The Vampires are Made of People

The Omega Man

For a time Charlton Heston was the king of sci-fi media. He was an A-list star who featured in a bunch of movies that became massive moments for the genre in the era. Planet of the Apes (and, to a lesser extent, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), Soylent Green, and, yes, The Omega Man. He had his own cottage industry, in effect, making post-apocalyptic sci-fi of a particular low-budget style.

With that said, many of his films were quite effective. I've already proclaimed myself a huge fan of the Planet of the ApesAlthough originally started with the 1963 novel, La Planete des singes, it's fair to say that the Apes franchise truly began with the 1968 film that kick started the original Fox film series and has helped tto keep these intelligent primates in the public conciousness for years. series, and some of the credit for that film does rest with Heston. That said, not all of his movies are great, and as iconic as this film is (at least because it's name is gloriously silly), The Omega Man is not one of his better efforts. Trashy and slow, The Omega Man fails to capture the heights of the previous version of I Am Legend, 1964's The Last Man on Earth.

Heston plays Robert Neville, a epidemiologist that as tasked with trying to find a cure for a plague that was sweeping across the world. As explained in the movie, in most of the population the plague would simply kill them, causing them to suddenly stop. Stop breathing, stop moving, everything. For the rest of the ten percent, a portion because strange, brainwashed, zombie like creatures. Anyone else was likely killed by these other creatures, dwindling the population of the world down to almost no one normal at all. And then there's Neville, the one man that received a dose of the vaccine, the possible only cure to the plague, but society crumbled before any more doses could be created.

Now nearly two years since the fall of society, it's just been Neville battling against the zombie-like creatures. Those beings have organized around one man, Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), a charismatic, undead leader who rallies the zombies to a singular cause: wiping away the old world, whatever the cost. They hate Neville, and what he stands for, and want nothing more than for him to die. But when Neville meets a woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), and finds out about other survivors who might be saved, he might just find a way to help society slowly rebuild... if he can survive the attacks of the undead.

To put it bluntly, The Omega Man is a confused, messy take on Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The book, and the 1964 The Last Man on Earth, both make it clear that the virus-infected "monsters" are vampires (in all but name), but that aside from their pale skin, nocturnal habits, and taste for blood, are indistinguishable from humans. They're making their own society over the foundation of the old one. It's Neville that's living in the past. The Omega Man, in comparison, doesn't really go in for any of that.

I think a big part of that is because of the era this movie was released. This movie feels very much like a product of its era, with Neville continuing the glorify and enjoy the fruits of the world that was. He's not a monster, he's just the one man still clinging to the past in hopes it can be revived (and, in a way, it eventually will be). Where the novel and the 1964 film make it clear that Neville (or, in the case of the previous film, Robert Morgan) is a monster for killing these other sentient beings, The Omega Man gives the weird, undead beings no respect. They're the bad guys, the monsters that have to be fought, and the old world needs to be preserved. It's like this film saw the original story and decided to reverse all its messages and morals.

Why? Well, I didn't live through the 1970s so anything I come up with is just conjecture. It does feel like this film really wants to glorify consumerism and American society. There isn't any analysis about what's right and wrong in the world. It doesn't have any bad things to really say about Neville. He's not a monster, he's a tragic figure. He's going to save society but he won't get to be a part of it. His tragedy is that he can't be there when the world returns, however many decades it takes for that to happen.

The fact that the undead are in this anti-civilization cult feels like a weird choice. I don't know what the exact intent was, whether there was a political reason for this choice (like maybe it's supposed to be some commentary on hippie culture, or a commentary on organized religions, or something), but whatever is the case it makes the creatures feel alien. Strange and weird. We don't get a chance to agree with them, or care about their points on society, because the film doesn't regard them as being right in any real way. They're the monsters and that's that.

What's weird is that this film doesn't really stick to its concept that he's even the Omega Man. Like, Omega would be considered the last, like The Last Man on Earth, but he's not. There are other survivors, a whole group of them in fact, and while they may all be prone to get the disease eventually, it feels like a cheat. Is he the end of the line or not? No, not really, all because this film wants to have anything approaching a happier ending than the original story (and previous film).

As for Heston himself, it just feels like he's coasting here. This is not his best performance, nor his best film. Like the movie itself, he feels confused, tired, and lazy. He doesn't really play a character here, more just playing a riff on the Charlton Heston persona. He felt more invested in Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes. But then this film did come later in his career, around the point where he might have felt more comfortable coasting in some of his roles. That or he just didn't really connect with the material and this was more of a paycheck movie for him. Whatever the case, this just isn't a great performance from him all things considered.

The production design is also lackluster. The film feels very staged, very closed in. Most of the movie is clearly filmed on sound stages, and it looks basic, even cheap. The few times we get outdoor sets they look like they were filmed on cheap streets, simple layouts that could be easily broken as needed. The opening scenes of the film take place in an empty city, and they're interesting to see (although, man, for two years of no humanity, everything feels very need and tended in the city). But once the movie really gets going, the sense of reality falls apart.

Thing is, I didn't really hate The Omega Man. It's not a good movie, or even a good adaptation of I Am Legend, but it does have some basic 1970s charms. It's campy, and kind of silly, but it moves along well enough at a breezy pace. It's a film I can watch every once in a while just as some kind of brainless entertainment. But as a good film studying this kind of apocalypse, the film is very much lacking.

Thats likely why, even though I know about The Omega Man, and it's even parodied once in a while (like on The Simpsons), the film is not remembered with the same kind of awe or passion as Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green. Those films are considered classics of the form while The Omega Man just, well, exists.