Richard Matheson's iconic 1954 novel I Am Legend film was originally meant to be filmed by Hammer* in 1958 but instead was given its first cinematic outing in 1964 as The Last Man On Earth, an American-Italian production starring Vincent Price. Matheson reportedly hated the film but it remains to this day the best adaptation of the book.
The plot of The Last Man on Earth sticks closely to I Am Legend, but for those unfamiliar with the book, the film goes like this - a plague which originated from Europe (Transylvania perhaps?) has spread worldwide carried by the winds and bringing fever, blindness and death to those infected. Inexplicably unburned bodies of the dead are seemingly returning to life and displaying vampire-like characteristics. Robert Morgan, (changed from Neville in the book) once a doctor working on a cure for the plague, remains the only human left alive, and is locked in a perpetual battle with the living dead. However, a chance discovery of another human being may prove to be the deadliest danger of all...
A bleak and downbeat film, The Last Man On Earth sticks closely to the structure of Matheson's novel - the first section of the film sees Gordon going about his business of eradicating the vampires, the second act of the film flashes back to Gordon's previous life, while the third act concludes the film with Gordon's discovery of the woman and the so-called New Society. The film was directed by Sidney Salkow who directed many routine programmers before defecting to TV. Here, his work in not terribly distinguished but the film does look good, with fine black & white 'scope photography by Franco Delli Colli (who shot Django Kill and Strip Nude for Your Killer among others).
The first act of the film is heavy with Vincent Price narration, rather than letting the story flow visually but a wordless opening 25mins would have been perhaps too radical for audiences in the mid-sixties. It's often a deeply melancholic film, with a very fine Vincent Price affecting an aching weariness, unlike the the sardonic smirk of Charlton Heston in The Omega Man) and Gordon's life seems precariously on the brink of collapse, his home alarmingly ramshackle, and his defences make-shift, unlike the got-it-together Will Smith in Warners' 2007 adaptation.
Richard Matheson had his onscreen credit changed to "Logan Swanson", unhappy with the finished film
The film does have its flaws - the film lensed around the suburbs of Rome, although sufficiently depopulated of people doesn't make for a good stand-in for Los Angeles, (The Omega Man was superb in this respect). Also, the post-synced dialogue is often quite poor (although the canned voices of the vampires calling to Gordon do sound somewhat eerie at times).
The importance of Matheson's novel on the Fantasy genre cannot be overstated, and would be a key influence on modern Horror Cinema by way of Night of the Living Dead. The Last Man on Earth must have been in Romero's thoughts when shooting his landmark living dead film - the shots of the vampires laying siege to Gordon's home echo the sequences in Night of the Living Dead when the zombies gather at the farmhouse. Even more so, the final sequences of The Last Man on Earth strongly resonates in Romero's later work - the bitter ending where Gordon formulates a cure for the plague only for it to go ignored would turn up again in the climax of The Crazies, while the shots of armed mutants pursuing Gordon down a smoke-filled staircase are close to the swat-team sequence in the opening of Dawn of the Dead.
MGM's DVD of The Last Man On Earth is a very good effort. The 2.35 transfer looks especially good and sounds good, and there's a short but worthy interview with Richard Matheson. The disc also features on the flipside Ray Milland's interesting 1962 apocalypse film Panic In Year Zero. The film is a public domain title also so beware of inferior releases. The MGM disc is the one to get.
Additional Notes: Admittedly there's isn't much information out there on Hammer's proposed film of Richard Matheson's classic novel. After Hammer's success with the Curse of Frankenstein, the studio invited Matheson to submit a screenplay for I Am Legend. Tentatively entitled Night Creatures by the studio, the film was to be directed by Terence Fisher but when Hammer took the script to John Trevelyn, the head British Censor, Trevelyn insisted that a film made from Matheson's screenplay would be banned outright. And so Hammer were forced to abandon the project. It's intriguing to speculate on how Hammer would have handled I Am Legend. Apparently the studio had requested Matheson to soften some of the more dark and disturbing episodes from the novel, but it's perhaps wishful thinking that Hammer would get away with a contemporary vampire story removed from the period setting of Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula.