Originally posted on Lunch.com on October 31, 2010.
Having written some of the most important and influential science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels of the past century, Richard Matheson has become a revered figure in the world of genre entertainment. Matheson first experienced success in the 1950s when his early fantasy and science fiction short stories were published in magazines. His first novels were Someone Is Bleeding (1953), I Am Legend (1954) and The Shrinking Man (1956). Matheson became a household name for genre geeks in the late ’50s and ’60s when he scripted a number of classic screenplays and teleplays. In 1957, The Shrinking Man was adapted into The Incredible Shrinking Man, which is now regarded as a sci-fi film classic. He also adapted one of his own short stories, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, into a teleplay for what may be the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone. In 1964, his science fiction vampire novel I Am Legend was adapted into a horror film starring Vincent Price. The release of this film would not only have a great impact on the way vampires, as well as zombies, would be depicted in the future, but also became the basis for a whole slew of similar films.
In 1954, author Richard Matheson saw his science fiction/horror story I Am Legend published. The novel would be revolutionary in the way that it took existing vampire mythology and updated it with a scientific explanation.
Matheson created a suspenseful and psychologically driven story in which a scientist, Robert Neville, must cope with the horrific aftermath of a pandemic that has caused the human population to turn into vampiric beings. Neville must also deal with his own haunted memories of watching his family, friends, and coworkers die of the disease. One of the unique elements of the story is the way that Matheson takes elements of vampirism and robs them of their supernatural quality, which he then replaces with pseudo-scientific origins. It turns out that the vampiric disease is spread by a bacteria. Matheson also explains why vampires are repelled by garlic, mirrors, and their weakness to sunlight. He also allows for the vampires to evolve and create a social structure to replace humanity.
Though I Am Legend was received with mixed criticism upon its publication, it has since become regarded as a modern classic and an essential work of vampire fiction.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
The first adaptation of Matheson’s novel was originally going to be produced by the legendary Hammer Films. Having been harshly criticized and threatened with government censorship after their 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein and their 1958 film Horror of Dracula, it was decided that the story would be an obvious lightning rod for controversy. Hammer Films ultimately passed on the script, which was written by Matheson himself. Eventually, the script made its way through a number of studios and got a greenlight, though, it was dramatically revised and rewritten by three other writers. Matheson felt that little of what he had envisioned remained in the script and asked to have his name removed from the credits, but upon discovering that this meant he would lose all residuals, he opted to be credited under the pseudonym Logan Swanson.
The film, which was shot predominantly in Italy with an Italian, English, and American cast, starred horror icon Vincent Price in the role of the scientist, now renamed Robert Morgan. While the story is relatively faithful to the original by Matheson, there are certain minor changes of character and incidence, as well as omitted material which would have helped to better expand upon the backstory and ideas behind the vampire disease.
Today the film is considered a cult classic and despite Matheson’s disappointment in it, it remains the most memorable adaptation of I Am Legend.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
As mentioned above, I Am Legend proved to influence the way that vampires were depicted in mainstream media, but it also helped to evolve the concept of zombies. When young aspiring filmmaker George A. Romero set out to create an independent film, he decided that the horror genre of which he was very fond would be the perfect entrance into low-budget filmmaking. Recalling how he was enthralled by I Am Legend and The Last Man on Earth‘s premise of a monstrous disease causing dead humans to become reanimated, Romero came up with a concept that was very similar. The main difference being that his undead were flesh-eating zombies. Romero also added a level of social commentary to his film. In 1968, the film was released and was slammed by critics across the U.S. for its graphic depiction of violence. It also caused controversy because the film was released before the MPAA-instituted ratings and as such children saw the film. When the film was released in art house theatres in Europe, it was immediately hailed as a shocker and a classic. European audiences picked up on subtle social commentary and applauded the film for having an African-American hero (something that was uncommon at that point). The film has been seen as a parable for consumerism in America, as an anti-war statement during the Vietnam Era, and as a metaphor for racism and prejudice.
Over forty years after its release, the film has morphed from “a vile piece of exploitation” into an “enduring cult classic of the genre”. There have been numerous sequels, remakes, and spin-offs and the film is often sited as being the first film of the modern zombie sub-genre.
The Omega Man (1971)
The next real adaptation of Matheson’s I Am Legend came in 1971. This reinterpretation had little to do with the original story and replaced the vampire pandemic with a plague of nocturnal mutants that were the result of experimental biological warfare. The film is set against the Cold War and tells the story of Robert Neville, a military scientist who survives the mutant plague by vaccinating himself with an untested vaccine, thus rendering him immune. Unlike the novel or the previous film adaptation, The Omega Man is a basic survival story with Neville (who is played by Charlton Heston) fighting against the albino mutants with seemingly unlimited ammo. The story changes pace though when Neville is captured and put on trial by the mutants, who intend to burn him on a stake. Neville is rescued, conveniently, by a young couple, Lisa and Dutch who are also unaffected survivors of the mutation. Neville ends up creating a serum from his own immune blood which he hands out shortly before his death. The final scene of the film is of the dead Neville lying in a messianic pose.
The film was met with mixed criticism, most of which was negative, but has since developed a small cult following.
Another adaptation, which was very, very loosely based on the premise, came out in 2007. The film was released a month before the big-budget film I Am Legend and was intended to capitalize on that film’s success. Released directly to DVD, it starred martial artist/actor Mark Dacascos as Renchard a survivor of a virus that has transformed the human race into cannibalistic creatures. Renchard fights a relentless daily battle against the cannibals until one day he is contacted by a fellow survivor via webcam. The survivor, Brianna, pleads with Renchard to help her escape the city and make her way to Antioch, a survivor’s camp. Two men show up from Antioch and explain that Renchard must help them find Brianna and escort her safely to Antioch. After saving Brianna, a bit of intrigue and betrayal occurs and the film ends anticlimactically with Renchard trying to cure Brianna, now infected, back at Antioch.
The film was pretty much panned universally by critics and criticized for being such a blatant effort to cash-in on I Am Legend and similar zombie movies.
I Am Legend (2007)
The next major film adaptation of Matheson’s novel was the big-budget 2007 film. Though it marks the first time that a film bore the title I Am Legend, the film had more in common with the two prior film adaptations than it had in common with the novel. It starred Will Smith as Robert Neville, again a scientist who believed himself to be the sole survivor of a global pandemic that turned the infected into violent cannibalistic mutants that have a severe form of photosensitivity. The film attempts to give greater access into Neville’s character and shows his life during the day as he takes out old movies from the rental store, converses with mannequins for company, listening to reggae music, and fortifying his holdup. He then spends his nights hunting the cannibal creatures and setting traps for them. During one nightly outing his dog is bitten by an infected dog and Neville is forced to kill it. Now, completely alone, Neville becomes reckless and sets out to get revenge. However, he is greatly outnumbered and only survives when he is, again conveniently, rescued by two human survivors, a woman named Anna and a young boy named Ethan. The three go back to Neville’s house where they form a familial bond and where Anna tells Neville of a small group of survivors. The next night the house is attacked and Neville is forced to sacrifice himself, but before doing so he discovers that his experimental cure is working and he gives it to Anna so that she can take it to the remaining survivors.
While the film boasted impressive special effects and some strong acting, it was met with mixed reviews and many criticized the director, Francis Lawrence, who is best known for his visually impressive music videos.