The Omega Legend

Of all the tropes, the ‘Last of a Kind’ concept is one of that rare theme, plot and character devices that has evolved into mythical existence with one perfect master stroke. Richard Matheson’s classic vampire novel towers over them all. ‘I Am Legend (1954)’ is an ingenious hybrid of two previous classics, such as Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man (1826)’ and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula (1897)’. Vampirism and plague, a combination that captures the definitive pretext for a last man alive narrative, grounding the myth of the supernatural with the reality of pathogens.

Matheson also deploys another trope in the finale of the story, one that is more devastating in its social commentary. The vampires, the pandemic, and the last man on Earth are just the setup for the novella’s central message, and it’s the one element shunned by all the film adaptations to date.


I Am Legend (1954)

By establishing the novel in a plausible world, Matheson’s book takes on a synergy as his writing style pushes the loneliness, terror and paranoia to emotional heights rarely achieved by other authors. Any reader, avid or otherwise, can open this book and be caught up in the protagonist’s desperate situation.

January of 1976.

Robert Neville spends his days hunting vampires. Los Angeles is a graveyard and its neighbourhoods are devoid of life, but when the sun set, he is forced to return and barricades himself inside his home. He’s turned it into a fortress, defended with garlic and mirrors, and boarded up windows. The night is when the horde of vampires lay siege to his house. At night, it is they who hunt Neville.

Five months ago the civilisation was swept aside by a plague, a germ that after killing and turning most of the population, raises them from the dead to walk the earth scavenging for blood. Neville has been hunting them down with wooden stakes ever since.

Understanding he’s dealing with some form of vampirism, Neville researches the phenomenon. He recalls how the virus has taken his wife and child, how it reanimated them from the grave, and how he had to kill them again. Even his friend and neighbour, Ben Cortman, has succumbed to it and now stalks him every night with a gang of vampires.

To cope with the nightly screeching, Neville drinks heavily and plays loud music and conceives of new ways to hunt and destroy the undead. His experiment creates more questions than answers, sending him further into despair.

During a rampage, Neville finds a stray dog. He spends the next few weeks trying to catch and domesticate the animal, desperate for a companion, but the dog dies.

Two years later, an unsocialised Neville encounters a woman whom Neville takes her back to his house. Paranoid as hell, he believes Ruth may be infected, but it turns out she is working for a group of vampires.
These vampires have formed a community, use a drug as a substitute for blood, and are annoyed that Neville hunts them down and violates their rights each night. Ruth escapes, not before warning him that the group is on its way to get him.

When they arrive months later, they kill off Cortman and his gang and assault Neville’s house, capturing him. They take him away for a public execution, where Ruth gives his a suicide pill. As the undead gather to witness the end of the tormentor, it dawns on Neville that it is the vampires who will inherit the Earth and that it is he who is the monster, that his legend will be told to scare generations to come.

The novel turns the gothic fiction genre on its head. For the first time, Matherson has opened the door to iterations of vampire stories that don’t involve Dracula or gothic mythology. He also developed a new more poignant and politically confronting ‘Am I The Bad Guy?’ trope.


The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The transition from the book to the cinema didn’t take long. Hammer Films bought the rights to the novella and had Matheson write the screenplay. After being rejected by the British censorship board, Hammer sold it to an American producer, Robert L. Lippert, who planned on making a ‘Last of His Kind’ movie. They brought in Matheson himself to write the screenplay and hired Ubaldo Ragona to direct and Vincent Price to star.

*Frit Lang was considered to direct. Had that been the case, the legend of Robert Neville would have manifested into a grander more richer legacy.

1968

A mysterious airborne, plague-bearing dust storm has killed every human being and turned them into zombie-like vampires. Dr. Robert Morgan is somehow immune and spends his days collecting and disposing of the weak undead in a fire pit. He hunts and kills the stronger vampires with stakes in their hearts.

By nightfall, the undead emerges from the shadows and congregates around Morgan’s garlic and mirror-fortified home, clawing and screeching at his windows and door. Morgan drowns them out with jazz music and whiskey, and by going to bed with his pillow pressed against his ears.

The next day, Morgan repeats his monotonous ordeal, whilst being watched by an unknown party.

A flashback explains how back in 1965 his wife and child succumbed to a disease, and instead of following the government mandate to burn the bodies at a public incinerator, Morgan chooses to bury them. When his wife comes back to ‘life’ and attacks him, Morgan discovers how to kill her and the rest of the zombies indefinitely with the use of a wooden stake.

Back to the present, Morgan finds a local dog and attempts to catch it. It finally comes to his door, injured, Morgan takes it in and nurses it back. It’s not long before the dog shows symptoms of the disease and Morgan is forced to kill it with a stake.

