The Omega Man Review
Most of this review is identical to the one I wrote for the HD version of The Omega Man a short while ago - which is fitting as the transfers are, indeed, just as identical. But there are a couple of tiny little additions interspersed throughout the write-up that I have placed to provide some sort of context and comparison between this and Francis Lawrence's new adaptation, I Am Legend, with Will Smith in the starring role.
If you are familiar with my reviews, particularly when it comes to my own personal favourites from yesteryear, you will know that I tend to go the extra mile (or two). Partly, this is because I have such a love of the lesser regarded films that I grew up with, films that naturally shaped my movie outlook and tastes ... but with things like Grizzly, Race With The Devil and The Car - all reviewed separately - I find it almost a calling with regards to promoting them and, more often than not, actually fighting their corner. In the case of The Omega Man, I think its credentials should pretty much speak for themselves without me lending my weight to it - being the second film adaptation of Richard Matheson's excellent 1954 novel I Am Legend, the first being Vincent Price's The Last Man On Earth (see separate review soon) and the third now proving quite popular at US and UK cinemas as I write this, retaining the original title but relocating to New York and investing in a plethora of CG monsters - and has already attained a true cult status in its own right. Critically, though, it has always received short-thrift and it will give me tremendous pleasure to state its case here and now and celebrate another favourite movie that I just can't get enough of.
Readers, please take note, this review will be in two sections. The first section will be comprehensive - as always - but will be aimed at those of you haven't seen the film. The second section, which will be the fun bit, is for those of you who already know the film and, hopefully, love it as much as I do. This section will contain enough spoilers to sink a battleship, but it is designed as a loving tribute that I hope other fans will enjoy. Naturally, I will warn you in advance when the fan-boy section comes up.
“One creature, caught. Caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark. Alone, outnumbered hundreds to one - nothing to live for but his memories, nothing to live with but his gadgets, his cars, his guns, gimmicks ... and yet the whole Family can't bring him down.”
Matheson's book has proved very influential, with not only its own “official” adaptations, but also the entire series of “Dead” films from George Romero (as has been discussed in their own reviews) and the entire unholy sub-genre that they spawned. Even The Simpsons paid homage to it with the Halloween Special, The Homega Man. The concept is irresistible. It is a simple Twilight Zone-style scenario of “what if?” The what if in this case is that the planet has been decimated by a world war and the bacteriological fall-out has laid waste to the human population, leaving only one man left alive. One normal man, that is. Tooling around his new paradise, with no bills to pay, no-one to boss him around and, ostensibly, King of all he surveys, Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), ex-military scientist and the only person who managed to vaccinate himself against the plague, is lonely, bitter and waging a new war. The plague, you see, hasn't managed to kill off everyone ... and, come nightfall, the other “survivors” emerge from their shadowy slumber and come looking ... for him. In the book and the first filmed version, these others were vampires created by the plague. Screenwriters John William and Joyce Corrington eschewed the supernatural this time around in favour of a threat that America found all-too chillingly tangible. They posit that the virus has left pockets of scarred, albino-skinned, photo-sensitive mutants who have become organised into a bizarre, cultish Luddite community. Having turned to the charismatic aura of a former TV news presenter - a clever touch, this - they have chosen to forsake the “old ways”, the technological ways of engines, oil and machinery, to live an almost monastic life of simple, frugal values. Led by Matthias (a wonderful Anthony Zerbe), whose powerful sway over them is a pure holdover from the influence he wielded from TV screens in a million homes during the panic of society's collapse a couple years ago, they realise with religious fervour that the one obstacle in the way of their reformation is Neville - a painful reminder of who and what destroyed the world. Thus, once Neville has bolted himself behind his fortress-like brownstone - his original home, from which he refuses to budge no matter what -they gather and lay siege. Night after night.
“Why don't you take off those Halloween costumes and get these people organised?”
“We are organised, Mr. Neville. Last night should have proved that.”
