“… the living being is only a species of the dead.” – Nietzsche
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Dead Man. Dead Man’s Curve. Dead Man on Campus. Dead Man Walking (1988). Dead Man Walking (1996). “Dead Man Walking” (David Bowie). Dead Man’s Walk. Dead Man’s Dance. Dead Men Can’t Dance. Date with the Perfect Dead Man. A Dead Man in Debtford. Death of a Macho Man. Dead Boys.
For a few years there it seemed you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a dead man of some sort somewhere in the media – and that wasn’t counting the dying or dead main characters of such films as Jack Frost, American Beauty, Weekend at Bernie’s (I and II), Carlito’s Way, Ghost Dad, Reservoir Dogs, Mrs. Winterbourne (based on Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man), Chances Are, The Sixth Sense, Panic, Identity, 21 Grams, and writer-director Bruce Joel Rubin’s dead-man trilogy Ghost, Jacob’s Ladder, and My Life (all preceded by his living-guy-channels-dead-woman drama Brainstorm), or the dying-breed Last Action Hero, Last Boy Scout, Last Outlaw, Last Hero, Last of the Dogmen, Last Man Standing (1995), Last Man Standing (1996), and Last of the Mohicans. Even sensing a trend, I was astonished at the results of an amazon.com query yielding 15 book titles in five years beyond those listed above containing those two qualifying words. Clearly, some element of masculinity was passing from our view: a recent news report even confirms that male births are in decline, as though nature itself were in agreement with the apparently subliminal self-obliviating wishes of a generation – or vice versa.
Few authors have chronicled this diminishing masculine presence in the world as often or as consistently as has Richard Matheson, whose 1954 novel I Am Legend formulated the theme he would go on to explore in such later works as The Shrinking Man and his screenplay for Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher. In his 1975 Bid Time Return (filmed in 1980 as Somewhere in Time), his backwardly driven main character was in fact dying, the hero of the similarly romantic What Dreams May Come totally dead, suggesting that, for a novelist whose career began with the intrigues of a lone, male survivor of the human race, the contemporary story of men began at the end.
As most writing involves the author personifying a problem of varying degrees of internality (and internalization) in order to eliminate or resolve it, the act of telling a story is itself a form of obliviation of some aspect of the personality. By writing I Am Legend in the first person – with the added irony of its character also being the last person fully alive – and then killing him off in the end, Matheson stresses the point. When his story – the writing of which may have been intended, on some level, to elevate him from anonymity to his own place of “legend” – closes with an echo of its title, it lends the package an air of circularity, of having been wrapped up and prepared for burial. I have passed from being into essence, it’s saying, from form into myth, and individual into object of interpretation. So too, we may assume, has the issue passed out of the author.
Evidently I Am Legend bore more than just personal significance, though, as three film versions have already been shot, the latest emerging from perpetual development where it was at one time set to star that willfully self-immolating Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger, who offered a similar service in 1996’s Eraser and whose action colleague Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 Demolition Man raised questions as to who, ultimately, was demolishing. In 1971, Charlton Heston played the role of Matheson’s self-proclaimed obsolescent, Robert Neville, in The Omega Man. But the most interesting, and least heralded, casting coup in the adaptation sweepstakes was Vincent Price in Sidney Salkow’s 1964 US-Italian co-production The Last Man on Earth.
When you start with a famously effete actor like Price as the eponymous Man, the received definition of masculinity is up for reevaluation. Matheson’s novel, written in a pulp style and geared toward a presumably male readership, projected a far more heroic protagonist than appears here, one more suited to the macho bores embodied by his later real and proposed interpreters than the flamboyantly inflected Price. Those others’ struggles as sole remaining human against a vampire-like plague of degenerates seems an increasingly quaint image of he-man histrionics compared to Price’s atypically restrained and sympathetic figure of resistance. (As the 51st of 53 features directed across a 31-year career by a relatively undistinguished Harvard Law alum, Last Man also suggests another sort of stand for Salkow, against anonymity and his own imminent, professional, obsolescence.) Still, Price’s casting does yield a greater, because more unexpected, inquiry into what it means to be a man at all, as to the forces rendering him the Last One on Earth.
