected on a mirror.

It turns out that Dr. Morgan had not only been killing ghouls but also living people who have been trying to keep the illness and the blood-thirst at bay through inoculations. He has understandably, through his unselective killings, become the object of fear and ire of both the undead and the living. In the end he does manage to cure someone completely but ends up getting killed by the very same people he wanted to save. As Morgan dies he condemns his killers calling them freaks and names himself the last true man on earth.

Horror-wise the film is very, very sedate, so if you're looking for gore, keep looking. The film though, still manages to produce a lot of simple, unorthodox chills that compliments the film making methods and materials they had available at the time. It is also an excellent example of very early, fully-realized and fully-fleshed out post-apocalyptic world.

The movie's pacing is slow but altogether necessary to showcase the extent the directors had taken to empty out the city and make it seem like all hell had broken loose; there are scenes that feature Morgan driving about in an empty, dead city. In my opinion these scenes seem horribly drawn out but one realizes that this is deliberately done to for the viewer to see how alone he truly is in this new, terrible world. In fact, a few years later in the film The Omega Man, another post-apocalyptic film adaptation, would mirror those exact same scenes this time featuring a more unhinged Charleston Heston.

In fact, most of the horror that L.M.O.E. banks on is not the fear for one's life (i.e. the constant threat of vampire/ghoul attacks) but rather the fear of immense, almost tangible isolation and the slow but steady descent into madness. This is really where the film excels at, showing the audience just how menacing extreme isolation is. I remember a scene that really hammered this point across and much of the success of this scene can be attributed to Mr. Price's acting skills. Dr. Morgan comes across a dog in the course of his wanderings and his face literally lights up with the prospect of potential company. He chases after the dog with fervor only to find that he cannot catch the illusive beast and again Mr. Price's acting skills shine through as you see his face practically drop from disappointment at the thought of having to remain alone again for goodness knows how much longer.

The other question that begs asking is now is this: if the film wasn't so bad, why wasn't it a more critical box-office hit or more readily identifiable with horror fans like Night of the Living Dead was? It all boils down to George Romero being a more capable, more skilled storyteller. The plot of Night of the Living Dead was relatively Spartan in that explanations are far and few in between. By moving away from trying to rationalize why things were happening, he was able to heighten the horror element. After all, the fear of the unknown has always been one of the most reliable stand-bys of the horror genre.

Another factor that contributed to N.O.T.L.D.'s success as a film is, well, there are more people in it. Nothing stirs up a person's interest more than a healthy dosage of human interaction and the resultant conflicts that ensue. The characters attempt to survive each other and the undead horde waiting for them outside the house. This is infinitely more interesting than 10-15 minutes worth of almost pantomime acting supplemented with Vincent Price's narration (which, given the man's distinct, nasal voice quality makes it quite hard to take the film seriously). However, what really raised N.O.T.L.D.'s to horror icon status was Romero's fearlessness. He pushed the limits of censorship of his day, showing raw, visually graphic scenes of violence and cannibalism making for a truly horrifying movie, even by today's standards.

Another factor that weakened the film's effectiveness and overall theatrical appeal was the choice of lead actor and the quality of acting that the film extras produced. A caveat though before moving on; I have great respect for Vincent Price as an actor, especially in the horror genre. The kicker though is this: the role for Last Man on Earth practically demands a more robust, more physical character and Vincent Price is not that. The man is just too refined, too genteel for anyone to actually believe that he could get down and dirty and hold off a bunch of ghouls in a pinch.

In fact there are a number of scenes where Mr. Price/Dr. Morgan shows the audience just how physically inept he is. I recall a montage scene featuring the film's protagonist dispatching vampires/ghouls while in their torpid state. I have never seen a more limp-wristed, more pathetic attempt at hammering and staking a vampire and it truly kills any suspension of disbelief so crucial in a horror film. There is also a scene where he gets to his home-fortress late and is accosted by the ghouls. Dr. Morgan is left with no choice, either he fights or he dies. What a sad, sad fight it turns out to be. Literally one can see Vincent Price decking a ghoul with the clumsiest, slowest cinema punch I've ever seen and to make matters worse he punches with his wrist bent, a clear tell-tale sign that there was no action or fight choreography that had gone on in this situation.

These depreciating factors are even further worsened by the fact that much of the film effectively becomes a one-man show, owing much to the fact that the only person on the set capable of any sort of acting was just Vincent Price himself. The ghouls cannot for the life, or rather un-life, of them act more menacingly than they ought to. It doesn't mean to say that they don't add to the over-all creepy-ness of the movie but I've seen high school plays with more convincing acting than what the extras displayed.

Review:

This movie could have been so much more. It saddens me that its execution was so poorly done and it has all but condemned this film to the bottom of the DVD SALE bins at the mall or the shelves of die-hard zombie film fans all over the world.

It could have been a more powerful social commentary if only it had made more clear use of social subtexts, both in the storytelling and in the interaction between the ghouls and the survivors later on in the film. This ambiguity of messages and themes is what keeps Night of the Living Dead several notches above its B-grade competition, including Last Man on Earth (there, I've said it: it is sadly just a B-grade film at the very heart of it...).

Director George Romero readily acknowledges that his film, Night of the Living Dead, was a direct rip-off of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend novel; but I would disagree. I think that rather than actually pilfering the book Romero played around with the concepts in the novel and made for himself a script so inventive and fresh that we can fully consider Night of the Living Dead a completely original and autonomous body of work that is fully free from the ugly stigmata of being called a rip-off and worthy of its own separate reaction piece.

On the other hand, Last Man on Earth fails as a movie but succeeds as a mood piece. Nonetheless, there are some good things to be seen in it, one just has to have a keener appreciation for the subtleties of acting and lighting. If anything the film deserves its due recognition for the reason that it had contributed in giving birth to a completely new genre of horror film.

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