Matheson's book went far beyond the simple scenario of this otherworldly struggle, though. He created what many consider to be the best vampire saga ever written, a tale that forged a new fictional history and pulled the rug from under our feet with intellectual bite. Director Boris Sagal's version goes in a different direction. His only concession to vampirism is that the mutants can't come out during the day, leaving Neville to prowl around trying to find their lair and killing all those he comes across in the process. But, moving with the times, he totes a sub-machinegun not the stakes and garlic of the book. Where the two ideas coalesce once again is with the discovery of another community, one that offers hope for mankind's salvation, or evolution. But whereas Matheson expertly delivers the horrific notion that the one guy we have been rooting for all along is actually the monster of the piece, Sagal and his screenwriters (both of whom were actually PHD scientists) cling to the more traditional and viewer-friendly fact that Neville represents the only true hope for survival - his vaccinated blood carries the anti-bodies that will cure those afflicted with the plague. But, sure as night follows day, the odds are stacked against the last man on Earth and what was already a traumatic daily routine for him will soon be irrevocably shattered by much wider implications.
“Definition of a scientist - a man who understood nothing, until there was nothing left to understand.”
Eerily deserted LA streets, filmed just after sunup on Sundays, conjure up the nightmarish scale of the new wasteland. Flitting shadows behind drawn shutters signify who owns the daylight and torch-bearing mobs denote who has mastery of the night. When looked at nowadays, it is impossible not to acknowledge the unwitting social commentary that Sagal's movie precipitated. In a society that has far too many pockets of innocent people in housing estates and secluded streets who become virtual prisoners in their own homes every night whilst hordes of “hooded” scumbags infest the neighbourhoods outside, it is easy to associate with Neville's plight as he withdraws from the equally hooded Family that run riot outside his home. Just think about that miserable connection for a moment and the film takes on a newer and altogether meaner aspect. But there is still one nagging problem with this is - and that is the fact that Matthias and his bunch of mad monks just don't terrify as much as they should do. Since they aren't vampires, their real identity and threat is actually very ill-defined. Oh that similarity to street-gangs roving about today still holds up - the hoods, the robes and eye-protecting sunglasses are all part of a “uniform” that sets them apart and their horrible laughing and taunting outside Neville's must be acutely familiar to many unfortunate people - but their menace is diluted by Matthias' wise mannerisms. He tends his flock with loving care and placates them with Biblical rhetoric. In their plague-riddled condition they are obviously going to gravitate towards him since he, alone, has the essence of community and the drive to rebuild. His more aggressive lieutenant, Brother Zachary (played by Lincoln Kilpatrick) still harbours old hatreds from the racial tension of the city before colour meant nothing, but the rest of the mob are just anonymous goons, and pretty ineffectual at that. Zerbe chews his lines with utter relish though, and more than makes up for the lack of personality amongst his chanting brethren. Their moaning repetition of the word “Eeevilll” when they have Heston strapped down at one point is mischievously close to our hero's own name, Nevvvillllle - perhaps bringing back that idea that Neville really is the true villain of the piece.
“Hi, Big Brother ... how's your ass?”
Heston, himself, was the one who got the production going. A lover of Matheson's book, he leapt with gusto into the role of Man's last crusader, but naturally chose to exploit his own personal stoicism and nobility to the nth degree. But critics are mistaken when they dismiss his performance as simple gung-ho machismo. Heston, an actor I've discussed at length in several other reviews, including possibly his most famous works - Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments - has always been a vastly overrated icon, in my opinion. Usually he lacks warmth, spontaneity and on-screen chemistry with his co-stars just by virtue of his adherence to a granite-hewn persona cultivated over years of square-jawed heroism. Here and there, there have been moments of tenderness and genuine likeability, but in the main, he performs as a regal figurehead for a production. Planet Of The Apes broke that mould and, for a genre-lover like me, it is delightful that the star's best and most accessible roles have actually remained in the sci-fi and horror realm. His Apocalyptic Trilogy - Apes, Soylent Green and this - mark swingshifts in his characterisations, transitions that, in turn, scratch closer to the actor's real convictions, beliefs and political leanings.
“Your move, Imperator.”
