The Omega Man (1971) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for violence, nudity and language (definitely PG-13 to R today)
Running time: 98 min.
Cast: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash, Paul Koslo, Eric Laneuville, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Brian Tochi
Director: Boris Sagal
Screenplay: John William Corrington, Joyce H. Corrington (based on the novel, "I Am Legend", by Richard Matheson)
Review published December 19, 2007
The Omega Man marks the second adaptation of the classic Richard Matheson work, "I Am Legend", and though this version has gone on to becomes something of a cult classic itself, it's also not much due to adherence to its source material. Though the film would be released in 1971, the setting of the story is actually a few years in the future, 1976, where Colonel Robert Neville (Heston, Tombstone) has free reign of the city of Los Angeles throughout the day. You see, he is the last surviving human left after a virus, unleashed after the dreaded germ warfare between Russia and China, has wiped out all of humanity, whether by killing them or leaving them as homicidal albino freaks.
The freaks are led by the cunning Matthias (Zerbe, The First Deadly Sin), who has practically made it his mission to eradicate all vestige of the "old ways" so that they can start their own civilization. Meanwhile, Neville soon discovers that there are actually a few more humans left in a normal state, though their infection may turn them for the worse at any moment if he can't inject them with some sort of antidote.
Although it is essentially a science fiction thriller, The Omega Man also plays like a camp comedy much of the time, with some tragic elements interspersed. Director Sagal (Night Gallery, Girl Happy), working with the script by the Corringtons (Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Boxcar Bertha), brings Matheson's story to the 1970s, complete with hip jazz-funk soundtrack, blaxploitation elements, and hippie jargon and tie-ins. This mish-mash of elements has given the film quite a following for those who love early 1970s cheese, especially for those who enjoy seeing the ultra-conservative Charlton Heston toting his beloved guns around, while also doing such "liberal" things with his time such as attend his own screening of the film "Woodstock" and engage in an interracial relationship.
The film alternately warns of the dangers of advanced technology, particularly when it comes to weapons, while also tapping in to the fear of secret cults like those of the Manson "family" (the murderous clan call each other "brothers" and "sisters") or any of the various terrorist groups who have political agendas that cropped up during the era (Neville's would-be girlfriend, Lisa (Cash, Buckaroo Banzai), undergoes a bit of a Patti Hearst conversion at some point in the film).
Cult appeal notwithstanding, The Omega Man is only interesting because it's so odd, and without the cheese factor, only some of which is intentional, it would hardly be worth watching at all. The infected humans are more comical than menacing, and Neville's attitude surprisingly nonchalant given the fact that nearly the entirety of the world's population has been eradicated. Ron Grainer's (of "Doctor Who" fame) score is hip and lively -- and works at odds with the tone of the film much of the time. It's schlock, but fun schlock, which generally makes for a good kind of bad movie.
After Heston had been crowned as humanity's final hope in films like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and this one, it's no wonder he'd become so obsessed with keeping all of his guns.
-- Previously made as 1964's The Last Man on Earth. Remade in 2007 as I Am Legend.
©2007 Vince Leo