The Omega Man

Dir: Boris Sagal, 1971. Starring: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash, Paul Koslo. Science-Fiction.
The Omega Man

In The Omega Man, as Robert Neville, Charlton Heston drives around an abandoned Los Angeles in his convertible. He steps into a torn out department store and grabs a new track suit; he gets the generator working on an old movie theater and watches Woodstock; then he chats and plays chess against a bust of Caesar. Spotting some hooded figures in the darkness, he pulls out his machine gun and opens fire, killing them - you see, as the poster proclaimed, “The last man alive…is not alone!”

Before The Omega Man, Richard Matheson’s brilliant 1954 post-apocalyptic mini-novel, I Am Legend, was adapted into a Vincent Price snoozer called The Last Man On Earth. More recently the book was the source for a Will Smith vehicle that kept the title but went overboard with the CGI (a fantastic first half, it loses its way by the third act). Though it may be closer in spirit to Matheson’s book than The Omega Man, for pure fun the Heston version is the most entertaining of the three.

The setting has been moved from the '50s to the mid-'70s. Biological warfare has killed off most of mankind, turning what’s left into albino ghouls who call themselves The Family (some culty, Mason paranoia at work in the script). In the book, they are vampires; in this film they just wear black hooded frocks and shades and are allergic to sunlight. Neville has the cure, but they want nothing to do with his science and technology (or his wheel, as they say). By day, Neville hunts for their lair; at night they come to pry him from his groovy pad, catapulting fire bombs at him, usually interrupting his wine, classical music, and chess games.

Verifying the old joke that the only things that will survive World War III are cockroaches and newscasters, The Family is led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe of Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park), a newscaster before the world ended, now he gives haughty speeches to his eager followers: “A scientist is a man who understands nothing until there was nothing left to understand.” Deep words, Matthias.

As Neville begins to run out of things to say to his Caesar, he runs into a woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash). At first mistaking her for a mannequin, he chases her around and she escapes his lonely grasps. But later when The Family finally captures him and are about to roast him in Dodger Stadium, Lisa rescues him, along with an ex-med student named Dutch (Paul Koslo). A pretty cool motorcycle chase through the stadium happens (don’t look too closely at the stunt driver). It turns out Lisa, Dutch, and a handful of kids have inexplicably not gotten the disease. They wanna split the scene (get out of town) but Lisa’s obnoxious kid brother, Richie (played by the annoying Eric Laneuville of Room 222 sorta-fame), has the virus and is turning into a ghoul. Neville agrees to treat Richie, but first he and Lisa strike up a romance. Before the film’s dramatic conclusion Heston will have continued his long run of messiah complex roles (his blood will save humanity; oh, and he dies in a crucifix pose).

The interracial love story between Heston and Cash must have been touchy in 1971. With the exception of Jim Brown and Raquel Welch getting jiggy in 100 Rifles, Heston was one of the first megastars to cross that on screen boundary (in the early '60s, before Heston became an NRA mad man for his guns, he famously was one of the first white Hollywood stars to march with MLK). Taking a cue from the then burgeoning black-exploitation genre, Cash makes a couple of wise cracks about "the man." Heston refers to his blood as "genuine 160 proof Anglo-Saxon, baby." Actually, one of the best lines referring to early '70s racial tension is when Matthias has to scold one of his flock, Zachary, a black ghoul, lecturing him about the end of our racial divisions, when Zachary refers to Neville’s home as a “honky paradise."

Inexplicably directed by journeyman TV director Boris Sagal, taking a brief break from the small screen, The Omega Man often feels like an episode of The Mod Squad (not that that’s a bad thing), but that may mostly be due to some of the heavy-handed dialog in Joyce and John William Corrington’s script. (Speaking of heavy-handed, the couple also wrote the series ending Battle For The Planet Of The Apes.) Besides the score by Ron Grainer (Dr. Who, The Prisoner), which effortlessly moves from badass action to loungy bachelor pad, what makes The Omega Man particularly cool are the eerie abandoned streets. There are some impressive shots of empty and time worn Los Angeles - this was a pre-CGI era when film crews had to get up and shoot early to catch these images.

Coming off two decades of mega stardom in big epic films, this is the second film in Charlton Heston’s Sci-Fi trifecta (along with The Planet Of The Apes and Soylant Green). He would move on to a less memorable disaster movie phase (Airport ’75, Earthquake, Skyjacked, etc.) before his final decade of bad television in the '80s (Dynasty, The Colbys). For The Omega Man he would bring his amazing voice and film presence, making it believable that if anyone would have to be responsible for saving mankind, he’s the guy for it. "Last people on earth" would become a mini-post apocalyptic genre, followed by The Quiet Earth, the George Romero Dead films, the Will Smith version and so many more. But, still, The Omega Man is a unique and interesting take on the subject and, perhaps, what their future paranoia looked like tells us more about life on earth in 1971.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 11, 2011 4:48pm
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