The Omega Man (1971) - Mutant Apocalypse
In the late '6os and early '70’s Charlton Heston made a trio of science-fiction movies in which he traded his period costumes, chariots, and historical epics for thoughtful, stirring, futuristic drama. Beginning with 1968's Planet of the Apes, followed by The Omega Man (1971)., and finishing with Soylent Green (1973), a bizarre eco-cannibalism story.
What sets these movies apart from modern science-fiction, or what passes for scifi on film, is that they are about ideas, not special effects and bombast. The Omega Man, combines science-fiction, dark comedy, horror, and even a little blaxploitation. The source material, Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend (1954) is a page-turner about a man left alone in a world of vampires. Matheson was inspired to write the story after taking in a matinee of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. "It occurred to me that if one vampire was frightening," he said, "then a whole world of vampires really would be frightening."
A previous version of I Am Legend - The Last Man on Earth (1964) starred a miscast Vincent Price as the eponymous hero, and disappointingly, changes the novella's ending, weakening the climax of the film. There are some genuinely creepy moments in the film, and the depiction of the zombie-like creatures seems to have been a template for George Romero's Night of the Living Dead movies, but this film pales in comparison to the 1971 retelling,
In The Omega Man Charlton Heston plays Dr. Robert Neville, one of the few to survive an apocalyptic war fought with biological weapons. As a military scientist he was working on an antidote when the End came. By injecting himself with the only existing sample of the vaccine he was able to survive the bio-holocaust. The chemical combat may be over, but he is still at war. He has a new fight, a battle against a few hundred deformed, nocturnal people called The Family. They too survived the plague brought on by the chemical warfare, but just barely.
Led by former newscaster Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), The Family hates Neville because he represents an old way of life, a life ruled by science and technology, the very things that brought about the apocalyptic war that turned them into albino zombies. Neville uses all his "old world" devices — electricity, machinery, and science — to ward off their attacks. Along the way he discovers that he is not the only person to outlive the chemical attacks.
The Omega Man has the feel of a really elaborate Twilight Zone Episode. Like the television show, The Omega Man is thoughtfully crafted (even if it is a little ham-fisted at times) and, like the best Twilight Zone episodes, it bursts with social comment, in this case on racism and the dangers of irresponsible scientific research. There is even an interracial romance between Heston and Lisa (Rosalind Cash), a rare sight today on television and in movies, but even scarcer in 1971.
There is a lot to like about The Omega Man. director Boris Sagal's flashback scenes of the germ warfare are very effective and truly scary. He also takes good advantage of the deserted Los Angeles streets. The crew would shoot on location very early in the morning before people were on their way to work. The streets and buildings look lived in, but strangely barren, like something catastrophic has just happened.
The tension of the film is reinforced by veteran television composer Ron Grainer's music, a hauntingly atmospheric soundtrack that underscores the anxiety of the characters without detracting from the visuals. The Omega Man might seem dated and kind of cheesy — I prefer to think of it as a time capsule of early American Cold War paranoia — but it is also an effective cautionary tale about the stupidity of war and the danger's of using technology irresponsibly.
In 2007 Will Smith starred as Robert Neville in I Am Legend. Scenes of a deserted New York are eerily effective but the film is let down by the appearance of rubbery computer generated mutants, complete with extendable jaws and a tendency to scream as loudly as possible.
The Critics Wrote -
"A conventional exercise in melodrama, heropics and supense." Even these are undercut by incongruous, slick rock music in the Francis Lai tradition and by campy, cynical dialogue." (Michael Kerbel, Village Voice)
"Not a bad film, but strangely dated now and seemingly cliched, although it wasn't at the time it was made." (Quinlan)
"Extremely literate... well-written." (Variety)
"Truly memorable and scary." (Rose)
"Omega Man 's implausibilities are still somehow more pleasing than the glum and mundane semi-truths of The Andromeda Strain ." (Washington Post)