Salkow begins his film with shots of a desolated city littered with corpses – bereft, already, of an animating force, like the sleeping or dead self, at rest. As with the similarly introduced Target Earth of 1954 (as well as 1959’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil and 1962’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire), the awakening of a figure into this setting suggests the reactivation of some part of the brain, the mind arousing into a form of dream consciousness. As the story concerns the actual revivification of the dead (the film an acknowledged blueprint for Night of the Living Dead only four years later) in the form of the vampiric plague ravaging the world, these figures suggest the images or concepts stored away – “buried” – in the mind, taking on tangible form in the dream theater.
As introduced, coffined by a frame of wooden shutters, Neville (here, Robert Morgan) is analogous, if not identical, to the other newly risen sleepers. The film entire is a document of the soul post mortem cleansing itself on its journey to dissolution, with Morgan himself a figure in a larger dream — that of the society or social structure depicted in his story’s opening moments. As self-described “legend,” or iconic symbol of that culture, his role, then, will be as a medicinal agent similar to those in 1968’s Fantastic Voyage and 1971’s Andromeda Strain (the latter opening in like fashion to Last Man, all three anticipating the catharsis of The Exorcist in 1974), whose particular service, as he learns, will not be completed until he’s speared in the end like one of his own vampire victims. The trigger for this self-destruction is a revelation that will change his image of himself and the world that created him.
Part of the surprise of the film is its quotidian atmosphere, a likely reason for its lukewarm reputation in genre circles. Its staid, documentary – given its Italian location and co-financing and postapocalyptic (as postwar) setting, one might say neorealist – flavor is a departure from the more action-oriented feel of most fantasy films even of its day, the humdrum way Morgan goes about his duties a far cry from the blazing semi-automatics of the Heston version. Yet this very average-ness is the whole point of the film and of its main character. The story is on one level a grim satire of workaday life in the last days of white men’s fool’s paradise. Even before the plague that took his wife and daughter – objective correlative to the malaise already infecting him – Morgan was the same stuck record at the end of its groove he later shuts off after a night of harassment from the ghouls outside (which is to say, inside). The world after the holocaust is the same as the world before it, grown monstrous and projected to such a scale that it can no longer be ignored. In the film, as in life (at least so unexamined a one as the avowedly unimaginative scientist Morgan’s), there’s little sense of cause and effect from one scene to another, no sense of inherent meaning or inevitability anywhere but in the long and informative flashback. It’s only via reflection that the logic – the organicism – of Morgan’s life reveals itself. And when it does, it spells curtains for the hapless anti-hero.
Having gone to the bother of changing their main character’s name, the filmmakers must have intended a certain irony about it, “Morgan” disassociated from its Arthurian suggestion of Morgan le Fay (“the Fate”) – a Celtic death-goddess – but not its German translation as “morning.” By opening at the break of day, there’s an implicit dawning on the clueless scientist as well, though it’s never acknowledged up to and including the point of his death, suggesting that closing action, on another morning, as this revelation: He’s already dead at heart, as we see in his impassive expression while exterminating his lifeless victims in their hovels during the day, his face registering not even half their emotion. In concentrating its action in the city, the film suggests the, in turn, soulless, competitive, and vampirizing quality of life there, the hollowness of the 9-to-5 grind capped off only by an increasing isolation in the fortress of the suburban home. This was the subject of other, more mainstream works of the time, from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’s rat race to the more subtle uncertainties of TV’s first Thriller episode, “The Twisted Image,” the dog-eat-dog world of Sweet Smell of Success here inflated into a colorless orgy of cannibalism indicating that the age of the Company Man was over.
If the man’s world of work had come to be a place of diminishment and marginalization, then the home he had abandoned in favor of that world was by now a site of outright alienation. In the home movies he watches late at night (substituted in the Heston film by screenings of that countercultural idyll Woodstock, meant, no doubt, to give its gun-totin’ hero street cred with the modern audience but also serving the same Edenic purpose as the Price movies), Morgan is himself invisible behind the camera that records his wife and daughter and even his neighbor, but not him. Scrolling silently, the reels have a remote, interior quality, as though reflective of more than just a private life but private thoughts, as well – an entire life unlived, a fantasy world of, predominantly, joyous femininity and imagination, from which he has absented himself. When the footage that began with the birth of his child ends with scenes from a circus, his laughter resolves into tears in the apparent realization that the clown he has just been watching is himself.