As he’s burying the dog, Morgan discovers a woman and chases after her, convincing Ruth to come with him to his house. She proves to be his worse fear, Ruth too is infected. She elaborates that she and a group of others uses a vaccine that slows down the disease, keeping them from turning completely into zombie-vampires. Ruth also reveals how the group are planning on rebuilding society and pleads with him to flee, as he has killed a whole bunch of them and that’s upsetting them.

Morgan refuses and seeks to cure her with his own blood as a vaccine. It works, but the group enter the neighbourhood and starts killing the other zombie vampires. Morgan escapes with Ruth, and after a rolling gunbattle through the streets, he gets pinned down in a church, where he is eventually killed, his last words are, “You’re all freaks.”

Apart from the name and occupation change, and a few small changes, the film follows closely Matheson’s book. The major difference is the ending. Even though the protagonist still meets his end, the movie avoids the one fundamental aspect that made the original story unique, that the protagonist is the villain. It hints at it, but it doesn’t deliver it as a punchline as the novel does.


The Omega Man (1971)

It is as if film producers believe a modern audience doesn’t want to be questioned or challenged whether they would ever consider themselves the bad guys. This time around, producer Walter Seltzer brings in writers John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington for the screenplay, Boris Sagal to direct and Charlton Heston to play Robert Neville.

August 1977

Robert Neville roams the empty streets of Los Angeles in Cadilac hunting members of The Family, a cult of nocturnal mutants, shooting at them with a machine gun as they hide in the shadows. When the sun sets, the tables are turned as the Family lays siege to his fortified home. Having lost track of time, Neville rushes back home and is ambushed by the mutants. He fights them off and secures the property. Outside, Jonathan Matthias leads his cult, taunting Neville to come out and face them. Neville ignores them and goes about attempting to enjoy a normal routine, with music, whiskey and playing chess.

A flashback to August 1975 has Matthias, a TV news anchor, explaining how biological weapons used in a Sino-Soviet war have decimated humanity. Neville is a U.S. Army scientist researching a vaccine, and having taken it has rendered him immune.

The next day Neville continues on his quest to find the Family’s hideout. In a department store helping himself to new clothing, he spots a woman, who quickly runs away. He gives chase but loses her, thinking he’s hallucinating.

Later, Neville falls into a trap set up by the family in a cellar. They capture him and haul him to the courthouse where they sentence him to death for crimes against ‘humanity’ and the new order. They haul him to the Stadium and begin burning him alive. He is rescued by the woman he had earlier dismissed as a hallucination, and Lisa and Dutch are part of a group of survivors, all of whom are children. Although their youth has given them some resistance to the disease, they are still vulnerable to it, and will eventually succumb to mutation. Neville realizes that even if duplicating the original vaccine is possible, salvaging humanity would take years. He believes extending his immunity to others may be possible by creating a serum from his own blood.

Neville and Lisa return to Neville’s apartment, where they begin treating Lisa’s brother Richie, who is succumbing to the disease. Neville and Lisa are about to have a romantic evening together, just as the generator runs out of fuel and the lights go off. The Family then attacks, sending Matthias’ second-in-command, Brother Zachary, to climb outside Neville’s building to the open balcony of his apartment. Neville leaves Lisa upstairs as he goes to the basement garage to restart the generator. Neville returns to the apartment to find Zachary right behind an unsuspecting Lisa. Neville shoots him and he falls off the balcony to his death, dropping his spear on the balcony as he goes.

If the serum works, Neville and Lisa plan to leave the ravaged city with the rest of the survivors, and start new lives in the wilderness, leaving the Family behind to die. Neville is successful in creating the serum and administers it to Richie. Once cured, Richie reveals the Family’s headquarters to Neville (the Civic Center), but insists that the Family is also human and that Neville’s cure should be administered to them, as well. Neville disagrees with him, so Richie goes to the Family by himself to try to convince them to take the serum. Matthias refuses to believe that Neville would try to help them, accuses Richie of being sent to spy on them, and has him executed. After finding a note that Richie left, Neville rushes to rescue him but instead finds his dead body tied to a judge’s chair in a courtroom.

