The Apocalyptic Cult of The Omega Man

*contains spoilers

The screenplay for the cult end of the world movie The Omega Man (1971) is based on writer Richard Matheson’s (1926-2013) novel from 1954 – I Am Legend – a title which younger people may recognise.

The Omega Man (1971) poster

There have been three official adaptations of this novel and these are The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price (1911-93 lung cancer), The Omega Man and the well-known Will Smith (1968-) version with the novel’s original title released in 2007.

I read the book many years ago and what I remember about it is that it is told in flashback as its main character awaits execution by the apparently evil survivors of a plague which has decimated the world. He thus becomes a legend to them in terms of fundamentalist religion.

In the first two versions of the book, there are Christ-like moments, particularly at the end of those films. The Will Smith version dispenses with the Christ-like martyr and instead sees the delivery of the vaccine as more of a miracle.

Will Smith in a vacant New York in I Am Legend (2007)

All three films are not told in bookended flashback but within the narrative they flashback to a time when the plague was taking hold of the planet.

Forget the cheap and nasty knockoff entitled I Am Omega (2007). Released around the time as the Smith version, it is not good.

The Last Man on Earth (1964) quad poster

The centrepiece of this article has to be Charlton Heston’s (1923-2008 pneumonia) performance along with others in The Omega Man. Heston was long considered a wooden actor, but he was a blockbuster actor of his day starring in such films as The Ten Commandments (1956) where he played Moses, Ben-Hur (1959), Planet of the Apes (1968) and Midway (1976).

Heston starred as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1976) trailer

The Omega Man tells the story of the Earth’s population decimated by a biological plague unleashed in a war between Russian and China. Only scientist Robert Neville played by Heston has immunity as he took some trial vaccine.

The opening of The Omega Man

The rest of the cast includes a very creepy and nasty Anthony Zerbe (1936-) as Matthias, the head of The Family, who are a group of psychotic survivors infected with the plague who suffer albinism and sensitivity to the light. As a result, they can only come out in the night time and their sole purpose in life is to erase the previous civilisation and to destroy Heston who lives in a heavily fortified multi-level apartment building somewhere in the city of Los Angeles.

Heston thinks he’s all alone in terms of normal people until he spots a black woman in a department store while he is ‘shopping’ for clothes. She is played by Rosalind Cash (1938-95 cancer) and they will form a couple and one of the first interracial sexual liaisons ever shown in mainstream cinema.

The interracial relations between Heston and Cash was groundbreaking mainstream cinema

The psychotic clan of The Family could easily have been named after the horrors of The Manson Family which had struck a year of so earlier and had played out in court six months before the release of the movie.

Cash leads Heston to the hills surrounding the city where there is a group of children along with actor Paul Koslo (1944-2019 pancreatic cancer) who have a mild form of the plague but are one by one turning into the monsters which form The Family.

A kick-ass Cash as she appears in The Omega Man

When I saw Charlton Heston at the Australian launch of his book In The Arena he complained that the film needed “a better script”. Yet in his book he thought the script at first was “a good strong draft” and that the title first considered was The Last Man. Producer Walter Seltzer (1914-2011 pneumonia) suggested The Omega Man which Heston found “sexier”.

The Omega Man (1971) trailer

Warner Bros. had wanted another black actress Diahann Carroll (1935-2019 breast cancer) to play the lead but they went with Cash which was a good decision. I find Cash earthier and sexier and there are moments when she has a beautiful lady-like poise.

As Heston continues in his book, he described the opening shot with the convertible and A Summer Place playing on the tape deck leading to Heston braking harshly and firing at a Family member in an upper storey window as “provocative”.

Just before the cue for Ron Grainer’s great incidental score

It also leads to Heston driving off leaving a gust of wind behind the car which lifts discarded papers in its wake – a cue for Ron Grainer’s (1922-81 spinal cancer) music in one of the most beautiful beginnings to an incidental orchestral and synthetic score. The music is a cult classic while others may think blah. Warners never released an album of the music and fans had to wait another thirty years or so before it was released on CD. Grainer is famous for writing the title music for classic sci-fi serial Dr Who among others and would do few film scores after The Omega Man.

Some pieces of Grainer’s score. Ignore A Summer Place at the beginning.

The Omega Man was shot on a tight schedule with an experienced and fast-moving cameraman Russ Metty (1906-78), an old hand who had photographed Heston in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). This put the cameraman at odds against the volatile director Boris Sagal (1923-81).

Former media celebrity and now leader of The Family: Matthias

Sagal was apt to raise his voice on set and thus lose the respect of the crew. Sagal was killed when he stepped from a landing helicopter after an argument and apparently walked into the craft’s tail rotor blade.