What this says about Morgan and the charade he’s been enacting is manifold, and is where Price’s casting comes most into play. In the hands of an actor widely renowned for the campiness of his performances especially in that phase of his career, the role offers hints of the many varieties of “passing for” sometimes necessary to getting by in sixties society. Whether closeted homosexuality, effeminacy, or simple alienation from the going definition of masculinity, the effect of this masque is to throw into relief the whole issue of what constitutes masculinity at all, and to what extent the quality itself is a role effected to varying degrees of success by anyone who plays the game. It is, finally, less the truth, the essence, of manhood which, as the title indicates, will find its end by the film’s conclusion, than this elaborate and catastrophic mask of same.
As the earliest chronological event in the picture, the scene with Morgan’s newborn daughter carries with it the force of a root cause similar to the unidentified fog that made small of Matheson’s Shrinking Man. When a later flashback to her birthday party (commemorating the original, archetypal moment) reveals that it was on this occasion that Morgan learned of the virus, the two circumstances become linked: her birth spells his death. The emergence of a feminine presence in the world, as in his personality, renders him a vestige, an artifact, which his laughter also acknowledges and which is confirmed as well in the finale, where his death is witnessed by a gathering of women and children – the feminine aspect of himself he has, in waking life at least, forsaken. As the winds – of change, as natural as the Shrinking Man’s fog – that reportedly convey the virus gather overhead, this celebration signals a confluence of hope and ill omen carried through in the conclusion, indicating that the end had been encoded in the very beginning.
It was a similar warning, unheeded, that set the stage for the scourge that would plague the polis of mythical Oedipus, and like the tragic king the victims of Matheson’s pestilence also experience a blinding before their deaths. Morgan’s flashbacks and psychic home movies parallel his forebear’s allegorical journey into the past to locate the cause within, the ghouls’ apparent regaining of their sight on resurrection the gift of new vision. The Tiresian bearer of the news of this virus is his young, dark blond co-worker, Ben Cortman – another threat to the conventional, middle-aged man – who becomes his arch-nemesis once the plague takes him. His initials, “B.C.,” suggest a further archaeological significance, a pre-salvation (or prehistoric) element in Morgan himself. His matinee-idol looks (with dashing shock of swept-back hair, he recalls a Cocteau-era Jean Marais, or, at the other end of the spectrum, Arch Hall Jr.) suggest him as Morgan’s aboriginal idealized self, seen in his place in his own home movies. In his role as messenger of the disease, his presence puts the lie to Morgan’s fantasy of happy family life, and also to the ’74 remake where the roles are, essentially, switched, hunky Heston now the hero against prissy Anthony Zerbe. Once reconstituted as one of the undead – his deathlessness suggesting an immortality stretching not only ahead but also behind, into history: an archetype at the end of its line — it’s with this idealized image Morgan must contend in the dream arena and ultimately defeat. As iconic Last Man, conquering Ben Cortman becomes an act of self-purification.
Morgan’s flashback occurs while dozing over the lid of his wife’s coffin, which he visits periodically. That it unravels here suggests the wife as memory itself, or the embodiment of a buried past: the feminine origins of all men, the close connection to mother (the dreaded “mama’s boy” syndrome, as epitomized in the daughter whose premature death suggests a soul still mourning the loss of this connection) as well as men’s own sublimated “feminine” sensitivities. During this sequence we discover that Morgan, who had worked on a cure for the disease and failed, found it necessary to hide the news of his daughter’s death so as not to have her body disposed of on a bonfire like the others’. Instead he closets her within his home, as he is later to do with his wife. Thus, two prominent themes dominate the recollection. First, the importance of keeping secret the feminine occupants of his “house,” as mind, which becomes derelict after the holocaust, indicating paranoia over an alleged femininity in his own character. Second, perhaps surprisingly, it’s an evocation of life under fascism – again, the film’s neorealist resonances – where family members are similarly routed from their homes, here on the pretext of containing the spread of the virus, and burned in the mass grave that is the community’s makeshift crematorium, garlic wreaths and warnings of quarantine like a Star of David on the victims’ houses.