Neville's chess-playing with a bust of Caesar is both touching and comical. Placing his military cap on the bust lends it a personality and then later, when the Family play baseball with it, we are as hurt and as upset as he is to see it damaged. A cravat-wearing Heston tinkling the ice in his cocktail and swooning about to some lounge-lizard jazz is a great show of dogged defiance in the face of such overwhelming odds. With the albino zombies taunting and heckling him from outside, Neville's strangely flamboyant world closes in, a microcosm of decadence amid a storm of anarchy, much like the British tea-party taking place amidst the rebellion in Carry On Up The Khyber ... and, perhaps, almost as camp. His home is a fortress, with racks of assault rifles arrayed before walls covered with precious artwork that he has rescued before Matthias and his cronies got their scarred claws on them. Barbed-wire and sandbags line his balcony and a session taking in the evening-air would be unthinkable without a night-scope on his rifle and a fire extinguisher at the ready to put out those pesky flaming-balls that Matthias obligingly casts his way. But there are great moments when even this mighty stalwart betrays the cracks in his armour and gives in to the desperate loneliness of his plight - a longing look at the glamour girl on a calendar and the wistful smirk of contemplation on his face when he accidentally falls into the arms of female shop dummy; the hallucination of a dozen phones ringing in the street all at once; his glass-flinging rage at the incessant taunting from outside; and his “take-it-on-the-chin” arrogance to being tied to a funeral pyre in the Dodger Stadium and subsequent cool indifference to being ordered to ride a motorcycle with a gun pressed in the back of his head - “Yes, ma'am,” he says, exuding dry confidence. Of all Heston's films, this is the performance that I enjoy the most. Pain, pathos, hope, humour and, of course, full-on action-man mode - Chuck delivers them all in The Omega Man.
“I know how to roll, but it's hard on the elbows. And if you just have to play James Bond, I'll bust yo' ass!”
The Omega Man is justifiably famous for something else, too. For the first time in a mainstream movie, a white leading man and black leading lady got to some serious smooching. The lady in question is, of course, the late Rosalind Cash. Having only worked on the Jane Fonda thriller Klute beforehand and then going on to work mainly in television, Cash nevertheless made a huge impact in The Omega Man. Playing the part of Lisa, a proactive fellow survivor who, along with a small community of kids out in the California hills under the guidance of a hippy renegade called Dutch (played by great sixties and seventies face Paul Koslo), are all succumbing slowly, but surely to the plague. Her relationship with Neville - based loosely on a similar course of events in the book - is delightfully un-contrived, considering that she starts off as a Black Power cliché equipped with enough sass to send Matthias running all by her lonesome and winds up bedding down with “The Man ... and I do mean the Man.” There is something lyrical about Lisa and Neville finding love at the end of the world - or the start of a new one. All bigotry is forgotten and simple life and humanity is returned to harmony, however fragile and tenuous it may turn out to be. Cash is excellent and allows Lisa to go through a complete arc that is, in turn, empowered, forlorn, contented, revelatory and tragic.
There is also a strange, almost subliminal subtext involving the constant use of reflections - in the Family's sunglasses, the fire extinguisher on the wall in Neville's, the shop windows, the gleam on Lisa's automatic for examples - that sets up the mirror-angle of parallel societies and also of Neville's isolation. The world is split. He owns the day, whilst the mutants own the night. His crumbling memories of the life he once loved are mirrored by their new evolutionary idyll, something that his staunch Conservative outlook could never understand or tolerate. In this way, The Omega Man comes to represent a sign of the times in which it was made. Heston, although always supposedly an Everyman in his big three sci-fi outings, was actually never anything of the sort. Taylor, in Planet Of The Apes, is a weary, world-hating cynic, as is his futuristic detective in Soylent Green. Robert Neville is a military man, pro-active and keen to stamp out all those who are different to himself. This is exactly the type of government that was in power at the time and that had sparked race riots, hippy protests and student rebellion over its involvement in Vietnam. Having Neville repeatedly watching Woodstock at the cinema is possibly the one big error that the script makes. Heston couldn't portray a liberal if all the guns of the NRA were pointing at him. Even if this was meant as a kind of joke, it backfires, because Matthias and his cassock-loving goons are exactly the sort of anti-establishment drop-outs that a liberal-minded Neville would either attempt to join or happily move aside for. It is a bum-note that serves only as a thematic device, and one that is associated with the wrong character.
A department full of mannequins marvellously enhances this alternate reality as well, especially when one of them doesn't seem quite as plastic as the rest. It was also nice to see that Will Smith's new version paid homage to the dummy-friends that Neville has, even taking the idea a stage further. Heston's shock at finding he is not alone after all is acute, and the mirror dividing his lonely, half-imagined world from what is really going on around him finally cracks. Neville's journey and ultimate destination are never actually in question. The film's tone and particularly the way that film composer Ron Grainer's main cues for Neville and Lisa alter and become slightly sadder and more desperate as the story moves on are deliberate clues. Increasingly, Neville's war shifts into earnest - a dark and unavoidable course that even he knows he can't deviate from. It is clever and fits right in with the 70's air of nihilism and doubt, yet this is also apparent from the book and even The Last Man On Earth. The only deviation that Corrington and Williams weave into their version is the sense that the Omega Man wil, ultimately, make a difference to the world. Thus, the concept of sacrifice is thrown into the pot and there is no-one more equipped than Charlton Heston to make that kind of thing work.
“Make like they gonna crucify you, baby.”
“Actually, they were going to roast me.”
Where do Mathias and his cronies get their gear from? When you turn do you automatically receive a pair of dark sunglasses? The thing is, The Omega Man was made at a time when the occult and Satanism were actually quite popular with the California set, and society was still getting to grips with - and ultimately coming to glamorise - the Manson cult, so it is not all that surprising that the mutants in this version of the story resemble some Black Mass disciples. There is an inherent problem with their Luddite sensibilities, though. Under Mathias' bitter tutelage, the Family shun machinery and all the trappings of the civilisation that brought about the holocaust. But, the fundamental thing about their construction of catapults and fire-bombs is that, over time, they would seek to improve their efficiency, thereby committing themselves to a process of technological advancement that would, in due course, lead straight back down the same path of mass destruction ... again. Neville, although he doesn't voice it, clearly understands this irony and sitting up there in his ivory tower, or “Honky Paradise”, as Brother Zachary christens the Omega Man's pad, he can only shake his head at the vicious circle that fate has wrung. This is the elemental beauty of the story - the nail that Richard Matheson so eloquently smacked on the head. Man, whatever his guise, continues to evolve and the needs of the many - society - will always outweigh the needs of the few ... or the one, as a certain Vulcan once said. Thus, as in Matheson's book and Price's original adaptation, the last normal man on Earth, by virtue of his uniqueness, becomes the mutant, the stumbling block standing in the way of the new order. And, with this blinding realisation in mind, he also becomes the enemy and the very thing that must be removed if progress, of any sort, is to be achieved. Detractors of The Omega Man often seem to believe that Sagal's take botches this theme and replaces it all-too heavy-handedly with the infamous Christ allegory of Neville's blood being the Life. But this is way off the mark. The film still presents Neville as the scourge to the masses. Matthias has very clear motivations for removing his nemesis. He clearly wants to build again. He wants his people to transcend. But how can that ever be achieved when the one reminder of how it all went so horribly wrong can sit on his balcony and take pot shots at them, or ride around in the daylight destroying their hapless brethren while they are defenceless in slumber?
Oh, Neville can still be seen as the bad guy, all right. In fact, with his strict modus operandi, he is like the ultimate serial killer, which is exactly the heroic-beast that Matheson originally envisaged in his novel. Hollywood, unsurprisingly, sanitises Neville as depicted by Will Smith in I Am Legend, making him clearly the hero all along. And, whilst there is actually nothing wrong that, it does destroy the epic twist of the tale. Plus, the bad guys in the new version are never going to be a cohesive and intelligent new society, unlike Matthias' Family, no matter how much they may seem to evolve - again, losing the point of Matheson's novel.
