Richard Matheson is, arguably, one of the most important creative minds in the history of horror. But despite an impressive list of credits, he is virtually unknown outside macabre and science fiction circles. This is quite unfortunate, as Matheson was the writer behind such beloved fright films as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Night Stalker (1972), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Stir of Echoes (1999), and What Dreams May Come (1998). He also penned Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut Duel (1971), as well as some of the most engaging episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Nevertheless, Matheson’s magnum opus has to be I am Legend, perhaps the most gripping, terrifying, and influential horror novel ever written. And in case you doubt it, consider what the two masters of modern fright literature have to say about it. According to Stephen King, “books like I am Legend were an inspiration to me”, while Dean Koontz stated “I am Legend is the most clever and riveting vampire novel since Dracula”.
Still, I am Legend is a work practically unheard of, except by hardcore genre connoisseurs. One reason for the lack of popularity may be that the official film adaptations failed to engage the general public. In an attempt to pay tribute to Matheson’s timeless vampire classic, this installment of Dread Reckoning will take a look at I am Legend and its several official, and unofficial, adaptations.
Originally published in 1954, and set in the then futuristic timeframe of 1976-1979, I am Legend offers an apocalyptic scenario where vampires have taken over the world. Robert Neville, the last man on Earth, has fortified his home, and relentlessly battles the undead menace. During the day, Neville hunts down the creatures, killing them while they sleep. At night, he barricades himself inside his home, and tries to survive the monster’s vicious attacks. Neville’s life is methodical and monotonous, and as time goes by, he becomes haunted by his agonizing solitude, repressed sexuality, excruciating melancholy, and other internal demons.
The crowning achievement of the book may well be the way Matheson deconstructs the vampire mythology, stripping the traditional gothic setting and supernatural origins from the bloodsucking fiends. Instead, I am Legend takes place in suburban America, and the existence of the monsters has a logical, scientific explanation.
Acquiring sophisticated equipment and medical textbooks, Neville experiments on the creatures. Perfectly combining science, psychology, and superstition, Neville eventually finds that a rare type of pernicious bacteria is the cause of this vampirism. Thus, a stake in the heart kills the monster because air destroys the symbiotic relationship between the bacteria and the red cells in the blood, while the cross is feared by virtue of the personal religious beliefs of the human host. Exploiting the anxieties and fears produced by the Cold War, Matheson envisioned the spread of the undead plague as a result of a nuclear war.
But perhaps more importantly, I am Legend examines the idea of normality as a majority notion, making explicit how monsters are always relative to social and cultural standards. In I am Legend, good and evil, normality and abnormality, humanity and monstrosity, are not absolute concepts. As much as the vampires are monstrous to Neville, he is also a terrifying slayer that kills them in equally harsh terms. Thus, for the emerging society of vampires, Neville is the abnormal one, and the object of their fear and disgust. Towards the end of the book, Neville realizes this, stating that he has become “a new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever”.
From The Incredible Shrinking Man
With the success of Jack Arnold’s memorable science fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man, written by Matheson and based on his own seminal story, it was not long before filmmakers became interested in I am Legend. Simultaneously, the British Hammer Studios were becoming a sensation across the world by virtue of their gory revision of the classic gothic monsters in Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). A collaboration seemed inevitable, and Hammer commissioned Matheson to write a screen adaptation of I am Legend, tentatively entitled Night Creatures.
Unfortunately, because of the gory excesses of Hammer’s previous horror films, the British censors promised to ban Night Creatures. As a consequence, the project was sold to American film producer Robert L. Lippert, who promptly commissioned William P. Leicester to rewrite the script. Even though Matheson was promised that the legendary Fritz Lang would direct, Night Creatures was eventually shot in Italy in 1963 under the name L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth), under the auspices of directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona. Quite understandably, Matheson was very disappointed by the outcome, and replaced his screen credit with the fictional name ‘Logan Swanson’.
Even so, The Last Man on Earth follows closely the main events in Matheson’s book, and the atmospheric monochromatic cinematography by Franco Delli Colli is bleak and frightening. But despite these two virtues, this film failed to convey Matheson’s apocalyptic vision. Arguably, the main problems with The Last Man on Earth are the impoverished production values, and a severely miscast Vincent Price (in the film his name has been changed from Neville to Morgan for no apparent reason). Reminiscent of his portrayals of deeply disturbed and tormented individuals in the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations helmed by the indefatigable Roger Corman, Price’s characterization of Morgan/Neville feels so extreme that it becomes laughable.
