Apocalyptic storyline? Check. Macho hero with a big gun and an impregnable lair? Check. Pasty-faced undead cultists on a lethal rampage? Check and double-check. Yes, The Omega Man features an abundance of fantastical elements, so when these components are matched with a campy leading performance and a cheesy visual style that screams early 1970s, a good time is guaranteed for all.
The Omega Man was adapted from Richard Matheson’s enduring 1954 novel I Am Legend, which depicts the travails of a survivor who believes he’s the last man on earth following a plague that turned everyone else into supernatural creatures. In Matheson’s ingenious story, Colonel Robert Neville builds a fortress around the lab in which he searches for a way to cure the worldwide affliction. Since the vampire-like monsters don’t come out until nighttime, Neville has the world to himself during daylight hours, and he uses these windows to gather supplies, survey enemy encampments, and troll for signs of normal life.
Updating Matheson’s narrative for the ’70s, screenwriters John W. Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington, together with director Boris Sagal, crafted a pulpy thriller suited to star Charlton Heston’s oversized persona. Heston plays Neville as a bruised idealist appalled at what mankind has done to itself—the filmmakers deviated from Matheson’s novel by making biological warfare the culprit for humanity’s descent into barbarism—so watching The Omega Man is like watching Heston pick up where his tantrum during the finale of 1968’s Planet of the Apes ended.
In Heston’s gritted-teeth portrayal, Neville isn’t just the Last Man on Earth, he’s the Last Man With Any Damned Sense In His Head. Strutting around with an air of messianic purpose suits Heston’s florid style, so when he’s blasting away at the hordes of monsters that attack his headquarters every night, it’s as if each bullet is a blow for God, America, and apple pie.
Yet the whole business of Neville defending himself is only one thread of the movie, which also introduces a trés-’70s cult called “The Family,” comprising murderous albino mutants. Led by crazed Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), the Family is devoted to killing Neville, even though they succumb to the usual B-movie folly of planning an elaborate death that leaves room for escape instead of simply whacking Neville when they have the opportunity.
As the story progresses, Neville avoids the Family’s wrath with the aid of Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and Dutch (Paul Koslo), two unexpected fellow survivors. The attractive Lisa becomes Neville’s love interest, of course, which means it’s just a matter of time before the Family tries to nab her. This being ’70s sci-fi, you can see the bummer road this is heading down, and The Omega Man doesn’t disappoint in terms of third-act plot twists. Rest assured, however, that it takes more than a gang of albino mutants to stop Chuck Heston from getting what he wants.
The Omega Man: GROOVY