The Omega Man: Not Quite Bad Enough To Smash With A Hammer.
A prominent film producer was once asked: “Why is that Hollywood manages to make so many bad movies?” The producer laughed and said: “You’re asking the wrong question. What you should be asking is, given the way Hollywood actually functions, why are any good movies made at all?”
It’s true: there’s a boatload of bad movies out there–arguably more bad than good. And this is actually kind of cool. So many “favorite movie” lists are numbingly lockstep from person to person. Variations on the same old parade of perennial classics that all of us have seen and most of us have tired of. But when you ask someone about their favorite bad movies… that is a totally different story. You get a kaleidoscope of titles as individual as fingerprints. Favorite bad movie lists are something of a cinematic inkblot test: you can tell a lot about a person by what they choose from the infinitude.
So in this guest post, I have been asked to write about my favorite filmic flop. Not necessarily the worst film I ever saw–that would be a tie between Armageddon, a film I loathe so intensely that I feel personal rancor towards the actors and artists who made it, and Fear No Evil, a film I actually bought used copies of so I could smash them with a hammer. (No hyperbole–I really did. But that will be the subject of another post.)
No–we’re talking guilty pleasures here. The movies we’re publicly embarrassed to admit that we love. The movies we keep coming back to, in shameful, sinful secret, despite, or perhaps even because of, their wonderfully agonizing shortcomings. And there is a long list of movies I embrace in just such shameful secretiveness. One of mine is Boris Sagal’s 1971 film, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston.
The Omega Man is an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire-apocalypse classic, I Am Legend. It’s the story of ROBERT NEVILLE, the lone survivor of a pandemic that has wiped out the entire world population and turned its victims into vampires. By night, Neville hides. But by day, he’s a postmodern Van Helsing, hunting the vampires while they sleep, alone in a world that has upended itself and made him the monster.
Many people may be more familiar with the Will Smith adaptation. They may not be aware that 2007’s I Am Legend was actually the third time Matheson’s novel has been made into a movie. The first was 1964’s The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price. The Omega Man arrived seven years later, and attempted an allegorical, post-Summer-of-Love, pre-Watergate, messagey approach that’s relatively compelling–when it works. But when it doesn’t, it’s deliciously cringe-worthy.
It’s important to note that I was nine when I first saw this film. My knowledge of and experience with the genre of science fiction was limited to Star Trek (TOS), Lost in Space and the occasional episode of Gumby where he and Pokey go to those bizarre little clay planetoids. It was my introduction to the burgeoning wave of message-driven, social SF movies (Soylent Green, THX-1138, Silent Running, et. al) that particularly defined the genre in the early-to-mid 70’s. The Omega Man was also my first post-apocalypse story and probably laid the foundation for my later preference for a good end-of-the-world story. At nine, I did not know good or bad when I saw it. But my early exposure to movies like this helped me acquire a taste for the tension between 70’s cinematic cheese and the era’s attempts at edgy relevancy.
In this version, Heston’s Neville is the walking, vestigial, incarnation of THE MAN, in the socio-political, militaristic sense. He’s both soldier and scientist, killer and healer, last custodian of the white, western patriarchy. A military epidemiologist, complicit in creating the man-made bug that ends the world–and who stumbles upon the cure too late to save anyone but himself.
Set against him, rather than vampires, is THE FAMILY, mutated by the plague into light-averse, homicidal albinos with spooky white irises, a penchant for wire-rimmed sunglasses and cheap black cloaks, seemingly raided from the back rooms of the Warner Brothers wardrobe department. Leading the Family is MATHIAS, TV journalist turned mutated cult leader, played with surprising restraint by Anthony Zerbe. Mathias is Neville’s nemesis and moral counterpoint–a low-rent Greek chorus, shunning the trappings of the “dead” civilization Neville has come to represent.
For years, Neville and the Family have their nightly standoffs. Neville holes up in his sandbagged and barbed-wired brownstone with his automatic weapons and his music and fine art, while the Family outside, catapults fireballs and hurls taunts meant to drive Neville into wild fits of cinematic flashback and wine glass throwing. At a critical moment, Neville encounters a small band of survivors, mostly children, protected by DUTCH, a leather-clad holdout from Easy Rider played by Paul Koslo, and the tough-talking Foxy Brown-ish LISA, played by Rosalind Cash. When they learn that Neville’s blood contains antibodies that can defeat the disease, the race is on to immunize the children and save the species. The arrival of the living additions comes as a relief, giving Neville–and us–a welcome break from his incessant monologuing.
The Omega Man is deeply problematic, on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. Some of its flaws issue from it being very much a product of its time, both intentionally and unintentionally. Others fall squarely into the “You Really Should Have Known Better” column.
Let’s deal first with the elephant in the room named Charlton Heston. In 1971, he was in the middle of his allegorical SF overacting heyday (delivering such iconic rants as “You maniacs! You blew it up… Damn you all to hell!” from Planet of the Apes and, of course, “Soylent Green is people!!”). Back then, Heston was just a ham, with bad teeth and a wholly unjustified need to keep taking off his shirt. Now, with all the political associations therewith, it’s hard for me to even look at him. He is one of the reasons why sitting through The Omega Man is an act of will today. But hardly the only reason.