Charleton Heston in a scene from The Omega Man
It is ironic that these two problems low budget and poor characterization were corrected for The Omega Man (1971), the second, and so far last, official adaptation of I am Legend. But this time, the script deviated so much from the original source material, that even Matheson confessed: “The Omega Man bore no resemblance at all to my book, so I can’t comment on it”.
Directed by Boris Sagal, written by the team of John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington, and starring Charlton Heston as Neville, The Omega Man has a powerful beginning that quickly delves into the realm of cinematic absurdity. Indeed, the first few minutes of this film showcase a couple of well staged action set pieces as Neville drives his mustang convertible at high speeds and fires his machine gun into a desolate downtown Los Angeles. Also, his isolation and desperation are nicely portrayed via obsessive compulsion watching of Woodstock, his temporal lapses into madness (as when he hears hundreds of phones ringing), and his conversation with a bust of Julius Caesar.
However, the vampires of I am Legend are nowhere to be seen in The Omega Man. Instead, Neville has to confront a brotherhood of mutant albinos led by ex-newscaster John Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Rather than feeding on blood, Matthias and his minions merely want to destroy any vestiges of human culture and civilization. During the nights, these light-sensitive, black-robed creatures set afire libraries and museums. Arguably, such a change was made to contrast the racial subtexts of Matheson’s book with the many unresolved civil rights issues present at the time of production. To this end, the script also adds an interracial romance between Neville and another survivor of the plague.
A second major departure from the original novel is the heavy religious subtext present. Here, Neville attempts to help a group of asymptomatic survivors by creating a vaccine using his blood, which is immune to the plague. At the end of the film, Mathias impales Neville to a fountain, who then dies in a Christ-like position. But right before his death, he gives the last vestiges of humanity a flask with his blood, so they can leave the city and start a new world. This is a rather profound change: while Matheson’s book culminates with the realization that Neville represents the Jungian archetype of a destroyer, in The Omega Man, Neville dies as a martyr and a savior.
From Night of the Living Dead
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But even though The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man have legions of devoted fans, these movies unashamedly failed to fully portray the psychological complexities, the epic scope, and terrifying situations that characterize Matheson’s book. In this regard, it is perhaps ironic that, to date, the best adaptation of I am Legend is an unofficial one. Made by a humble and inexperienced independent director, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) harnessed the essential elements of Matheson’s novel, and dramatically changed horror and cinema history in the process.
Indeed, Romero has gone on record as acknowledging how, inspired by I am Legend, he envisioned a series of films depicting a chaotic world where the bodies of the recently dead are reanimated and viciously attack the living. Also known as Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead, Romero’s zombie films form a single politically subversive narrative that presents the continuous and irremediable collapse of authority institutions that cannot deal with a devastating crisis. According to Romero, he was captivated with I am Legend because it “dealt on an allegorical level with the idea of a new society stepping in and devouring the old one”.
The many similarities between Matheson’s book and Romero’s zombie saga are not difficult to see. In both narratives, amidst the worst kind of circumstances, the last humans on Earth appear to be unable or unwilling to give up the values and symbols that once characterized their lives. Also, recalling Neville and his fortified suburban home, Night of the Living Dead and its three official sequels often present a handful of survivors gathered inside a claustrophobic locale, from which they try to protect themselves from attack. The rampant consumerist behavior in Dawn of the Dead (1978) is similar to Neville’s shopping sprees in the novel. Neville’s efforts to understand the biological bases of vampirism foreshadow the struggle of Day of the Dead‘s (1985) scientists to explain and control the zombie plague. Finally, the primitive zombie society presented in Land of the Dead (2005) is reminiscent of the new social order created at the end of I am Legend.