Meanwhile, Lisa quickly and unexpectedly succumbs to the disease and becomes one of the Family. Returning home, Neville tells Lisa about Richie’s death, but she already knows and has betrayed Neville by giving Matthias and his follower’s access to Neville’s home. Matthias, who finally has the upper hand, forces Neville to watch as the Family sets his home and equipment on fire. Neville breaks free, and once outside with Lisa, he turns and raises his gun to shoot Matthias, who is looking down from the balcony. The gun jams, giving Matthias enough time to hurl Zachary’s spear at Neville, mortally wounding him. The next morning, Dutch and the survivors discover Neville dying in a fountain. He hands Dutch a flask of the blood serum and then dies. Dutch takes Lisa (weakened and compliant because of the sunlight) away, and the survivors leave the city forever.

The Omega Man screenplay does move away from Matherson’s novel, there is no dog story, no vampire lore/science, and it shifts totally away from any notion that Neville could be in fact the villain. Instead, it is pushing a ‘saviour’ or ‘Christ’ trope towards the end. The film creates its own mythology, especially with Matthias’ anti-technology Family, and has carved out its own ‘Last of a Kind’ narrative.

There is a lot going for this Heston version, the action set pieces and the soundtrack stamps its own legend in modern culture, but it totally avoids the whole point of Matheson’s novel.

The Omega Man: The Original Score by Ron Grainer

A huge part of The Omega Man’s enduring appeal has to be the movie’s soundtrack. Australian composer Ron Grainer puts in an eclectic mix of baroque, pop, jazz, avant-garde and orchestral scoring with percussion effects and vintage electric organs.


I Am Legend (1997)

Almost thirty years later, screenwriter Mark Protosevich is assigned to write a screenplay. Protosevich’s script achieved its own cult status and everyone who was anyone wanted in. The draft may as well have been called The Omega Man since it remained arm’s length away from the original book’s vampire antagonists and instead invented new kinds of monsters called Hemocytes.

Protosevich’s first draft took place in 2000 in San Francisco, and contained many similarities with the finished Will Smith film, though the Darkseekers (called ‘Hemocytes’) were civilized to the point of the creatures in The Omega Man and the woman Neville encounters were a lone morphine addict, and a Hemocyte character named Christopher joined forces with Neville.

October 2002.

Robert Neville narrates a video log, explaining who he is and that it is his birthday. He turns it off and goes about his day, exercising, checking the garden, and watching prerecorded TV shows. He makes sure his Land Rover is outfitted with emergency medical supplies, flares, heavy-duty flashlights etc, and heads out with his dog into an empty San Fransisco. He drops by a radio station and pet store and inspects the snare traps he has laid out across the city.

As he approaches another snare, a body dangles from one of Neville’s traps. It turns out to be a mannequin. Someone shoots at him from a floor above a department store. Neville charges inside and confronts the sniper, interrogating the Hemocyte, before killing him. He then heads down into the basement and kills the rest of the gang hiding in the dark.

He returns home, revealing the extent of the fortifications he’s built around it. He celebrates his birthday, alone, until a horde of awesome, frightening creatures, led by Ben Cortman begins laying siege to his compound. A battle ensues as the Hemocytes attempt to break into the stronghold, but Neville fights them off with machine guns fire and explosions. His dog gets injured but Neville nurses it back to health.

The next morning life is back to normal, Neville carts away dead Hemocytes to a military incinerator. He visits the cemetery where his wife is buried. A flashback reveals how Neville and his wife were involved with a cure for cancer.

Back at the compound, Neville wants to play videotapes of the past, but voices outside taunt him.
Neville… Neville…

The next day, after going about his daily routine, Neville gets strung up by one of his own traps. He uses a multi-tool knife to cut himself free but is knocked unconscious by the fall. When he comes to, it is dark and is attacked by a pack of Hemocyte dogs. His own dog helps him by fighting them off but is bitten in the process. Rushing home, Cortman’s tribe of warrior Hemocytes are waiting, surrounding the compound. A pitched battle ensues and Neville barely manages to get back inside the compound.

Cortman pushes his warriors to press on with the attack, but an acolyte Christopher urges him to ease off since they are suffering heavy losses.

In the morning, Neville kills the remaining Hemocytes who’ve infiltrated the compound and tries to save his dog, heading out to the research lab. Another Flashback shows how Cortman, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, is a test subject for a successful new cancer treatment.

The dog is infected and can’t be treated back to normal. As it changes forever into a Hemocyte, Neville takes it to the beach and releases it out into the wild. Depressed, Neville finds an old tugboat moored nearby.

That night, Cortman and the Hemocytes do not come. Dishevelled and depressed, continues on with his daily routine, with less and less rigour and fervour, until he discovers a response to one of his leaflets.
He stakes out the surrounding area until a woman, Anna, confronts him with a gun. Neville knocks her
out and takes her back to the compound.

