The Omega Man

The Omega Man (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. Boris Sagal
viewed: 09/05/07

Part two of my I am Legend double feature, 1971’s The Omega Man is a film that I grew up with.  I saw it several times as a kid and always found it creepy and depressing.  It’s one of those flicks that played a lot on Saturday afternoons, and what with its eerie hooded villains, it was pretty darn spooky to a kid.  Watching this film right after watching The Last Man on Earth (1964), the Vincent Price version of the filmic narrative, was moderately interesting.  Comparing two re-tellings of a story could actually really be kind of boring, I’ve decided.  At least back-to-back.

This is something that I can appreciate about The Omega Man, that it basically didn’t stick too close to the original idea.  I mean, it’s the same thing, a disease that wipes people out, but instead of vampires and stuff, we’ve got people who are slowly dying in stages of putrification.  Star Charlton Heston is a gun-totin’, bare-chested man of men.  He doesn’t live in suburbia and he doesn’t appear to have lost anyone dear to him.  A self-professed narcissist, with video cameras reflecting his image back to him on his large television screen, he talks to himself in ironic witticisms and kills with gusto.  He’s a much more modern model of an action hero.  Soulless yet quippy.

The narrative has a real strange politicized slant.  The disease comes from chemical/biological warfare, brought down by the civilization and its armies and government, of which Heston’s Robert Neville was a key cog.  The villains are a cult, “The Family” which echoes loud and clear of Charles Manson’s “Family”, but reckons heavily of doomsday cults, anti-civilization types, and fanaticism that was a strong cultural aspect of the period of this film, 1971.  Also, very interestingly, Heston’s character goes to a movie theater to watch Woodstock (1970) the documentary that captured the Woodstock festival in 1969.  Heston’s character is no bleeding heart liberal, but he identifies with the dreamy optimism espoused by one of the interviewees, quoting alongside him, showing that he’s watched this film many times.

Additionally to all this other cultural element are the portrayal of African Americans.  In this film, they all have significant afros, and seem both politicized and yet positive.  Heston’s character has a romantic interlude with Lisa, a hep, infected but still healthy African American female.  There seems a message here, too.  The leader of the villains, the fervent Matthias, instructs his African American companion who refers to Heston’s house as “honky”, that there is no need for racial difference anymore.

As of its time as it is, the group of cloaked zombie-ish folks led by Matthias, are more clearly like some freaky Christian sect than anything.  They are blind Albino Amish who wear cloaks and sunglasses to protect them from light.  But Heston is clearly a Christ figure, twice or thrice posed in crucifixion, and of course, dying to save the others.  At one awkward point, a girl asks him if he is God.  He doesn’t deny it.  He’s a proto NRA guy, blasting his machine gun, and it wouldn’t be too weird to hear him utter the line he made famous, about clinging to his gun and 2nd Amendment rights even to the death; they’ll certainly have to pry his gun “from my cold, dead hands”.

The film isn’t brilliant but it’s entertaining throughout.  It’s got a pretty awful soundtrack with music that doesn’t seem to make sense.  The political message here, I think, is a mixed bag of commentary.  The anti-technologists are villains, but Heston is a moderately progressive Republican who likes modern music and racial equality, but lacks humanity and tolerance for the mentally ill diseased folks.  They are killers too, so who knows?  The irony in Mattheson’s book is that the survivalism and killing that has kept Robert Neville alive, which has diminished his humanity, ultimately turns him into the “legend” of the book’s title.  The diseased community re-surges, itself rife with violence, but he is their anathema.  There is a moral ambiguity.  It seems less so here.

As for the narrative itself, the concept of a killer disease is more and more one of our time.  As in The Invasion (2007) which I recently saw (itself a remake the fourth time over), disease is one of the things that humanity hasn’t properly armed itself, all while arming against other humans.  The new version of this film, I am Legend, starring Will Smith (God help us) will probably take this angle on things.  Who knows?

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