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I Am Legend ()


The great fantastical fiction writer Richard Matheson has happily gotten a second wind late in his career, mostly from the recent movie versions of his novels Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come, but an early generation of us recall him for his classics of scifi paranoia.  These included: novels like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Legend of Hell House; film scripts like those for the series of Poe films that Roger Corman made starring Vincent Price; Twilight Zone episodes (including the great "Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet"); the TV series Kolchak: The Nightstalker; the terrifying TV movie Duel.  This ouvure inspired everyone from horror writers Stephen King, Anne Rice and Dean Koontz to directors like Steven Spielberg (who directed Duel) and Tim Burton to Cris Carter who has acknowledged the debt of the X-Files to Kolchak and who even named a recurring character Richard Matheson.

Personally--and one imagines the same holds true for many of us children of the 70s--I became an unwitting admirer because of the cult status of The Omega Man, the rather bad film that was made from his fine novel, I am Legend.  Like many a cheesy movie, Omega Man ended up in the regular rotation of chillers that WWOR-TV in New York used to show and it became a favorite mostly by virtue of its familiarity after repeated viewings.  But I'd honestly not thought of it in quite some time.  Its drama after all--of a lone survivor of a devastating plague, holding off thousands of vampire zombies--owes much to the Cold War and our fear of takeover by Communists.  It's very much of a piece with the far superior Invasion of the Body Snatchers., an interesting curio, particularly revealing for the popularity of its anti-communist subtext, but otherwise forgettable.

But then, just recently, humorist James Lileks began a column with a reference to the scenario of the film and in what's little more than a throwaway line, breathed new life into the story:

    Whoís more miserable - the far right or the far left? The former is likely to wash its hands of the modern world, lament how things have
    gone to hell since the Brits stopped shoving civilization down the ululating maws of Wogland, and announce that youíre all welcome
    to your polyglot mishmash - Iíll be over here getting smashed on port and reading Patrick OíBrien novels. But at least they seem dedicated
    to enjoying life on their own terms; if theyíre cultural conservatives, they retire to their version of Hestonís apartment in ìThe Omega Man,î
    surrounded by the remnants of Western glory, keeping to themselves, and venting their spleen now and then by burping off a few rounds
    at the moaning zombies outside in the darkened park.

The key to a great allegory is that it not be totally dependent on a time and place and this one appears to have some legs.  Forget the Commie-zombies; it's about embattled conservatives!  Well, that was enough to get me to track down the book--a search for the film proving fruitless--and it does not disappoint.

Robert Neville is the last living man on earth.  He roams the streets of LA by day, driving stakes into the hearts of the slumbering undead and searching libraries for the secret of how to cure the disease that afflicts everyone else. At dusk, he hunkers down in his house, drinking, listening to classical music, and longing for his dead wife.  In a very real sense he is the last defender of civilization.  The nights outside belong to those like his former friend Ben Cortman who have been transformed into vampires.  As near as Neville has been able to determine, they are all the victims of a wind-born bacteria which he, for some reason, has a resistance to.  Over the course of the rather brief novel he befriends the last disease-free dog on Earth and then a woman who seems to still be human too.  Neville dreams of finding others ho have remained human or of curing those who are diseased, of re-establishing humankind and saving the world from the monsters who now dominate it, after dark anyway.  But in the end he realizes that it is he who has become the freak:

    Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth.  He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that , like the vampires, he was
    anathema and black terror to be destroyed.  And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing him even in his pain.

    [...] Full circle.  A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.

    I am legend.

From Albert Jay Nock's concept of the Remnant and his reference to himself as a "Superfluous Man" to Allan Bloom's assertion that we've witnessed "The Closing of the American Mind" to Robert Bork's felicitous image of an America that is "Slouching Toward Gomorrah", there's a consistent strain of thought in conservatism, one often lamented by neocons and the like, that holds that the masses have already become zombie-like and that the men of the Right are the last holdouts, the final defenders of Western Culture.  Since I pretty much believe that myself, Mr. Lileks' comparison struck me as especially apt and proves once again that a great allegorical tale often has many lives because it captures something true and timeless about us.  None of this turns Mr. Matheson's book into a great work--it's somewhat overwrought--but it does make it awfully fun to return to it from a fresh perspective.  Even Omega Man will be more fun to watch, particularly since star Charlton Heston is so closely identified now with conservative causes.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Richard Matheson (Tor Books)
    -INTERVIEW: Richard Matheson and William Stout collaborate on a children's fantasy (Lisa DuMond, Science Fiction Weekly)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT : Richard Matheson (SciFi.com, 6/20/02)
    -Richard Matheson (Wikipedia)
    -Matheson ( Bill Shepard)
    -Richard Matheson (Sci-Fi Station - Sci-Fi Masters Series)
    -Richard Matheson (Alpha Ralpha Boulevard)
    -Richard Matheson (CyberSpace Spinner)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Richard Matheson (IMDB.com)
    -PROFILE: Richard Matheson: Father and Son (David Carroll, Tabula Rasa#5, 1995)
    -PROFILE: The House of Matheson: Richard Matheson's Masterful Portraits of Fantasy and Terror (Bill Krohn, March. '99, Written By)
    -ARCHIVES: "richard matheson" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (Lisa DuMond, SF Site)
    -REVIEW: of I am Legend (Alan David Price, Iinfinity plus)
    -REVIEW : of Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts: Volume One edited by Stanley Wiater (Lisa DuMond, SF Site)
    -REVIEW : of Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume II Edited by Stanley Waiter (John C. Snider, SciFi Dimensions)

FILMS:
    -Filmography: Richard Matheson (Imdb.com)
    -ESSAY : The Fantasy Films of Richard Matheson (David Miller, Starburst)
    -INFO: The Omega Man (1971) (Imdb.com)
    -BUY IT : The Omega Man (Amazon.com)
    -REVIEW : of The Omega Man (James White, Cinefiles)
    -REVIEW : of The Omega Man (Doug Smith)
    -REVIEW : of The Omega Man (Doug Pratt's LaserDisc Review)
    -INFO: The Last Man on Earth (1964) (Imdb.com)
    -REVIEW: of The Last Man on Earth (Jerry Renshaw, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of What Dreams May come (John Simon, National Review)
    -The Official Somewhere in Time Web Site

TELEVISION:
    -Richard Matheson (TV Tome)
    -Senator Richard Matheson (The X-Files)

GENERAL:
    -ESSAY: Virus horror! : In a new era of movies like the Farrelly brothers' "Osmosis Jones," we die from bugs, not bombs. (Dan Dinello, August 09, 2001, Salon)

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