But Sagal did a good job with Cash, and the actress, who grew up seeing Heston starring on screen, told the actor about their love scene: “It’s a spooky feeling to screw Moses.”

Director Boris Sagal

According to Heston’s journals, Judy Pace (1942-) was also auditioned and considered for Cash’s part and when Cash was finally auditioned Heston wrote she was “a more textured person. I think we’ll go with her”.

Heston also had to press for Zerbe against pressure from the studio, so much of the vision of The Omega Man in terms of the casting is all thanks to Heston himself.

Once production began, Heston thought “the mannequins in the empty store made chilling images”. It was only Cash’s second film and she showed “some insecurity as a performer” as her sense of timing wasn’t perfect and she would miss her marks on the floor. But watching the exposition speech she makes in Heston’s/Neville’s apartment as she tells her past tale and the actress passes the test – hers is an at times touching and also kick ass performance.

Touch of Evil (1958) trailer

Heston said he had to brush up on his motor cycle skills but his stunt man and stand-in are obvious throughout the movie.

As for the end scene in The Omega Man, Heston wrote: “I died this morning, blood staining the water in the fountain in what may or may not be a Christ analogy. It’s hard to tell whether a thing like that will work or not, but I feel very good about this part of the film.”

Heston’s stunt double is easy to spot throughout The Omega Man

I think it works perfectly although at fourteen, it took a twelve-year-old to point out that the image of Heston collapsing in the fountain dead was in a Jesus Christ pose. I wasn’t brought up a Catholic! Anyway, I was caught up in the action, the evil of Anthony Zerbe and the titillation of Cash topless – along with the music. The Omega Man is one damn good package!

Often the villain, actor Paul Koslo in one of his few sympathetic roles in The Omega Man

“Why do you like this film so much?,” asked a friend, when I suggested we watch it for the umpteenth time. And when I really thought about it, perhaps it was the liberty you would have in a world in which you were the only survivor and there would be no moral qualms about blasting away the remaining bully boys at your leisure. That and helping yourself to everything in the shops. Not to mention the fact you survived the end of the world.

Heston plays chess with himself in a bid to stay sane in The Omega Man

What I didn’t see was poor Charlton Heston’s near madness as he carried on day to day talking to himself and playing chess with a bust of Julius Caesar while trying to hold it together. He even hallucinates that the city’s phones are all ringing in unison.

I don’t know if the former element interests me as much as it did as a teenager and kid. In reality I don’t like guns and never really have. They’re great in movies though!

Heston was pro-gun during his lifetime. Here having fun in The Omega Man.

What probably drew Heston to the movie as he was later a spokesman for the National Rifle Association was probably the fact that he got to blow away those of the anti-gun lobby, as The Family in The Omega Man reject art and modern technology including guns – although they don’t mind using spears and bow and arrows.

“The evil forbidden things… the things that destroyed the world,” says Matthias as he thinks back to when the plague victims dropped dead in the streets two years earlier. Matthias is leader of The Family probably because before the plague he was a media star and thus had a modicum of charisma to be an evil leader.

The awfully cheap knockoff I Am Omega (2007) trailer. Thanks to Zombie Hangout.

There are a couple of scenes missing from the final cut of The Omega Man, one being credited to Anna Aries as Woman in Cemetery Crypt in the end credits. It had something to do with a dead baby being laid to rest by a member of The Family. Heston reports another scene where a girl at the end of the movie goes to lay flowers at the former residence of our dead Christ/Heston. I guessed there was a missing Anna Aries scene when I taped the film and the film had a short running time as a kid. It always puzzled me and I was right.

I Am Legend paperback cover

While The Omega Man is about manufactured germ warfare… go back to The Last Man on Earth and it is some sort of natural germ although it is not fully discussed which causes the world ending plague.

The paranoia and thrills are not as intense in this original adaptation of the novel.

Vincent Price is the last man on Earth and he is surrounded by zombie vampires who come out at night.

What is interesting about the film is that it was shot on a low budget in Rome, Italy and as it goes into flashback to when the virus takes hold, there are trucks carting away the masses of bodies, something eerily similar to what happened recently in Italy except they were coffins.

Coffins transported in Italy recently was eerily similar to The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Like the Omega Man, this movie is also set in the future by several years – it WAS the future at the time when the movie was made. Even today we are prone to any virus which could become airborne and be of such virulent strength that it could wipe us all out… but not COVID-19!

The difference between The Last Man on Earth and the Heston movie is that Price narrates the first third of the movie as if from within his mind. There are moments when he uses a ham radio and finally meets a woman… but this is a cheap movie by producer Robert L. Lippert (1909-76) and it’s mostly, if not all, post-synched sound or dubbed.

