The Twisted History of I Am Legend

Illustration for article titled The Twisted History of I Am Legend

You probably have some vague notion that the new Will Smith viral apocalypse flick I Am Legend is based on another movie from 1971 called Omega Man. But actually both of those movies were based on a dark, angry book called I Am Legend, published in 1954 by Richard Matheson. And before Charlton Heston gunned down white-faced cultists with his blaxploitation honey on a motorcycle, there was another long-forgotten movie version of Mathesons' book whose grim quietness may have influenced I Am Legend more than Omega. There are some strange twists in I Am Legend's half-century of history after the jump.


It all started with the book by Richard Matheson I Am Legend (1954). Set in the mid-1970s, the book suggests that a mix of atomic weapons and vampirism have turned everyone in Robert Neville's neighborhood into angry marauders who attack his house every night. Mostly they just call him names, and (in one instance) try to have sex with him. Locked into bitter loneliness, Neville has become so insane that it's hard to tell the difference between him and the monsters. This disturbing novel never offers a ray of hope. Tone: Gothic paranoia.

Illustration for article titled The Twisted History of I Am Legend

Next came the ultra low-budget Italian flick The Last Man on Earth (1964). Vincent Price plays the hero, who lives in a state of depressed stupor in the suburbs, where the zombie-esque infected roam at night like juvenile delinquents or Beatniks. They are nearly classic vampires, fearing garlic and mirrors. We get a lot of rambling backstory about how all this bad stuff came to happen, and the lonely Price tries (unsuccessfully) to befriend a fluffy black poodle. Eventually Price gets it right and befriends a wild female survivor, which turns out not to be the greatest idea. Tone: Existential angst.

Illustration for article titled The Twisted History of I Am Legend

Then there's the infamous Omega Man (1971). Neville (Charlton Heston) battles white-skinned Luddites who shun the technologies that "destroyed the world" in some incomprehensible Cold War skirmish involving germ warfare. They call themselves "The Family" and wear mirrored sunglasses with Medieval robes. These aren't monsters so much as deranged hippies or cultists. Cracked out, clad in an endless supply of shiny track suits, Neville spends every day getting drunk and re-watching the Woodstock movie while mouthing the words. Later he hooks up with a Black Panther-esque mama and her brood of lost kids. Tone: Psychedelic nihilism.