popflick logo

Vincent Price Shines in Primal Zombie Classic "The Last Man on Earth"


There is something slightly comedic in the opening of “Last Man on Earth,” as Vincent Price goes about his early routine in a dilapidated house. You can tell it was once a well-appointed home, and the man was an upscale citizen. The wood planks crossing the windows hint at menace that must be kept out of the premises. No explanation is given, but Price is the kind of actor that is compelling by the sheer power of his presence. The man makes coffee, and you must see how he goes about it. Once he opens the front door, we get more information: a huge garlic wreath and a mirror nailed to the entrance looking out tells you everything you need to know about the looming menace, except not really. This is not one of those old vampire movies, although it invokes some of their conventions.

This black and white movie, an Italian production from the sixties, feels at the same time foreign and oddly familiar. If you are a senior cinephile, it might remind you of "Omega Man" (1971), the '70 Charlton Heston sci-fi vehicle. If you are a late-XX Century child, it brings to mind the Will Smith blockbuster "I Am Legend" (Francis Lawrence, 2007). The reason is that all these movies are based on the same novel by Richard Matheson. The American writer is a towering figure in mid-XX Century pop culture. Besides his fiction works, he wrote scripts for several TV series, including "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and some of the best episodes of the cultural juggernaut "The Twilight Zone." His novels are consistently adapted to the big screen, from reclaimed classics like "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957) to a reboot of "I Am Legend" in the works. He also penned the Edgar Alan Poe adaptations that gave Roger Corman an unexpected string of critically acclaimed commercial hits that, in time, became cult hits - find out more about that hallowed chapter of genre movie history watching the documentary "Roger Corman: The Pope of Pope Cinema."

A Plot to Die For

Vincent Price plays the putative "Last Man on Earth." His name is Robert Morgan, a scientist desperately holding on to his humanity after Society has been decimated by a mysterious disease that renders people not as vampires but as bumbling zombies. They hold on to some degree of consciousness. We deduce that much because of one of the fiends that siege Morgan’s house every night and refers to him by his name. This speaks to the deeper horror behind the dynamics of the transfiguration of human beings into monsters: the people who love you the most can be agents of your destruction.

An extended flashback reveals everything we need to know. Morgan was a scientist dedicated to finding a cure for a mysterious illness ravaging the world. We catch up with him on the tipping point, the final days of society as a functional system. Alarming news blasts out of the TV and the radio. Communication between borders fails. Still, Morgan and his wife, Virginia (Emma Danieli), celebrate the birthday of their adorable seven-year-old daughter, Kathy (Christi Courtland) - can you blame them for trying to create a sense of normalcy for the little one? The overfamiliar future zombie is Ben (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), Morgan's best friend and colleague at the laboratory. He is so close to the family that the little girl calls him uncle, and he comes to the party with his arms filled with presents. The contrast between normalcy and impending doom, fed by our knowledge of what's to come, elevates the shlock to poignancy.

Pioneer of the Undead

The encroaching catastrophe filtered through the experience of the Morgan household is devastating, and it brings a bizarre consort with the manifest effects of the plague. The fiends might suffer some of the weaknesses of classic vampires, but they don’t really show overdeveloped fangs nor sink them in the necks of their victims. They ramble along like zombies, but they don’t hunger for human flesh - George Romero recognized he found inspiration in this movie for the classic “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), which went on to establish his career and the modern zombie genre overall. This lack of definition is not a bug but a feature. It leaves you space to fill out the nightmarish parameters.

“The Last Man on Earth” is an Italian production. That accounts for the relative otherworldliness of the environs. We are not in America. The distinctive architecture feels urbane yet alien - the movie shares some exteriors with moody classics like “The Eclipse” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962), a treaty on existential alienation in modern society. Think of this genre piece as an extension towards total collapse and outright horror. As usual with Italian films of the era, all the dialogue was added in post-production, giving the movie another layer of strangeness. Price does his lines, which is certainly a blessing. His distinctive, velvety voice is one of the greatest pleasures of genre movies.

The Stars Always Shine Afar

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (2019), ebbing star Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) flies away to Rome to star in a string of movies that keep food on the table - and introduce him to a new Italian wife -. This is not a comic invention by Tarantino. In the ’60s and ’70s, many American stars took jobs in Europe as Hollywood studio productions dried up. Think of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns and Joan Bennet in “Suspiria” (Dario Argento, 1977). Some people might see this as slumming. Those in the know are smart to the pleasures of familiar stars working in foreign industries, adding different shades to their personas. In “The Last Man on Earth,” Price moves closer to the tragic leading man than the duplicitous human monster he played to the hilt in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptation.

It's also extremely interesting to see how settings and plot elements are reconstituted according to time and place. The Italian "Last Man on Earth" conveys anguish at encroaching modernity, which, ultimately, can't save you from nature. "The Omega Man" hints at racial unrest in Los Angeles as the ultimate American city decimated by the '70 economic crisis. "I Am Legend" is a pure Late XX-Century Hollywood blockbuster in a New York gone to seed but still imposing. Smith is a sturdy, muscular man of action who, even in an apocalypse, looks like a titan who just got off an advertising shoot. Nature is creeping into the city, hinting at the environmental concerns of our times. It's all about manly wish fulfillment. Price adopts a mangy, vagabond poodle. Smith has a photogenic German Shepherd that might as well have walked out of winning the Westminster dog show. "The Last Man on Earth" is besieged by slow-moving fiends, while "I Am Legend" unleashes zombies that run like Olympic athletes. At this rate, the next batch of zombies will move at the speed of lightning.

Famous Last Words

Every zombie movie, even those not directly developed from Matheson's book, is indebted to "The Last Man on Earth." There would be no "Night of the Living Dead" in its many iterations, no expanding universe of "The Walking Dead" - comic or TV series -, no "World War Z" (2013) - book or movie - and no "Army of the Dead" (Zack Snyder, 2021), although that might not be a bad thing. While director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland make their third entry in the genre with "28 Years Later," you will be well-served by getting up to date with this classic directed by journeymen Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Sallow. Horror movie buff, get up to date on this forgotten classic.

Movie poster

Watch “Metzger

Two brothers attempt to rob a goon who isn't as helpless as he seems.

Stream Now

Want to get an email when we publish new content?

Subscribe today