Price has worse than nosey neighbours to contend with in The Last Man on Earth

The evil creatures in this film aren’t half as scary as The Family and even the monsters in Will Smith’s I Am Legend suffer from a bad case of CGI believability. In the Price film, they aren’t very bright and stumble around almost drunk in a silly way.

The Last Man on Earth shouldn’t be totally written off though even if original author Richard Matheson disowned the final script which he originally wrote using the pseudonym Logan Swanson just so he could collect a pay check.

Loneliness and isolation is enough to drive a man mad!

We are led to believe the film is possibly set in the United States – there are US army trucks – when really the architecture is positively European. What is scary about this movie is its flashback sequence to when the plague or virus struck.

“Plague claims hundreds,” proclaims a headline on page three early on in the situation. Price is a “scientist not an alarmist” who can’t accept “the idea of universal disease” and he doesn’t think the virus is airborne. Soon the planet’s worst fears come true and “anything is possible” as “it can’t be destroyed by any process we’ve been able to uncover,” continues Price.

The Last Man on Earth complete movie which is in the public domain

“But with the whole world trying, there must be a solution,” laughs his wife as she rushes off to cut their young daughter’s birthday cake. And it’s still early days… Soon his wife and daughter are sick as the wind blows outside… it is airborne after all!

Isn’t it time we all got together and stopped eating bats!? That to say the least.

“Maybe you better not send her to school today,” Price tells his wife as their daughter’s breathing becomes laboured. Get the picture? There may be worse viruses to come for planet Earth. Time is running out and there is no vaccine… and this is the film The Last Man on Earth I am talking about. It’s COVID-19 but on a grander scale.

Price and wife realise the pickle the world is in during a flashback in The Last Man on Earth

“An unknown germ is being blown around the world, it is highly contagious and reached plague proportions,” Price says in a nutshell.

The Last Man on Earth also shows that a family will not “call a doctor under any circumstances” should their daughter’s illness be reported and she is taken away… which her body eventually is in a truck. There are many who will break the rules. It’s scary stuff but we can take heart that COVID-19 isn’t airborne or as dangerous as the plagues shown in the I Am Legend adaptations.

The Last Man on Earth (1964) trailer

This isn’t a bad black and white movie considering the budget and Price is excellent.

Jump finally to the long-gestating I Am Legend (2007), it was originally slated to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie which didn’t pan out. It was eventually made with Will Smith in the title role and he gives a good performance. The film does suffer from a lack of plot development and creatures which are meant to be horrifying but don’t quite cut it in terms of the special effects.

Smith with a plague victim in I Am Legend (2007)

The virus in this movie is a form of the measles virus which is used to cure cancer but instead it mutates into a deadly and infectious virus which, as usual, wipes out the world population.

It cleaned up at the box office though and was one of the top grossing non-Xmas movies released at Xmas time. Maybe it’ll be ripe for re-evaluation at some later time with those who are able to access the alternate ending… The one used doesn’t deliver any religious allegory.

I Am Legend (2007) trailer

I Am Legend is an ‘epic’ in terms of its budget including a scene shot at the Brooklyn Bridge which cost $5 million alone. The film closed down many New York locations for production and Smith said it is the film where he got the most middle fingers from the general public due to the inconvenience his film caused.

“Your art, your science… it was all a nightmare.” The world according to Matthias.

Back to the end of The Omega Man and Matthias tells Heston after he’s destroyed his apartment paradise: “The end of all you’ve done. It was all illusion. Your art, your science, it was all a nightmare. Now it’s done. Finished.”

So, Heston dies and will be both the legend for The Family as in the novel, their kind of anti-Christ, while for the survivors of the plague with the serum, he will be a Christ-like figure.  Devil or God, Heston is all-encompassing by his death by spear in The Omega Man.

Heston looks Christ-like at the end of The Omega Man

To look further and the film takes a clean break from Biblical doctrine as the so-called Spear of Destiny used to penetrate or kill Heston and the resultant blood and water in the fountain where he dies is left behind for a new doctrine and as yet unknown future. Are The Family the pagan Romans of old come full circle into modern day and Heston a non-supernatural God for all to praise or despise?

Meanwhile Price gets killed by those he hoped to save in The Last Man on Earth

Compare this to the almost Catholic ending of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth where Price dies on a church altar at the hands of those he was meant to save… And we must wonder, in the beginning, is it God that strikes us down or merely a virus which is the revenge on life on our planet in microscopic form? Has our planet turned on itself on the most basic level? Or is it because we have forsaken or disrespected God and planet? What is the universal truth? But now I’m sounding just like Matthias in The Omega Man…

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