In no small part, Ron (Dr. Who) Grainer's score is one of the reasons that The Omega Man is so fondly thought of. And his unique music is a truly atypical work for a genre picture such as this. Some say that his style is glaringly out-of-place and too overpowering for the movie itself, but, in my opinion, the music is so much a part of this film and my love for it that it should come as no surprise that it is one of my all time favourite soundtracks. Incidentally, the CD released by Film Score Monthly (FSM) back in 2000 has become one of the rarest and most sought after soundtracks ever produced. The fact that it had never actually had a release prior to this, despite much fan pressure, saw to it that the limited edition disc sold out almost immediately and it now changes hands for often horribly large amounts of money. I personally paid quite a bit for it but, to me (if not the wife!) it was money well spent and I literally treasure it.
So what makes Ron Grainer's music so damn special then?
Well, to answer that, we will have to embark on the spoiler section of the review, folks. This is because Grainer's score simply cannot be disassociated from the imagery and thematic elements that comprise the film and its story. One cannot exist without the other.
The celebrated composer of such sixties classic themes as The Prisoner, Doctor Who and Man In A Suitcase, Grainer had a truly individual style that embraced electronica, full orchestra, pounding rhythms and eclectic experimentation. His film work was actually rare (The Assassination Bureau and To Sir, With Love) and relegated mainly to TV movies. But, with The Omega Man, he created a piece of work that, whilst obviously reflecting the era - there are numerous sixties pop influences dotted throughout the score - reached out far beyond convention and elevated the movie tenfold. With a clutch of recurring themes that the composer twists, inverts, modifies and varies as the film moves along, The Omega Man has a sound that is distinctive, memorable and diverse. Neville's theme, one of my all-time favourite cues, can be sombre and melancholic, funky and playful or simply balls-to-the-wall heroic. It plays out several times and plots the course and mood of the film with complete accuracy. The theme for the Family is brash and brazen when we first encounter them - enlarging the spectacle of them cavorting in the streets, burning and jeering - but soon segues into a pseudo religious brogue, complete with gothic church organ and chiming percussion once their crusade gathers steam. Lisa's cue struts in with foxy blaxploitation swagger but Grainer is quick to reassemble it with the poignant swish of full orchestra - just listen to the gorgeous melody he serenades her with during her shopping spree. And then there is the achingly beautiful piece that Grainer fashions for when Neville first meets the heavily infected Richie. Played by Eric Laneuville, Richie is sinking fast into the photosensitive albino state - the Tertiary Stage - and Neville, still agog that there are other humans left in the world, seeks to find a cure for him before he fully “goes over”. Grainer employs a lilting mock-folk tune, tinged with Spanish guitars to convey the desperation and hope of the situation, but twists our sympathy with subtle chord changes to denote the underlying dread of what is in store. Cleverly, and in a moment that George Romero would, himself, coin for use in Dawn Of The Dead, Dutch displays his practical and somewhat doom-laden knowledge of Richie's real chances, fuelling the ominous tone that Boris Sagal so superbly captures of optimism walking hand-in-hand with fatalism. In fact, it is hard to think of a movie, or a story, that twins such opposite eventualities together so completely. Neville represents salvation but, as the film progresses, we and, perhaps more pertinently, he both realise that it is going to come at a severe price.
This section of the film, detailing Neville's successful attempts to give Richie a transfusion using his own uninfected blood is naturally less eerie than the first act which plays heavily upon mystery and unease. But the mood is no less treacherous. Richie's rejuvenation is tainted by the fact that he wants to spread news of his recovery and cure to the very people who would shun it most of all. His pathetic attempt to convey the meaning of “normality” to Matthias is strangely akin to when Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now tells of the village of inoculated children having their injected arms hacked off by the Viet Cong. Matthias' contempt for charity is the grimmest ethic he has so far evinced and, perhaps finally, we get to understand their true savagery.
“I don't know who scares me most. You, or Matthias.”