Morgan’s secret burial of his wife only to relocate the body later suggests an unsuccessful repression of all she represents – the mother figure he’s incompletely separated from, and some feminine element in himself, returned in the fever of a dream. Her name, “Virg,” is at least as loaded with implication as his own. It’s short for Virginia, obviously, indicating a grief over the loss of his own virginnocence – the incinerated body of “his child” – but also suggestive of a certain borderline character, Morgan forever on the verge of transformation. Finally, it suggests a Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mother whose idealization keeps all women isolated from the world and from realizing their potential in that world, as when she becomes infected (the oedipal boy’s recognition of mommy’s “impurity,” or sexual nature) and must be quarantined within the house, suffocating her – the windows Morgan keeps shut against the bacillus – as it does his own femininity. When she comes back, she is, significantly, unkempt, bearing the “corruption” of the grave, or world. That the flashback concludes with the horror of her return, eliding the scene of her dispatching, indicates “her” immortality as the crux of his fear – the idea of unresolved femininity or a relapsing mother-attachment coming back to get him. The resolution of this, too horrible to show, is, of course, staking: sublimated sex, proving his maturity and heterosexuality with the reconstituted mother-figure.
Without actually showing her extermination, the point is less its occurrence – for, unseen, it never happened, as far as the film-as-document goes – than the simple necessity of confronting her image, dredged up from the earth of the unconscious. Before man may move on in his social development after the holocaust of recent years, he must recognize the horrific effect of his burial of the feminine in himself as well as society in the name of differentiating himself from that one primal, immortal figure in his own past, despite his love for her and her deathless love for him. Her residence not in the anonymous, subterranean grave Morgan originally planted her in but in a eulogizing, aboveground mausoleum suggests he’s done the work of acknowledgment and can now keep her closer to consciousness, more fully integrated into his everyday life. In psychological terms, it’s the transference of the idealized mother image, which will allow him to reconstitute, or project, that image into the living being of another: a lover.
As seeming reward for the previous day’s recognition of the monstrousness of his repressions – an acknowledgment that puts his embattled ego (the house now surrounded by vampires) at risk – he finds something the next morning that beggars his belief: a live puppy. Though it doesn’t survive long – it isn’t meant to; it’s intended only as an emissary, a link – it serves at least two purposes. One is to further his psychological development by providing a bridge from mother-attachment to a neutral object of affection; the second an indication of a more personal, private transition, from an involvement with the angelic character we associate with the mother, to the physical plane – the earthly, the animal. Both issues are resolved when he makes his next great discovery, at the site of his burial of the animal within.
Like a sleeper or newly dead person shirking the real, carnal, physical plane, Morgan’s planting of the pooch precipitates, in dream-time cause and effect, his glimpsing of a woman, the first one he’s seen in the light of day/reason/consciousness/maturity. That her name is Ruth, signifying remorse, means he’s finally ready to face the shadows of his life and character, not in monstrous, projected terms but in reasonable, appropriate, and personal ones. Thus, the stage is set for her revelation to him: she’s neither living nor dead nor undead but a revolutionary hybrid, one of a group of whom Morgan has been killing along with the genuinely moribund. Now, more than some postapocalyptic exterminator, Morgan is also a murderer, Ruth the return of the survivor guilt plaguing the scientist who could not save his race and the husband and father who could not save his family. Man’s rationalism has reached the point where it is now murdering – or hampering the development of – a new, emergent reality, one combining disparate realms. As borderline human, Ruth is the ambiguity that can only, in turn, “murder” as rational and unimaginative a man as himself; she has, in fact, been dispatched to distract and detain him while the rest of her tribe move in for the kill. (In this, as in many other elements, the film parallels Jack Hill’s 1962 student film, “The Host.”)
