The Last Man Theme
In 1954 Richard Matheson published a science fiction novel, I Am Legend, which introduced Robert Neville, a scientist who has survived the end of civilization. Matheson’s story has been made into a movie three times: The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price as the lead (but renamed Robert Morgan), The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston as Neville, and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith.
The root idea is that an infection has decimated the human race, killing the vast majority and turning almost all of the survivors into a horror. In the novel and the first film the infected survivors are vampires, Matheson’s story giving a scientific twist to traditional vampire mythology. In the 1971 version, the infected people are nocturnal albinos, and in 2007’s version they’re called “Darkseekers.” In every iteration of the story the infected people avoid sunlight and attack uninfected people. Robert Neville (Robert Morgan in the first movie) spends much of his time killing the infected people. In the early versions this means driving stakes through their hearts (since they are vampires), but by the time we get to Will Smith’s Robert Neville he can kill them with explosions or gunfire. Between battle scenes, Neville (Morgan), who is a scientist in every rendering of the story, seeks a scientific explanation of the infection.
Zombie stories, recently popular in The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, parallel the “Legend” story in their post-apocalyptic setting and the fighting between the infection-created monsters and uninfected humans. But the Dead stories lack the “last man” aspect of Matheson’s novel and its film offspring. And it is that aspect of the story I wish to explore.
In the novel, Neville is literally the last man; in the end, he loses the fight against the vampires. They capture him, and Neville comes to see that they fear and hate him much as he fears and hates them. In the last scene, while awaiting his execution, Neville realizes that he will be remembered by the new vampire race as a mythological figure: “I am legend.” In the Vincent Price 1964 version, there is no acceptance of the new dominant species. “Morgan” dies cursing the vampires as “freaks”; he says that he is the last true man.
In the 1971 Charlton Heston and 2007 Will Smith versions, “last man” takes on a new meaning. Dr. Neville seeks not just to understand the infection, but also to find a cure, an injection that will protect the uninfected from death or becoming monsters—maybe even a cure for those already infected. In the end, he finds it; a vaccine can be made, but only by using Dr. Neville’s blood. The discovery comes too late for Neville: in Omega Man he dies, arms outstretched in a crucifix position, while handing a vial of his blood to a survivor, who presumably will use it to save the remaining humans. In I Am Legend, Neville finally solves the problem just as the Darkseekers are breaking into his laboratory. He gives the vial of blood to a woman and child who had joined him during the story and hides them in a coalbunker. Then he detonates an explosive that kills the invading Darkseekers and himself. Next day, under the protection of sunlight, the woman Anna takes Neville’s blood to a survivors’ camp where it will be used to stop the infection.
The 1971 and 2007 editions of the story turn Matheson’s “last man” on its head. Instead of accepting, however begrudgingly, the advent of the new race (as in the novel), or cursing its triumph (as in The Last Man on Earth), the Heston and Smith versions make Neville into a Christ figure, who dies to save the human race. The symbolism is especially graphic in Omega Man, when Neville bleeds to death with arms outstretched. I Am Legend doesn’t make the symbolism so overt; Will Smith’s Neville dies in an explosion rather than in a crucifix position, and the title doesn’t refer so obviously to Christian theology. In both stories, however, it is clear that Neville’s sacrifice has saved the human race. It’s not clear whether that salvation includes the already infected “monsters”; maybe the vaccine can reverse the disease, maybe only protect the uninfected. Dr. Robert Neville doesn’t rise from the dead, but he saves humanity from death.
What a strange mash-up of ideas! Matheson’s story and the first movie give us the end of the human race, replaced by vampires. Omega Man and I Am Legend give us a Christ figure, dying to save humanity. But what a Christ! In every version violence abounds. Neville (Morgan) blasts away at the vampires/albinos/Darkseekers with a great variety of weapons and a great deal of gusto. He fears them and hates them. It’s as if Jesus were a 1st century Zealot, killing Romans as fast as possible.
(As I noted, in the novel, Neville comes at last to a kind of acceptance of the vampire triumph, an ending intended to increase the horror of the story. In an alternate ending to I Am Legend, Neville makes peace with the attacking Darkseekers. Now his blood can still save humanity, but Neville doesn’t have to die. Is this peacemaking Neville a better Christ figure?)
The great story is Christ’s story. We can’t seem to get away from it. Often, of course, we corrupt it. We want Christ to save us, but we want him to do it our way, with lots of guns and explosions. Sometimes we reconcile ourselves to the idea that Christ died for us; life from death gets us deep in our subconscious. But we have a very hard time reconciling ourselves to the idea that we killed Christ. We are the vampires, the Darkseekers.