by Steve Habrat
There has been three attempts to bring Richard Matheson’s vampire tale I Am Legend to the big screen and two of them have been fairly decent and one has been absolutely wretched. Boris Sagal’s 1971 adaptation The Omega Man is one of the fairly decent attempts. Starring Charlton Heston as the last man on earth going up against a troupe of albino mutants with poor fashion sense, The Omega Man is tripped up by lousy pacing, uncomplimentary music, and bursts of melodramatics that never quite resonate like they should. The Omega Man does strike gold when the film focuses on Heston exploring deserted Los Angeles. The Omega Man is actually a science fiction film but it is also interested in being a horror film even if it is not very effective at scaring us. Furthermore, the film lacks a creepy monster that never really makes us cower in fear. Despite the numerous flaws, The Omega Man is still a dreary vision of a world succumbing to violence and destruction, all while still flirting heavily with Cold War paranoia.
In March 1975, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union wage biological war on each other, wiping out most of the world’s population. The few survivors that remain have been exposed to a lingering virus and turned into robe-wearing albino mutants who are sensitive to sunlight. Two years later, the last man on earth seems to be U.S. Army Col. Robert Neville, M.D. (Played by Charlton Heston), who spends his sunny days driving around deserted Los Angeles looking for mutants to dispatch. These mutants, who find a leader in Matthias (Played by Anthony Zerbe), a former news anchor who has organized the mutants into a “Family”, spend their nights prowling the streets and attempting to lure Robert from his heavily fortified penthouse. While out looking for supplies, Robert spots a female survivor who quickly flees from him. After the mutants capture Robert, he is about to be put to death when the survivor he stumbled across earlier narrowly saves him along with another heavily armed survivor. These two fresh faces are the street-smart Lisa (Played by Rosalind Cash) and former medical student Dutch (Played by Paul Koslo), who is also familiar with Robert. It turns out that Lisa and Robert are protecting a small group of survivors that mostly consists of children. When Lisa’s brother comes down with the deadly virus, Robert begins racing to find a cure that could save mankind.
The early scenes of The Omega Man are the ones that really grab the viewer. In these stage-setting moments, Robert wanders around a sprawling wasteland clinging to what is left of his sanity. He drives around like a maniac, shooting at fast moving shadows that may just be figments of his imagination. After he totals one car, he sets out to find another all while carrying on conversations with himself. He attempts to suppress his sex drive, ripping a racy calendar off a wall in a rage. He spends his evenings playing chess against a statue, sipping scotch, and dressing up fancy for easy meals that are interrupted by attacks from the cloaked mutants taunting him outside. You can’t help but wonder when this guy gets any sleep! Heston does a fantastic job in this one man opening and he keeps us fascinated by his every step. After about thirty minutes in, The Omega Man can’t keep up its one-man show and it introduces us to the less interesting Lisa and Dutch. The film then busies itself with establishing an odd love story that we want to celebrate considering how lonely Robert is but it comes off a bit far fetched and faintly creepy considering Heston seems a hell of a lot older than Cash.
While The Omega Man has its roots in science fiction, it tries to extend them to the realm of horror even though the film wouldn’t scare a three year old. It certainly is bloody and gory, but it never once gave me the creeps. The ghouls that terrorize Robert all look like Regan from The Exorcist sporting black cloaks and sunglasses, making them all look like demonic monks who are getting ready for a trip to the beach. Their leader, Matthias, tells Robert that he wishes to do away with Robert because he is the last remnant of an old culture. The creepiest member of the “Family” is brother Zachary (Played by Lincoln Kilpatrick), who appears to be the most deadly of all the mutants. He should have been the leader over the Matthias, who is a rather dull antagonist. The wandering packs of mutants do have a few moments where they work (the wine cellar scene comes to mind as does the scene where they reveal their eyes), but they are all so skittish that when Robert fires one shot from his machine gun, they scatter in all directions rather than continuing to charge. Are you shaking in your boots yet?
As far as the acting is concerned, The Omega Man features some mediocre performances, the best being Heston as Robert. Cash seems a bit forced and far from convincing as a pistol packing bad ass who is capable of slapping Robert around. For such a terrifying lioness, she is easily tamed into a purring kitty. Koslo’s Dutch is a pretty crafty fighter when he is let loose on the howling mutants but he isn’t really given much to do except walk around shirtless and babble on about cures and whatnot. Heston goes a bit overboard at certain times, falling victim to over dramatics, sometimes seeming like he has forgotten he is acting an a B-movie that is more interested in gore rather than bellowing emotion. Still, he wins us over in those fantastic opening moments and I was willing to stick it out with him until the very end. I also enjoyed seeing what weapon he would whip out and use on the ghouls next.
There are multiple moments when The Omega Man is unintentionally hilarious, especially when a serious moment is thrown off by wildly upbeat music that seems like it was borrowed from a blaxploitation film. You will also have a ball spotting dated make-up work, especially a scene in which one character is beginning to transform and he obviously has powder sprinkled in his hair. Director Sagal is infatuated with filling The Omega Man with religious symbolism to further drive the point home that Robert is a savior and he will deliver the last remnants of mankind from evil. Every time that Robert is tied up, Sagal contorts him to look like Jesus hanging on the cross. Even though there is much to laugh at, The Omega Man still features several moments that are sharply executed, especially the sequences that show off abandoned Los Angeles and some bloody clashes between Robert and the mutants. It may be a huge hunk of smelly apocalyptic B-movie cheese, but The Omega Man is filled with enough morbid surprises to keep things interesting, transforming this film into a fun guilty pleasure.
The Omega Man is available on Blu-ray and DVD.