“One creature, caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark. Alone. Outnumbered hundreds to one. Nothing to live for but his memories... and yet the whole Family can’t bring him down out of that… “
“Honky paradise, brother?”
“Forget the old ways, brother. All the old hatreds, all the old pains And remember, The Family is One.”
- Mathias, talking to his lieutenant, Zachary, in The Omega Man
It’s 1970, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is about to go before the cameras and become Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man.
I Am Legend had been made before, in 1964, as Vincent Price’s The Last Man On Earth. That version, with a script by Matheson himself, stayed close to the book (albeit, in the end, clumsily). The Omega Man, however, went through a long period of development and became quite a different beast. Co-screenwriter Joyce Hooper Corrington had a background in chemistry and eschewed the idea of the world’s population being wiped out by vampires, and so the whole concept was staked (sorry). In its place, the vampire plague was changed to the result of all-too-plausible biological warfare, and the vampires became… well… spooky dudes. Alabaster white, photophobic creatures of the night with weeping sores and pale glowing eyes, all dressed in identical, hooded black robes.
Odd, that, as the filmmakers were striving for plausibility, they would then put everyone, inexplicably, into matching outfits. “Hey? Where’s your robe? Didn’t you get a robe when you got the plague?”
“Yeah, but I like this track suit. It’s velour. Super comfortable.”
“Sorry. Nope. Robe’s are mandatory.“
Like the vampires in Matheson’s book, The Omega Man’s robed horde have one overriding goal: to destroy Robert Neville. In the book, the vampires are motivated by simple bloodlust. They’re vampires. They need blood and Neville has it. In The Omega Man, it’s political.This gang o’ ghouls has a name, The Family, a not-so-veiled reference to Charles Manson and company, who were still on trial and in the headlines at the time of filming.
Also on trial in 1970 were the very ideals and aspirations of 1960’s counter culture. This was the beginning of The Big Pushback, the birth of Archie Bunker and Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority, cops like Dirty Harry Callahan and hippie-hating Joe Friday. The Omega Man’s star, Charlton Heston, though not yet as prominent a conservative voice as he would later become, was not shy about where his sympathies lie.
Conservatives in 1970 pointed to the Manson Family as the embodiment of the amoral core of the Left. Manson, Altamont and Chicago all taught the same cautionary tale: liberalism, taken to its ultimate end, leads to chaos and bloodshed. The reality, of course, was much more complicated. But explanations to societal ills that require more space than a bumper sticker to explain have always been a heavy lift.
Seen through this lens, many aspects of The Omega Man take on new meaning. Before leading The Family, Charles Manson, was a convicted felon, a pimp and a con artist. Before leading The Omega Man’s Family, Mathias is shown to be a trusted network newscaster. Get it? And that’s just the beginning. In one of my favorite scenes, early in the movie, Heston’s Neville sits alone in a movie theater, mocking the dialogue to Woodstock, (“Just to really realize what’s really important… the fact that if we can’t live all together and be happy…”), all the while, clutching a submachine gun to protect himself from the murderous Family.
It would be easy to simply write off the film as a hysterical overreaction to encroaching liberalism, with Robert Neville’s submachine gun substituting for Harry Callahan’s .357 Magnum, or Archie Bunker’s sneer but, as ever, reality is much more complicated. Because The Omega Man also packs a full-throated, heavy duty, “F#$% The Man!” Blaxploitation punch.
As in Matheson’s book, Neville is not entirely alone. He meets a woman who eventually, after earning his trust, becomes his love interest (the story has several phenomenal twists and I can’t recommend it enough.) The Omega Man also meets a woman. A black woman. A strident, leather clad, gun-totin’ militant with an Angela Davis afro and a Cleopatra Jones way around a phrase. On their first meeting, she holds Heston at gunpoint and kindly advises him, “Hold them hands out! Way out! Like I’m about to crucify you, baby.”
Actress Rosalind Cash, and as she appeared portraying Lisa in The Omega Man after falling prey to the film's weaponized plague.
Matthias' main lieutenant in the Family is the equally straight-out-of-the-Mod-Squad, Zachary, who, despite a ghoulish grey face and albino-white afro, has more than a small case of Stokely Carmichael in the patois.
These changes, however much they may date the movie, (“This here’s the man, and I mean, The Man,”) were bold for their time. Blaxploitation cinema was just taking off, with audiences flocking to such films as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, The Black Angels, Cotton Comes To Harlem and Shaft. The filmmakers no doubt thought that it would be great if they flocked to The Omega Man as well, and star Charlton Heston agreed. And he deserves credit. A major, very white movie star having an interracial romance (and partially nude love scenes) in a big studio movie was not common in 1971, and Heston risked alienating a (regrettably) significant portion of the filmgoing public. To his credit, he shrugged it off.
It was not the first time. In 1963, Heston joined pal Marlon Brando in supporting Martin Luther King and The March On Washington when many other white stars begged off.
Actress Diahann Carroll, then popular with her hit television series Julia, was originally considered for the role of Lisa, and it's easy to imagine that, with her TV familiarity, she would have been a safe choice. But safe was not what they wanted for the character, and Heston fought hard for the less famous, Rosalind Cash, who gave the role a strong, self-assured, dangerous center.
In the end, the movie The Omega Man is a mixed bag, a weird little animal. It boasts some truly gripping, powerful scenes and, shot decades before CGI, the eye marvels knowing the vast vistas of empty LA are somehow, miraculously real. Rosalind Cash is fantastic as Lisa, and Anthony Zerbe is wonderfully creepy as Mathias. The film is soaked in the seventies, to be sure, from the black power chic to Heston’s green velour dinner jacket, but it’s enjoyable as hell. If I’m ever flipping the channels and find it’s on, I inevitably stop flipping and sit.
Robert Neville is the man. And I mean, The Man!
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