‘The Omega Man’ on TCM

In the 1970s, science fiction cinema took a turn to dystopian nightmares. Not that such things were unknown in earlier films — in the wake of the atomic bomb there were a number of nuclear Armageddon movies — but the increasing number of films (and causes for the end of the world) reflected a shift from optimism to pessimism. The world was coming to an end thanks to pollution (Silent Running, 1972), overpopulation (Soylent Green, 1973), ecological collapse (No Blade of Grass, 1970), and of course good old nuclear war (A Boy and His Dog, 1975), not to mention whatever disaster causes Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The Omega Man (1971), the second film based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, is the story of the last human in a world decimated by plague. Charlton Heston read Matheson’s novel during a jet-set commute from Britain to America and thought there was a movie in it. He didn’t realize at the time it had previously been made as The Last Man on Earth (1964), an American-Italian coproduction starring Vincent Price as the title character, but decided to go ahead after screening the earlier version (“fortunately for us, though it starred my friend Vincent Price, it was a pretty torpid piece,” he recalled in his autobiography) and Warner Bros. signed on to produce. Heston was the man of action for dystopian science fiction of the day. He had previously taken on the simian rulers of Planet of the Apes (1968) and went on to star in Soylent Green, an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s grim overpopulation novel Make Room! Make Room!. The Omega Man, by contrast, would leave Heston alone on screen for much of the film. He is, after all, the last man on Earth, or so he believes.

In Matheson’s original story, a plague wipes out humanity but leaves a few survivors infected with vampire-like symptoms, an element that was preserved in The Last Man on Earth. In The Omega Man, the plague is germ warfare, a theme very much current in the early 1970s, and the victims aren’t nuclear-age vampires but albino night dwellers, a mutant breed by way of a religious cult that sees humanity as the real plague.

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