Instead of killing her, though, Morgan commits his one assertive, redemptive act in the picture: he gives her some of his blood, which has the power to cure her, his immunity the result of a fever experienced some years before in Africa. (This earlier, unexplained circumstance has the opposite effect of the Shrinking Man’s fog, and reminds us how the biblical Book of Ruth is tangentially associated with the Jewish tradition of Passover.) Morgan has, on some level, been spared the malaise today because he had already suffered it to a lesser degree once before, this figurative vaccination a petit mort-vivant emphasizing the transfusion as another sublimated sex act, creating new life. That it’s performed while she sleeps, as by an incubus, indicates that the transference of erotic interest from the mother to a lover isn’t fully functional; he’s still seeing things in abstract, scientific terms rather than earthy, erotic ones. It happens too late, anyway: toward dawn the rest of her brood attack, the black-garbed minions of either total unconsciousness or of a new form of consciousness, as yet undefined – the chaos out of which order always emerges. It is they who shoot “B.C.” down from the roof (the past/irrational, in the ascendant at the height of the dream), as Morgan would like to have done but could never manage.
A new society is always established through the ritual sacrifice of the old gods; so Morgan meets his finish in a church, where he’s impaled after the fashion of his former prey. It’s the point at which he passes from being into legend. When Ruth told him her people saw him in precisely those terms, though, it was only half a compliment, for legends are usually past-tense, often half-true, and not always positive; iconic, yet extinct. The word itself originates in the infinitive legere: to gather, as to share, its storytelling declension deriving from the tradition of congregating to pass along the ancient tales – as in church, or a movie theater, as a living-room today. The legend is a communion, taken into the self and passed on while retaining its nourishing spiritual qualities, just as watching this, or any, movie can become a similarly transformative experience for the audience receptive to its “religious” significance. Ruth, then, carrying this new blood within herself, offers the film’s closing ironic comment on Morgan’s character, she the fully articulated ambiguity that can recognize the value in even such a mundane, obsolete sort as he before separating herself from her own identikit New Order. Her people’s black garb indicates a darkening at dawn, the world about to enter a long period of twilight, in which you might say it remains today.
Nietzsche, of all people, had fewer nice things to say about the Last Man.
In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a tract on the emergence of a super-man set apart from The Rabble, the philosopher’s eponymous narrator, who thrives on continual disintegration and rebirth and whose story also begins with an awakening, reserves his greatest contempt for the so-called Ultimate Man (presumably so-named for being the last of his species before the coming of the über-mann; the Italian title for Salkow’s film is L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra). The Last Man lives for moderation, relaxation, and warmth: essentially, Morgan before his transformative ordeal. This Man has, according to the mountain-dwelling Zarathustra, “left the places where living was hard.” He likes his entertainment unchallenging, is as disinclined to rule as to obey, preferring a clime where “everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same.” Nietzsche saw this species of humanity as obsolete in 1883, but by 1956 it was still vital enough to inspire the first of many film adaptations of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, and by 1964 would provide fodder again for this film.
The stereotype of the postwar laissez-faire suburban male is as deathless as the creatures Morgan must fight every day, the downbeat tone of the ending indicating not much faith, either, in the super-man to follow. (Salkow’s own career post-Last Man on Earth saw a rapid immersion in series television the likes of Lassie and The Addams Family. In an interview in Tom Weaver’s Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, Matheson witheringly notes that Salkow considered this film “one of his masterpieces”: a step, perhaps, above the mediocrity Morgan’s character signified, but not much of one in the author’s estimation). That Morgan recognizes his folly toward the end redeems him, though for Nietzsche at least this revelation would not confer the immortality derided by his book’s narrator and of which the film’s vampire hordes are a mockery, though his act of transfusion does fulfill the prophet’s exhortation for the über-mann “to create beyond himself, and thus perish.” Ruth’s departure in the end from her own, further evolution of The Rabble, pregnant with the blood of neither the Last Man nor the Super-Man but perhaps the Next Man (or Woman; in Old Testament terms, Ruth was also a primogenitor of David, one of the highest kings of Israel and “a symbol of fulfillment in the future,” according to the Britannica), is definitely a step ahead. Whether it be a significant – or soon – enough step remains to be seen.
Of Morgan’s kind, at any rate, Nietzsche may have written the epitaph: “His race is as inexterminable as the flea,” he says; “the Ultimate Man lives longest.”
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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.