The Omega Man (1971)



Despite being the type of guy who likes to see the movie before reading the book, it took doing HMAD to see any film versions of "I Am Legend", despite reading Richard Matheson's source novel back in 1995 or 1996. Hell, it actually took the release of I Am Legend (the Will Smith one) to finally get around to seeing Last Man On Earth (the Vincent Price one). And now, nearly three years after that, with all memory of the book long vanished, I finally see The Omega Man, which stars Charlton Heston, king of the doomed world movie (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, guy who talks at the beginning of Armageddon, etc).

As a post-apoc/cult movie it's not too bad. Heston kills some cult dudes, has some minor escape/adventure scenes, graciously lets his stunt double ride a motorcycle for a while... all perfectly enjoyable 70s sci-fi, complete with a jazzy score that's not always appropriate to the scene but would make for a good stand-alone listen.

But good lord, they seemingly went out of their way to change the point of the book - they couldn't even get into the second act before introducing other survivors (too many of them). There's also an alarming lack of scenes of him being isolated and doing his thing. One thing I loved about the book, and to a lesser extent the other two movies, is that you really got the sense that Neville has been alone for a while and pretty much has his routine down pat. But here, we just see Heston driving around aimlessly, then he decides to see Woodstock. And while it's obvious he has seen the movie several times, as he says the lines along with the screen, it also seems like a spur of the moment thing, because when it's over he looks at his watch and realizes that the sun is about to go down, and thus the vampires will be coming.

And by vampires I mean hooded albino mutants. They're still opposed to sunlight, but as far as I can tell they're not undead, just sick. This changes the dynamic of the story in many ways, but the most significant is that Neville doesn't seem interested in wiping them out. Even when they attack him, he just shoots back to scare them off a bit; I think he only kills two or three in the entire film (also in self-defense). At least they changed the title, since "I Am Legend" of course refers to the vampires being afraid of Neville, whereas these things just see him as a minor nuisance. Then again, he isn't really the "Omega" man, since there's another adult male and several male children around, so it's still sort of wrong.

Another thing that surprised me (but in a good way) was how R rated this PG movie was. The MPAA sure was looser back then - in addition to a few bloody deaths (including a child), there are two instances of female nudity. I know the PG-13 didn't exist back then, but even if it did this stuff might still get an R rating (Christ, the movie Casanova got an R just because a blow job was alluded to!). I once heard that Tobe Hooper thought Texas Chain Saw would get a PG, and I always thought he was nuts, but I guess it's sort of imaginable. It may have that pink crayon look to it, but this movie is certainly bloodier than Chain Saw (which didn't have any nudity to boot).

It also seems that the makers of the 2007 version took influence from this one, as Heston talks to mannequins and a bust of Caesar, which is something I don't think was in the book. But he doesn't quite make it work as well as Smith did (I think it was one of the stronger aspects of that film), because he seems to have a sort of jeering attitude when he talks (this goes for when he talks to himself as well), you can almost see Heston (the actor) sort of mocking the concept. Then again he's kind of a dick to the people he meets too, so maybe Neville's just a complete prick.

The deserted Los Angeles metropolis works quite well. On the IMDb there's a list of all the times you can see other cars/people in the background, but I never noticed any. Deserted LA isn't quite as impressive as deserted NY (I myself have been the "only car" driving downtown on an early (just after sunrise) Sunday morning), but it's still pretty creepy when they pull back and you only see him driving around. There's a brief freeway scene that's also pretty impressive - no way in hell they could pull that off nowadays, where it's not uncommon to experience traffic jams even at 3 am on a weekday.

And I might be wrong, but I think the exterior of his house is located in one of the studio backlots, because I swear I have seen it before. And that got me thinking how funny it would be if they actually just said flat out he was living in a movie studio, because it had everything he'd need (wardrobe, vehicles, generators, a variety of housings, plenty of coffee). I think I'll write a post-apoc movie where the only survivor is a movie nerd and he just spends his days roaming around Universal, Warner Bros, FOX, etc, re-enacting scenes from his favorite movies. Then near the end he gets eaten by a vampire or something, to add some drama to the proceedings.

So now the only one I haven't seen is the Asylum knockoff called I Am Omega, which is unauthorized/unofficial. I'm willing to bet it's the worst film of the bunch, but since it's actually about the undead (albeit zombies instead of vampires) it's possibly still more faithful to the source material. And since it stars Mark Dacascos, I bet he does his own stunts. I'll give it a look in 2013.

What say you?

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  1. Good review. I admit Will Smith's "I am Legend" was one of the worst movies I have seen in the past 5-10 years probably, but "Omega Man" is just a step above it at least for having some style and no CGI. I think Will Smith keeps the CGI industry singularly employed. "Last Man on Earth" was great. I loved that one. It was melancholy and more of an emotional piece. I'm glad you reviewed this one.

  2. Love your idea for the post-apoc movie set on a studio backlot. You're quite right about THE OMEGA MAN being a big influence on the Will Smith version. In fact, the film credits both the script of THE OMEGA MAN and Matheson's novel as its source material, so it's as much a remake of the former as it is an adaptation of the latter. I AM OMEGA, a ripoff rather than an adaptation, is completely abysmal. For further information on the three "official" versions, as well as the novel's influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (, tentatively due out in early October.

  3. Matthew--
    Eager to read your book! I'm a lifelong fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but I hadn't seen LAST MAN ON EARTH until the laser disc release in the late-90's. I couldn't believe how much Romero had "stolen" from the first adaptation (not just story, but style and execution). Still love NOTLD, but now I hold LAST MAN in pretty high regard (as flawed as it is).

    The last time I saw OMEGA MAN was at a double feature at the Egyptian theater with SOYLENT GREEN. Heston was there (pre-Alzheimers) and spoke between films (he talked a bit about all of the allusions to Christ in the film). It was a blast and OMEGA MAN really plays to an audience.

    Heston plays a prick in PLANET OF THE APES too ("Chalk up another victory to the human spirit.") I wonder if he just enjoyed playing protagonists as complete assholes.

  4. This may amuse you: Joyce Hooper Corrington, who scripted THE OMEGA MAN with her late husband John, once told FILMFAX, "The Christ-like allegory of Neville was a deliberate literary symbol. The kids—and thus humanity—were to be saved by Neville’s blood. However, we should never have told Charlton Heston about this. We were dismayed when we saw the movie to find how obviously they presented this. Heston died and died and died. We figured that he just enjoyed symbolically playing Christ."


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