The movie does not age well. Laughably cheap production values was a fixture in films of the time, so it should come as no surprise that, by today’s standards, it looks low-budget and shoddy. That’s because it is low-budget and shoddy. The cheap sets and costumes imbue the realism of a high school play. The dubbing, especially of the incidental voices of the Family members are hilariously inept. A book-burning ceremony is accompanied by cries of “Burn them! Burn more books!” and the mutant crowd chasing Neville is clearly heard shouting “Get him! Don’t let him get away!”–just in case we hadn’t figured out yet what they were trying to do. And a burning mutant at one point runs down the sidewalk and yells, “Aaaah!” as if the voice actor in the sound studio was told to yell “Aaaah,” without being advised that he was supposed to sound like he was on freaking fire. Several of the action scenes involved a stuntman for Heston who did not resemble him in any way other than his being a human male, and the shots using him are so jarringly anomalous that we think at first that it’s a different character. And in 1971, the image of a motorcycle jumping over a barricade of trashed cars was probably still considered cool enough to show in slow motion, and likely influenced such further groundbreaking work as The Six Million Dollar Man.
But these cinematic sins are not necessarily fatal flaws. Many movies transcend such limitations by virtue of their content. Despite a valiant effort, this is not one of them. They count among the thousand tiny cuts that ultimately exsanguinate The Omega Man.
The scientific and logical plot holes are big enough to catapult a fireball through. But that should not be a problem. If you’re nine, that is. But for the rest of us, questions nag. For somebody so well-fortressed, Neville neglects, or doesn’t bother with a long list of Post-Apocalypse 101 dos and don’ts, from “DO get out of the big cities,” to “DON’T lose track of when the sun sets if you’re dealing with murderous, light-averse albinos.” And how about “DON’T drive in convertibles so your adversaries can dump gas and fire on you?” And if you insist on staying in the city, DO consider having more than one escape route from your fortress. Like, say… a gassed up helicopter on the roof? And oh yeah, if you’re trying to find the mutants’ “nest,” why then–after two years of meticulous block-by-block searching–does it not occur to you to check the LA Civic Center? You know–that big honking Art Deco building in the middle of the city you refuse to leave?
Then there’s the ham-handed religious subtext. In its attempts to be “messagey,” The Omega Man is riddled with clumsy Christian references as it tries to present Neville as redeemer/Christ-figure. If the survivor children flocking around him as if trying to touch the hem of his robe is too subtle, the movie manages to get Neville into crucifixion pose no less than three times! Four–if you count the transfusion scene, in which he is laid out with his arms stretched, giving the blood that will (literally) save humanity. When they finally make plans to leave the city, Dutch exuberantly proclaims that they will be entering a new Garden of Eden. And at one point, one of the little girls looks meaningfully at Neville and asks “Are you God?” The lack of even a drop of irony makes the moment at once hysterical and excruciatingly hard to watch.
If you’re not Quentin Tarantino, you might have a hard time with the whole 70’s hip urban black movie thing, as personified in this film by Rosalind Cash’s Lisa. She bursts onto the scene, right out the 70’s Black Power zeitgeist, as a tough-talking, gun-toting, afro-sporting Pam Grier wannabe and, at first, it’s cool. But this is in large part because we’ve been jonesing for another speaking character for nearly an hour. There’s actually a lot to like about about Lisa, and I’ll get back to this point. But she’s also the catalyst for several of the most wince-worthy moments in the whole movie, mostly surrounding the self-consciously edgy and transgressive romance between Lisa and Neville. (n.b. Heston and Cash perform one of Hollywood’s first interracial kisses in this movie.) After their rough-and-tumble get to know you phase, they hook up in one of the film’s softer moments, to candlelight and mellow jazz on the eight-track and the two of them joking about being the only girl and only boy in the world. And then the next day, as they are scavenging supplies in a dusty, ruined pharmacy, they break into embarrassing fits of laughter over a box of contraceptives. Heston’s bad teeth don’t make the moment a bit more palatable.
The question of racism in The Omega Man is troublesome–and complicated. I mean, how do you react to a film that takes its “monsters,” and paints their faces white–and while not all of them are black, there are enough to notice a pattern. Especially with the locked-and-loaded honky taking them out from his balcony, it’s kind of like White Man’s Burden with a Gatling gun. But then again, the film takes the existing power structure and upends it by making the mutants the new dominant order. It’s one of the ways the film remains consistent with the novel–playing with moral ambiguity and the inversion of paradigms. The Neville/Lisa relationship is meant as a clear and unambiguous counterpoint. Still, in one scene, Neville is presented with the possibility of bringing his “cure” to the mutated masses. He hesitates, bracing himself against a mounted machine gun, apparently unwilling to surrender his role as the Great White Hunter of the city, or unable to fathom a purpose beyond it. It’s enough for the young black man with him to pronounce judgment: “You’re hostile,” he says. “You just don’t belong.” This scene plays out on a rooftop, with the LA cityscape in the background, not so subtly reminding its 1971 audience that the Watts riots are still relatively recent history. We are clearly supposed to get some message about racism here, but it’s a misfire. Sometimes the attempts at moral ambiguity result in mere murkiness.