Besides the heavy psychological and sociological themes being interwoven throughout the screenplay, Boris Sagal - who had made a career out of fast-paced TV shows, from westerns to police thrillers to The Twilight Zone - has a comic-book approach to the material that allows for some terrific little action set-pieces. The motorcycle escape and evasion through the underground passages of the Dodger Stadium is a sheer standout. Rescued from his own sacrificial burning, Neville steers the bike down stairs, over the roof of a car and through surrounding gangs of torch-wielding neo-people. The fact that Heston's stuntman-double looks absolutely nothing like him - despite trying to use his elbows to shield his face from us and keep his head down out of sight - doesn't detract one iota from the full-throttle excitement of the set-piece. Lisa's comment about James Bond may be anachronistic given the setting and the lost world ideal, but it still feels perfectly apt considering the cool stuntage that takes place and ties-in all the more with the terrifically tense sequence when Brother Zachary crawls up the outside of Neville's fortress with a grappling hook, whilst Neville is forced to shinny down the elevator cables to repair the generator in the basement. This is another gripping standout. Listen to those stabbing shrieks on the score when the lights first go out. With yet another new spin on Grainer's theme for Neville throughout the sequence, the suspense is upped and, for me, the chapter plays out in a similar mood to the one when George Lazenby's Bond has to crack Gumbold's safe in the classic On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Grainer's score gets split three ways here and it is truly accomplished how he manages to bring it all together when the three characters finally meet in a brassy bullet fusillade.
A combination of tribal - almost voodoo - intonations bleed exotic menace when Richie goes on his foolhardy errand of mercy to see Matthias. In a film where the Family, admittedly, aren't that scary a bunch, the tone shifts nastily and the teen's slaying is powerfully felt. It leaves an intentionally sour taste in the mouth after his joyous recovery and Neville's sickened “Oh my God,” when he discovers Ritchie's body, a subtle but ghastly scene punctuated by a mournful echo of the waterchime, and sets off with brutal vengeance in mind is a poignant moment that you just know will lead to Heston packing some heat and going into battle. Meanwhile, Lisa's spellbinding revelation as the mob come chanting round the corner was one of the great, though barely acknowledged, shocks of seventies cinema. Even now, it is wonderfully done - the unwrapping of the headscarf, the approach of Matthias, over-zealous now after a spot of bloodletting, the removal of the sunglasses and Grainer's score building insistently and knowingly to the big reveal. Visually, it looks tremendous, as well.
“We have cleansed and purged his world. Now we must build.”
“Build coffins ... that's all you'll need.”
When Neville's theme returns in its most heroic burst, after Richie's atrocity, the film kicks into a brief, but awesome overdrive. Steering his jeep through the streets and around the barricades that the Family have set up in ambush for him, Heston's face is a picture of rage and despair. Just listen to the drummer on the cue going ballistic! Expert editing provides unique impact for when he switches on the powerful headlamps and for when the jeep careers onto its side and slides through a shop window. Grainer's and Sagal's wonderful next trick is to completely de-saturate the comic-book gusto by subverting Neville's theme into a ghostly, music box treatment that transforms the Omega Man's running battle with advancing members of the Family into one of the film's most haunting sequences. Whilst only brief, the gun-battle through the streets would mark a turning point in genre history. Never before had the hero in a sci-fi/horror picture taken the fight to the monsters in such a hands-on, proactive manner. This was the modern military taking on the almost supernatural - a theme that has been running throughout the movie, of course, but now taking on the aspect of eerie urban warfare, Neville, in his iconic blue flight-suit and peaked cap, machine-gunning his way home is a wonderfully evocative image.
“Come in, Neville. Sounds strange, doesn't it - come in, Neville?”
