41 – The Omega Man (1971)

“Is this how it starts? A trip to the laughing academy? No, you silly bastard, it starts with you asking yourself silly questions. OK, let’s get cleaned up and get a drink before the bars close.”

From the  very opening scene of the Omega man, when Charlton Heston slips an 8 track cassette (if your under 35 you will have no idea what this is) into the player, this is a film stuck in its own time. I have included it for personal nostalgic reasons, as I am sure this was the first ‘last man on earth’ film I watched, and I absolutely loved it, but then I was probably about 8 when I first saw this movie. As stated above this film is stuck in its own time, and is dated, however you could argue that if the world had ended in the 1970s then the sole survivor would still be stuck in that time still using 8 track cassettes even now, but it is quite uncomfertable at times. The film holds a special place in a lot of sci-fi fans hearts however, especially cheese loving ones like myself, and has some high-profile fans in Tim Burton, and Will Smith, who would remake it as I am Legend.

The film is very loosely based on the I am Legend book by Richard Matheson, which has not only gave birth to all the last man on earth films, but also all modern zombie flicks. Heston reportedly came up with the idea to film Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel ‘I Am Legend’ after reading it on a plane, unaware that it had already been filmed in 1964, as an Italian-made movie called The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price.Charlton Heston plays the last man on earth (well in Los Angeles anyway) we are told through our usual apocalyptic motif, news reports that there had been a war between China and the Soviets which escalated into biological weapons that had killed most people off immediately, we also see Charlton Heston’s character was a military scientist, who after a helicopter crash had injected himself with a vaccine, which worked, leaving him as the sole survivor. As in Matheson’s novel and the previous film, Heston’s last uninfected man finds that he’s not alone; soon he’s defending himself every night against nocturnal, plague-infested mutants who see him as the infection.

A new twist comes in the form of another group of feral humans, young and still unzombiefied, that Heston’s Robert Neville discovers. They’re infected but not yet turned. They rescue him when he is captured by the mutants and is condemned to death by their leader, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Neville struggles to recreate his vaccine in order to save the survivors, and he even falls in love with their leader, Lisa (Rosalind Cash). With a new vaccine made from his own antibodies, Neville is ready, like Christ, to redeem humanity with his own blood sacrifice, but a final war remains to be fought between the zombies and the survivors.

The movie addressed many issues of the day, in pop form. There was the Cold War dread of a global conflict that would wipe out civilization, homegrown fears of urban crime by roving nocturnal gangs, echoes of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements (the survivors, led by Cash’s Lisa, are a largely African-American group), worries that science and technology were progressing faster than human moral development (a standard sci-fi trope, but here voiced by the villainous mutants, who blame chemists like Neville for their predicament), and even apprehension over a counterculture turned violent (the mutants call themselves ‘The Family,’ with the nihilistic  Matthias evoking Charles Manson).

Directing the movie was TV veteran Boris Sagal. To serve as a set for his desolate postapocalyptic urban landscape, Sagal’s location scouts discovered they needed look no further than downtown Los Angeles, whose shopping district was all but abandoned on weekends. So unfortunately in some of the early scenes, cars and shoppers can be seen in the background, also there is no overgrowth of vegetation, which would later be seen in the 2007 version starring Will Smith. To my young eyes though and many of the time it was Sagal’s eerily empty cityscape vistas that hit home , and  proved influential on other filmmakers; similar scenes appeared in nightmare sequences in Taylor Hackford’s ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and Cameron Crowe’s ‘Vanilla Sky.’ Other films used similar zombie/infection/end-of-the-world plots, notably 2002’s ’28 Days Later,’ in which the deserted city is London.

Tim Burton cites ‘Omega Man’ as one of his favorite films, one he’ll stop and watch whenever it comes on TV. He says he especially likes how Heston drops a mordant quip every time he gets violent (a habit since adopted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, and countless other action heroes).

The Christ analogy seems quite heavy-handed to me at the end of the film (Heston even giving his best Christ like pose), there is a lot to like about The Omega man, however I think its one for the apocalyptic sci-fi nostalgists like myself. It was certainly a film that sparked an interest in this genre, and if not for the omega man I would not be sitting here writing this blog tonight, so for that reason it has earned its place in the 50 Apocalyptic films you have to see before the Apocalypse

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5 Responses to “41 – The Omega Man (1971)”

  1. Gavin Morgan Says:

    That’s a really good blog Duane. Really well researched and journalistic as well as enjoyably funny.

  2. Hey Gav, thanks for the feedback, really appreciate it, glad your enjoying it mate

  3. Taylor McInroy Says:

    Really interesting article Duane! I’ve never seen the original Omega man but I’m tempted now. The bit I found really intriguing-

    ‘He says he especially likes how Heston drops a mordant quip every time he gets violent (a habit since adopted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, and countless other action heroes).’

    Is that where this first started?

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