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The Last Man on Earth

The Last Man on Earth

Sidney Salkow

USA / Italy, 1964

Credits

Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 14 October 2006

Source MGM DVD

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Features: 31 Days of Horror

When a planet-ravaging plague kills off most of the earth’s humans, and turns the rest into zombie-vampires, it is left to the lone unscathed soul, Robert Morgan, to both preserve the tattered remnants of civilization, and dispatch the legions of bloodthirsty undead. Adhering to a strict regimen in pursuit of these goals, Morgan rises each morning with the sun, downs some coffee and orange juice, and ventures into the ruined world armed with a few dozen wooden stakes and a thick mallet.

Amidst offing his daylight-fearing nemeses, Robert replenishes his ever-dwindling supply of fresh garlic at the abandoned grocer’s shop, and drops by the moldering antique store for a few more unshattered mirrors (zombie-vampires being violently afraid of their own likenesses and all). Making sure to return home by nightfall, Robert affixes his warding talismans to the front door, pops a record onto the old Victrola, and settles in for a quiet evening of jazz mingled with the incessant beat of zombie-vampires thudding fruitlessly against the house walls.

In different hands (Michele Soavi, director of Cemetery Man, comes first to mind), the scenario described above could have easily devolved into a dark horror comedy, with Vincent Price’s Morgan going about his gruesome business (as Rupert Everett’s Francesco Dellamorte does) with offhanded indifference. Under the helm of Sidney Salkow, however, the material is treated with utter seriousness. Price’s Morgan is a man at the end of his proverbial tether—on the brink of snapping in the face of crushing loneliness, the incessant nocturnal attacks, and his gruesome daily toil.

To make matters worse, these lurching undead are not mere zombies. Instead, they are a unique hybrid of zombie and vampire—slow to move and weak of limb, yes, but still mentally aware, capable of coherent speech, and fueled by lust for human blood. Thus, in addition to his many other problems, Morgan must endure the bellows of his erstwhile friend Ben, who nightly stands outside Morgan’s house and calls to him by name: “Come out Morgan. Come out!” Zombie-vampires are frightening enough, let alone zombie-vampires that know who you are.

Speaking ability aside, The Last Man on Earth’s antagonistic undead are clear forbearers to George A. Romero’s legendary zombies from Night of the Living Dead. The slow shuffling from out of the gloom of night, the manipulation of simple tools, the mindless thudding against Morgan’s walls and doors, all bring to mind similar moments at Romero’s desolate Pennsylvania farmhouse. And while there can be little doubt that Romero screened The Last Man on Earth at some point prior to embarking on his creation, it’s interesting to note how his monsters differ from those presented here.

For starters, the Last Man nemeses are not mindless drones swarming about Morgan’s house just because he happens to be alive. Instead, they are mentally aware, though dead, humans purposely tormenting the man precisely because he is Robert Morgan. Theoretically, they will hunt him down wherever he goes. In addition, Morgan’s creatures cannot be dispatched by blindly firing into the dark with a shotgun. Instead, Morgan must collect suitable bits of wood, lathe them into deadly stakes, and then wait for the opportune moment to destroy.

By contrast, Romero’s undead are classic zombies through and through—they attack en masse, they lurch by day and night, they eat flesh, they moan, and they can be destroyed by severing or destroying the brain with whatever weapon is at hand. While I freely admit that the Night antagonists, in all their dead-eyed glory, are the more terrifying, and that Romero’s is certainly the more viscerally frightening of the two films, in terms of presenting a psychologically horrific situation, The Last Man on Earth reigns supreme.

A quiet, measured, and haunting tale for most of its running length, the film picks up speed precipitously during its loud final act, as Morgan stumbles upon a young girl strolling a nearby hillside, and forcibly convinces her to accompany him back to his house. In an instant, Morgan’s solitude is shattered, and with it the rarefied, almost dreamlike atmosphere of the film. Although the action-filled climax that follows (centered on a third race of humans, not undead, not quite living) is satisfying, and perfectly tidy, it is not entirely in keeping with the quieter moments of terror so effectively rendered during the first hour: the chilling demands for Morgan to exit his house, the macabre flashbacks of Morgan’s dead wife, the looming dread of another maddening day of lukewarm survival. Nevertheless, as an underappreciated progenitor of the modern zombie film, The Last Man on Earth is essential viewing, and as a post-apocalyptic tale of terror, it holds its own.

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