The superlative twist outlined by the above quotation is the forerunner to The Omega Man's final triumph - the fate that has been inescapable all along finally catching up. Neville's last-ditch breakaway, fleeing into an uncertain future that even he knows he can have no real part in is majestic, clumsy, controversial and scintillatingly provocative all at once. So many delicious elements come together here that the film reaches an almost operatic level of tragedy and transcendence. I love the way that Matthias stands on the balcony of the kingdom that he has finally captured, the spotlamps shining out from behind him and blinding the one man who actually lived in the “light” in a viciously poetic irony, his calming voice an irresistible beacon to the smitten Lisa, drawn to his victorious charisma whilst Neville's gun fatefully jams. Actually, if you look back, his weapon had jammed earlier whilst he strafed the burning Family-members in the street, so this is no corny contrivance. As Matthias calls in a high exultant, almost euphoric voice, and Lisa moans softly in supplication, Neville's gruff, masculine bark, “For God's sake, Lisa, get back in the light!” cuts through the cultish indoctrination, reminding us that Neville's time has definitely come. He is outdated, a dinosaur, a relic from a more globally barbaric time. It is fitting then that his modern weapon lets him down at the pivotal moment and Matthias is able to utilise the primitive spear that the reckless Zachary left there. Grainer's music roars out a final, desperate variation of Neville's theme, the cue, the performances and the direction absolutely sailing towards that infamous climax with over-the-top glee, hammering home a idea that many would find eye-rollingly preposterous and many more would be offended by. Heston has always maintained that the crucifixion pose was merely a joke and not to be taken seriously - but I find this hard to believe. The Christ allegory was set in motion much earlier when one of the kids from the sanctuary in the hills asks him if he is God - well, has has been everyone else in the Bible, hasn't he, so you can't blame her for asking, can you? Either way, I adore this classic denouement, made all the more powerful because Neville is able to hang on until the chosen few arrive, the bottle of his precious blood clutched in a hand that has little of the stuff left in it. It is also perfect that he finally bows out in the bright sunlight of a new dawn. His job is done and he has saved the world. The only night-time that he will see now will be his own eternal sleep. “The bad dream is over, friend Neville. Now we can sleep in peace,” says Matthias and it is strangely comforting that there is no animosity in his voice, just a wish for solace between two old adversaries who have probably forgotten just why they were fighting in the first place. Grainer ends the film with a whimsical and upbeat tune that sounds weirdly uplifting after all that has gone before, perhaps signifying again that Neville's eventual death was necessary for the new world. This type of ending could only have been done with Charlton Heston. No other actor at the time could have come close to his sense of grand irony and his final collapse into the fountain is a cathartic release from a film that is wilfully strange and offbeat.
It is interesting to note that the Smith's version also ends with a quasi-religious theme - that of faith and redemption. But, whilst Sagal's movie makes the whole thing quite overt and glaring, Lawrence downplays it and, somehow, cheapens its effect by making it look entirely like a last-minute nod to The Omega Man's famed finale. Plus, the whole angle of a new community springing up in the wake of Neville's sacrifice is squandered by having such an enclave seemingly thriving in the countryside all along. At least in The Omega Man we knew about the other survivors from the half-way point and their plight was another motivation for both Neville and the plot to progress. In I Am Legend this is just a lousy Hollywood sap of an ending, I'm afraid, and another reason why The Omega Man nudges ahead of it as being a more “complete” and “coherent” story.
There were a couple of scenes cut from the film that have still not surfaced. One showed Lisa encountering a young infected girl in a crypt - a scene that is a reworking from the original book. The girl is carrying the body of a dead infant in her arms. Another has the little girl who asks if Neville is God leaving apples and daisies for him and praying that he not let her be taken away in a bag! The latter scene seems daft and too pushy of the Christ motif, but the former would have been a really spookily sad moment that may have benefited the film. Ron Grainer, Rosalind Cash and Boris Sagal, sadly all now deceased, rarely worked in movies after this and it is such a shame, considering the talents they each revealed so passionately.
The more I watch The Omega Man, the more I love it. Yes, much of it has dated. Yes, those deserted LA streets are hardly deserted at all. And, yes those robes and sunglasses do look pretty silly - but the film is challenging, audacious and tremendously exciting. And Ron Grainer's music, playing now as I write this, is simply magic. I Am Legend is a terrific new take on the tale, but it lacks the iconic nature of Heston's outing, making up for it by delving deeper into the emotional aspect of Neville's condition. Plus, it's got a German Shepherd tackling the enemy in it, which is a big bonus in my book!
But The Omega Man remains a class act - often shunned and derided, but a brave and quirky manipulation of Matheson's strong concept, nonetheless. I love it and recommend it, wholeheartedly.
Pray for the last man on Earth ... because he's not alone.