She reveals that there is a group of uninfected at another encampment, but Neville doesn’t believe her. That night, again no Hemocytes. He shows her a video, explaining how Cortman was the source vector of the virus. That night he sleeps, recollecting how his wife and daughter died from the virus, and how he’d buried his wife, only to come back as a Hemocyte.

The next night, at dinner, he discovers Anna has betrayed him, drugging him and disabling the alarm system.
Fighting exhaustion from whatever drug he’s been given, Neville battles on, until he passes out. He is lashed to a thick, long wooden pole, and as he’s dragged through the Hemocyte-filled street, he sees his house go up in flames.

… the woman who shows up is a tough, cold, and drug-addicted victim of sexual and physical abuse, but she’s a survivor, hell-bent on protecting her younger brother. In their initial meeting, the creatures take her brother and she assumes he is dead. She finds refuge with Neville and a hesitant relationship builds between them, but that is shattered when the leader of the creatures proves to them that the boy is still alive, held captive in the abandoned hospital that the creatures call home. Neville realizes it’s a trap, but the woman goes after her brother anyway. Neville’s then faced with a test of his humanity… Go after them or survive. Alone. Of course he rescues them and destroys the leader, but what he finds in the hospital is that the creatures are breeding, that they are forming ‘families’, and that forces him to re-evaluate them. Are they monsters? Or just another life form?

Mark Protosevich

He wakes up still tied to the pole, inside a subway, surrounded by a community of fearful and vengeful Hemocytes celebrating his capture. Anna is reunited with her baby brother but Cartman betrays the deal they made, and sends them back into the prison feeding chambers, where drugged uninfected people are bred and milked for their blood.

Tormented and feed on by the Hemocytes, Neville hasn’t said a word since the fight at the house. Christopher approaches him, offering help, but Neville ignores him. That day, as the Hemocytes sleep, Neville pushes out the all-in-one tool from his mouth and cuts himself free.

He returns to the destroyed compound and salvages what he can. He takes his motorcycle and heads to the shore, where the tugboat is waiting. He can leave right then, or he can rescue the uninfected.

He makes his choice.

He pillages a chemical plant and construction yard for supplies. He then raids the subway switching hub and gets the emergency power up and running. Boarding a train he gets it roaring down the tracks, into the underground rail network, bursting into the platform where the Hemocytes have established their village. Neville machine guns and pipe bombs his way to the uninfected conclave. Christopher urges him to take the children, as the adults are too weak.

Nevilles loads Anna, her brother and the children onto the train and gets the train to roar away. Cortman and his acolytes have managed to get on board, and a fight ensues. The train derails and crashes near the beach. The struggle continues from the pier to the lighthouse, where Neville finally kills Cortman with a lightning rod. When he reunites with Anna and the children, the pack of wild Hemocyte dogs confront them, but the pack leader, Neville’s dog, leaves them be.

The group board the tugboat and sail off into the sunrise.

The Scott/Logan Draft

Eventually, Ridley Scott is brought into direct and Arnold Schwarzenegger grabs the lead role. At Scott’s request, John Logan is brought in to rewire the script. Wanting to leave his stamp in cinematic history Scott settled on a newer draft written by Logan and his fast-moving and powerful, Hemocytes. They were more intelligent than Ragona’s zombies, but 100% less talkative than Sagal’s mutants.

It begins with Robert Neville scavenging the ruins of Los Angeles, fending off wild Hemocytes who’ve reverted into feral animals. Neville captures one of these creatures and forms a bond with her, hoping he can cure her and save the rest of the infected.

Robert Nelville is an architect, which is in some ways ironic, since he’s the sole witness to society falling down and crumbling into dust. Everyone is dying, and dying quickly, including Robert’s lifeline, his beautiful and loving wife, Virginia. As much as Robert wants to believe, he knows her fate is the same as the rest.

The question is, why isn’t Robert’s fate the same? Why doesn’t he get this disease? Cut to five years later and Robert has secured a beautiful house in the Los Angeles hills, safe from the things that go on down in the city, things we soon see for ourselves, when Robert is forced to drive down there and scavenge.

This is always done during the day. And it isn’t until Robert’s car dies and he’s forced to stay in the city all night that we learn why. There are creatures, monsters you might call them, who wrap themselves in the remnants of the previous world like mummies. They are big, tall, and strong. They only come out at night. And they want to kill Robert really bad.

After nearly getting slaughtered by a group of these creatures, Robert’s able to knock one out and take it home. He sets it up in a secured room, and since these things crave blood, uses his own stored blood (kept for emergency transfusions) to start feeding it. As the days go by, the creature becomes more and more human, revealing a woman. It appears that Robert’s blood, no doubt special since it survived the sickness, is turning this monster back into what it used to be – a human being.

