Saturday 7 March 2015

"You finally really did it. You maniacs!" The Omega Man (1971)

What is it about Charlton Heston and the end of the World? He’s almost always there…

The Omega Man could be viewed as the second of his doomsday “trilogy” sandwiched between Planet of the Apes (plus Beneath…) and Solent Green and he’s the perfect man for the last man, fiercely determined, a hyper-agitated intelligently competitive survivor who always carries the sadness of his species’ ultimate failure and the thought that he should have done more…

In this way perhaps his famously total support for the right to bear arms connects to the essentially liberal concepts underlying these films: if we don’t clean up our act we’re all doomed and, if we are doomed only men like Charlton will make it through. But Heston was a complex man who supported the Democrats and civil rights in the sixties but later became a Republican claiming that he hadn’t changed the Democrats had… you can never say he wasn’t a man looking for principal.

Mr Heston and Rosalind Cash
In this film he caused a storm with one of the first inter-racial kisses in mainstream Hollywood between Heston and Rosalind Cash and I love the tale of when quizzed about by Whoopie Goldberg in her TV talk show about why such actions were still controversial even in the 1990s he leaned over and kissed her.

Scenes were filmed on early Sunday mornings - trying to catch the city quiet
Directed by Boris Sagal, The Omega Man was loosely based on the 1954 novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (later filmed with Will Smith) and swapped vampires for plague-infected ghouls who cannot stand the light and live only in the shadows coming out only at night to scavenge and set fire to their old neighbourhood.

It is of course 1975, the near future, and biological warfare between China and Russia has decimated mankind. In Los Angeles U.S. Army Col. Robert Neville, M.D (Heston) seems to be the last man standing having injected himself with an experimental antidote in desperation after his helicopter crashed.

The last man?
But the film starts many months after this as Neville roams free across a city devoid of almost all life. His car journey is sound-tracked by 8 track modern jazz and, when one car breaks he simply goes and gets another… talking to himself and exchanging snappy chat with the long deceased used car dealer “How much? You cheating bastard!?” He catches sight of a girly calendar and pulls it quickly off the wall – a painful reminder of what has been lost.

He goes to the movies and screens Woodstock for himself, reveling in the appearance of the multitudes and mouthing every line along with the new age optimists of the festival… how soon the people disappeared.

Watching Country Joe and the Fish
Lost in the film he walks out to street in sudden panic as dusk approaches: it’s almost dark and “they” will soon be out. He dives into his new car and drives as fast as he can to his home and sanctuary. But, he’s a little late and his vehicle is set upon by cloaked figures… he shoots most of the attackers but a few make it through into his garage and are swiftly dispatched.

This is a man at war with what remains of the world, holed up under the tightest of security with powerful spotlights trained down from a house locked down from cellar to chimney.

Charlton and gun
The cloaked figures gather outside – they are The Family, led by the charismatic figure of Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) who views the last vestige of humanity as a reminder of man’s folly, one that led to his groups mutation and doomed the world. In a flashback we see that Matthias was once a broadcaster reporting on the breaking apocalypse, now he uses his communication skills to unite his group and to lead them against the last man.

Anthony Zerbe and friend
Holed up in his fortress,  Neville has – almost – everything he needs from fuel, guns and ammunition to a chess set and a bust to play it with. He talks to himself and his immobile friend missing company but with his only hope his daytime routine of mapping out the city as he tries to find and destroy the group’s lair…

On one of these expeditions he spots a life-like showroom dummy in the form of Lisa (Rosalind Cash) – there is someone else after all… but she bolts and he runs after her only to lose her in the empty spaces.

Good luck is followed by bad as Neville is soon ambushed in a department store by The Family and taken for a fateful interview with Matthias. This sequence is probably the film’s central message, Matthias convinced that a new order has arisen in response to Man’s greed and carelessness whilst Neville fights on for the old order.

It looks bad for Neville...
Matthias is self-aware and knows that Neville has to die to help bind his group together… and to balance the books: one scientist to atone for the crimes of all the rest. Neville is tied to a funeral pyre in the centre of a football stadium and all looks bleak until the flood lights are flicked on and the ghouls shrink back allowing a motorcyclist to rush in a rescue Neville…

Dutch on his bike
There is a vestige of mankind still worth saving and Neville soon discovers his rescuer is medical student Dutch (Paul Koslo) along with Lisa and several children. They all have the plague but are more immune than others… unless a cure can be found they will all succumb sooner or later. Lisa’s brother Richie (Eric Laneuville) is on the verge of changing but Neville take shijm in in the hope that he can create a serum from his own blood… Meanwhile he and Lisa demonstrate what can happen when the only boy in the World gets to meet the only girl…
Out on the town
Dusty verdict: No spoilers for the film’s ending… will this be one of those seventies “dark” resolutions or is there hope: do you feel lucky punk?

In truth the scene setting outweighs the rest of the film – the idea of being the last man standing in an empty city is  a frightening and compelling one… the freedom more than outweighed by the loneliness. Sagal  directs his excellent cats well and mention should also be made of the suitably moody score from Ron Grainer.

Rosalind Cash is excellent
The Omega Man is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon. It’s one of Tim Burton’s favourite films and you can see why… a quirky near classic of period paranoia and like all good sci-fi a story that says more about the times we live in than the time to come addressing the ultimate question of whether to kill or cure?


  1. Thanks so much for posting this as I just recently read where there was a deleted scene, where Rosalind Cash's character got pregnant by Charlton Heston's character (and supposedly the book went even further).

    1. You're welcome and thank you for reading! It's a cracking film and I love the chemistry between those two leads - one of the seventies most positive dystopian films!

      Best wishes


    2. Excuse, please - you’re thinking of _Planet of the Apes_(1968). In the final act Nova starts throwing up and Taylor says, “What’s wrong with her?” and sympathetic vet Dr Zira says, “Uhm, got some news for you, the rabbit done died,” to quote Aerosmith. Wisely, it was decided that this would distort and unbalance the story, but I’ve seen stills from the sequence.

  2. Along with the cars and that IR night-vision scope, another aspect of this film found in no other production (including Vincent Price in ‘The Last Man on Earth,’ 1964) dates it firmly: Mathias and the Family. In 1969, Charles Manson and his “Family” committed shocking murders, which led to a famous (and fascinating) trial. Applying this concept of a nearly eponymous Messianic cult leader and his “family” of followers to the ‘I Am Legend’ story was thus very topical… and stayed there, the product of its time.