But perhaps more significant is the way Romero successfully exploits I am Legend‘s thesis of monstrosity and abnormality as concepts relative to social and cultural standards, creating an incisive criticism of modern day America. Consider how even though the putrefying zombies in Romero’s flicks are infamous for their gruesome attacks, the selfish and stubborn survivors are the ones that end up exerting the most vicious acts of violence. However, the vile hostile behavior of the survivors not only is directed against the undead, but also among themselves. Indeed, the characters in these films are usually at each other’s throats, while the zombies appear to be united, forming a single, relentless, devastating force. It almost seems as if solidarity and tolerance are only achieved in the afterworld.
Because of their complex psychological, social, and cultural subtexts, some of them directly lifted from Matheson’s I am Legend, Romero’s seminal films have attracted a strong cult following, spawned dozens of imitations and may well be the most inspired, dazzling, and influential horror narratives of the modern movie era. As a consequence, during the two decades that followed Night of the Living Dead, the apocalyptic zombie genre became extremely popular. However, it is quite ironic that during these years the work that more or less started it all, I am Legend, became completely forgotten.
It was not until 1991 that Matheson’s classic was resurrected, in the form of a gripping graphic novel adapted by Steve Niles and illustrated by Elman Brown. In spite of the typical limitations of the comic book medium, this faithful adaptation succeeds because it closely follows the dramatic structure of the original novel, and actually includes most of Matheson’s original text. In addition, the hopelessness and claustrophobia that characterize I am Legend are nicely conveyed to the reader thanks to the bleak images, offered in stirring black and white, that accompany the text.
At the same time, notwithstanding its many qualities, even this effort fails to take full advantage of the creative freedom permitted by this medium. For instance, most of the illustrations present a plain backdrop devoid of any details, and overall, the adaptation fails to showcase the apocalyptic landscapes of death and destruction as described in Matheson’s book. Truth be told, while it is undeniable that I am Legend boils down to a character study, one also expects to find striking images in its translations to any type of visual medium.
Interestingly, I am Legend appears to have been influential in the subsequent work of Steve Niles. In 2002 he published the critically acclaimed 30 Days of Night, an arresting comic book mini series about a small town besieged by thirsty vampires. What makes this story so unique and unnerving is its setting: Barrow, Alaska. This town is so close to the Arctic Circle that the longest night of winter lasts 30 days. Needless to say, this allows the terrifying nocturnal predators to brutally savage the human inhabitants. After the initial onslaught, a few survivors manage to take refuge inside a house, which is relentlessly assailed by hordes of bloodsucking creatures. Clearly inspired by Matheson’s book, 30 Days of Night is currently being adapted into what promises to be a decent horror flick.
It is also worth mentioning what may very well be the greatest horror film never made. In 1998, Ridley Scott was scheduled to direct an official version of I am Legend, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and bringing together the talents of production designer Arthur Max (Se7en, GI Jane), conceptual illustrator Tani Kunitake (Armageddon, The Matrix), storyboard artist Sylvian Despretz (Alien Resurrection, The Fifth Element), and special make-up wizards Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr (Alien 3, Tremors).
The script, by Mark Protosevich and John Logan (often available in movie memorabilia markets), is a real tour de force that brings Matheson’s vision to new heights. Combining the stunning visuals that have characterized Ridley Scott’s oeuvre, along with the rough physicality of Arnold, this film could have been a true landmark in the genre. Unfortunately, the budget was estimated to be well above $100 million, and studio executives cancelled the production. Personally, if I had such an amount of money lying around, I would happily blow it on financing this film. But then again, perhaps my obsessive love for horror films is the reason why I will never become a millionaire.
In any event, after years of being mired in development hell, an official adaptation of I am Legend appears to have finally gotten the green light. This time, the project is under the directorial aegis of Francis Lawrence, based on Protosevich’s script, and rumored to star none other than Will Smith as Neville. But even though this movie promises to be a cinematic spectacle in the vein of Lawrence’s Constantine (2005), it is very difficult to guess if it will do justice to Matheson’s book.
In the meantime, we can only wait and ponder the unparalleled strengths, daring originality, and seemingly unbounded influence of I am Legend. It still packs a cinematic punch, as recent horror films such as Resident Evil (2002), 28 Days Later (2002), and the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) remain indebted to Matheson’s vision. Even if the definite film adaptation of I am Legend never arrives, we should never forget how important this groundbreaking book has been in the development of the horror genre.
Night of the Living Dead - original 1968 movie trailer