Soon, the woman, Emma, is talking, and remembering her past. The two form a bond. Robert begins to dream. If he can bring this woman back, there’s hope to bring others back. Maybe there’s a shot at saving humanity after all.

Unfortunately, the leader of these city monsters is on a mission to kill Robert. He finds his home, burns it, and kills Emma along with it. Once again, Robert is alone. Robert tries to flee but the creatures follow, until they finally meet in a Western-like showdown in a small town. Will mankind’s last hope finally be eliminated? Or will Robert, once again, find a way to keep the legend alive?

I Am Legend (the famous Logan draft)

Proving too expensive to produce at $108 million, Warner Bros, bulking at the risk after a few major blockbuster flops, scuttled the project. Again, just as Fritz Lang’s version would have been remarkable, a Ridley Scott adaptation would have been as iconic.


I Am Legend (2007)

The remake eventually arrived, which was basically a cut-down version of the Protosevich script. Will Smith took the lead with Francis Lawrence directing and Akiva Goldsman producing and reworking the screenplay.

2012

In an attempt to cure cancer scientists have genetically engineered a virus that ends up killing 99% of the world’s population, and any survivors are taken out by the human monsters it created. This time we are dealing with Darkseekers, albino cannibal vampire mutants, a combination of what has come before.

Robert Neville, a U.S. Army virologist, is the only survivor, rummaging through a ghost city that is Manhattan, New York. Each day he forages for food and supplies, experiments on infected rats seeking to find a cure for the virus, and waits for any survivors to respond to his continuous recorded radio broadcasts.

Flashbacks explain how the pandemic went down and how his wife and daughter perished during the chaos. Back in the present, all Neville has left is a dog for a companion and resorts to talking with mannequins to break the isolation. At night, he barricades himself with his dog inside his heavily fortified home to hide from the Darkseekers.

Hunting a deer, Neville pursues it into a dark building, only to find it infested with Darkseekers. Some he discovers are engaging in some kind of ritual before he escapes. Later, Neville has a minor breakthrough in his experiments with treatment. He needs a test subject, so he sets a trap and captures a female Darkseeker. A male Darkseeker attempts to pursue them but is halted by the sunlight and returns to the shadows. Back in his laboratory, Neville treats the female without success.

The next day, Neville is ensnared by a trap set up by the male Darkseeker. Neville uses a pocketknife to escape the Darkseeker hounds, but his dog is bitten. Neville is forced to kill it when it turns Darkseeker. Enraged, Neville goes on a rampage against a horde of Darkseekers. They get the upper hand when Neville is rescued by Anna and a young boy, who have responded to his broadcast.

They take an injured Neville back to his home, where Anna explains how they survived the outbreak, and that they are heading to a survivor’s sanctuary. Neville disregards this information, claiming no such thing exists. He goes back to working for a cure and finds a breakthrough with the female Darkseeker.

A group of Darkseekers, led by the male, attack the House, having tracked Anna the previous night. After an intense battle, Neville takes Anna and the boy to the laboratory sealing themselves in with the female test subject. As the male Darkseeker rams himself against a glass door, Neville draws a vial of blood from the woman he cured, and gives it to Anna, before shutting her and the boy inside a disused metal furnace. Using a grenade, Neville then kills both himself and the attacking Darkseekers. Having survived the blast with the blood sample intact, Anna and the boy arrive at the sanctuary. Anna narrates how Neville’s efforts and sacrifices to save humanity ultimately became legend.

Again, Neville is not the villain at all, that idea is discarded completely.


Maybe it’s an idea that is too much of a challenge for an audience. Do people want to even consider for one moment that they are wrong about things, that maybe, just maybe they might be the bad guys, the villains? It is as political as it can be, and not something many books, films or any other cultural platforms attempt to confront. Matheson addressed this head-on with I Am Legend. Threatened by communism and progressivism, his world, as is ours, was facing cultural and societal change. People become fragmented into opposing sides, and when this happens, no one, absolutely no one would even consider the possibility that they are wrong, that they may be the bad guys.

If a remake of I Am Legend is ever revisited, this should the crux of the story. Confronting audiences with clique tropes is meaningless and boring. Confronting them with uncomfortable questions, make them think the unthinkable, this is what made the novel, I Am Legend a masterpiece, and if a true cinematic version of the book is to be made, then it needs A) an artist like Frits Lang or Ridley Scott, and B) Robert Neville is the bad guy, at least from the point of view of the mutant vampires who have inherited the Earth. Our point of view, our judgment, doesn’t really matter, because we are dead and a new society has taken over.


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