So, then–why do I like The Omega Man, let alone love it? Well, some of the reasons I keep coming back to it go hand in hand with its glaring and frequently embarrassing flaws. Like so many guilty pleasures, what makes it bad plays a critical role in what makes it good. Especially back when I was nine. But even as an adult, every few years, I’ve been drawn back to Neville and Mathias, and their struggle of light versus darkness. Of course, I see its shortcomings much more clearly now, but I also see what makes enduring them worthwhile.
When the Will Smith I Am Legend came out in 2007, I was optimistic. I was hopeful that we would finally have a “faithful” adaptation of Matheson’s novel. And while it was more “accurate” in many ways (we actually got vampires this time), it was strangely toothless. The novel’s title underscores its thematic punch: the world has changed. Vampires have become the dominant species, and humans (in the personage of Neville) have become what the vampire once was: the monster that hunts us in our sleep, a fixture of our horror stories, our nightmares–our legends. The Will Smith version coopts this conceit in favor of a more hopeful message, and in doing so robs the story of its sting. It sent me back to the novel–and back to The Omega Man. There, by contrast, I rediscovered something more creatively aligned with the book than I remembered, and much more intuitively and thematically satisfying.
Moral ambiguity is one of the defining factors of 70’s cinema, and The Omega Man is no exception. It takes what was originally a Cold War era cautionary tale, expands on the theme of paradigmatic inversion, and gives us a story of light vs. dark, good vs. evil, black vs. white, the MAN vs. the proletariat, war vs. peace, in ways that force us to question which side personifies what. When Brother Mathias debates with the captured Neville, he points to his prisoner and says, “You are the refuse of the past.” Neville replies, “You’re full of crap.” It’s a line that got a laugh from the audience when it first played. But this scene is deceptively more than just the righteous bad guy lording it over the snarky good guy. First of all, isn’t the villain supposed to be snarky and the hero the righteous one? It’s a small reversal, but it’s part of a deeply layered pattern of ambiguities and tensions of opposites. When Mathias coolly and logically brands Neville the monster and extols the collapse of the “system” Neville represents, we understand him. We even sympathize with him. Sure, we reflexively root for Neville, as the familiar protagonist and traditional hero figure, but we cannot deny Mathias, even when he lowers his sunglasses to expose his freaky white irises. It’s as if his white eyes see more clearly than our own, and through Mathias, we recognize the necessity and inevitability of the change he seeks. The once irrational monster has assumed the mantle of vision and reason.
The exploitation/grindhouse/cheese factor is also written into the DNA of 70’s cinema, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste. For me, it’s a good thing, mostly because this era, and these qualities, helped inform my developing filmic sensibilities. Precisely what makes this factor so embarrassing makes it completely freaking awesome. The cheap production values, the hip, urban vibe, the slow motion motorcycle jumps and fake, burning stuntmen bring a low-tech purity to The Omega Man that’s as exhilarating as a revving, souped up muscle car.
With so many faults weighing against its strengths, The Omega Man could easily have fizzled completely–but it doesn’t. One more of its saving graces is a reasonably talented supporting cast, particularly Rosalind Cash and Anthony Zerbe.
Despite being presented as a watered-down Foxy Brown, Cash’s Lisa is a welcome addition to the mix. She’s tough, but she’s winsome enough to lend the film an emotional pulse, and a faint glimmer of hope. She almost makes the cheesy romantic scenes with Heston watchable. And because we do come to like Lisa, when things go sideways for her (and things always go sideways), it comes as a genuine, visceral shock.
And finally there’s Anthony Zerbe’s performance as the soft-spoken yet charismatic Brother Mathias. Mathias is far and away the most compelling character in The Omega Man, the plum part in this script. While the performance could easily have gone the unhinged and maniacal route, Zerbe brings a quiet, intellectual zealotry to the character that’s both unexpected and unsettling. When he challenges Neville’s world view in a kangaroo court, he addresses his adversary with the patient determination of an attorney playing the good cop. And when he leads the Family in the chant of, “We will cleanse the world,” we fear him precisely for his calm, meditative demeanor. The world has definitely changed. This is Mathias’ world now–and he may or may not let us live in it.
So–is The Omega Man a bad movie? By many metrics, it is. Is it Fear No Evil, smash-with-a-hammer bad? Hell no. It’s frequently embarrassing and laughable–to anyone who isn’t nine. It’s still a movie I’m hesitant to admit not just that I like, but how much I like. It’s everything that’s wrong with 70’s cinema along with everything that’s right. It brings me back to my unsophisticated youth, but also pays unexpected dividends on repeated viewing. Surprisingly intelligent and thematically rich, even if that thematic richness, like fake blood, is splattered indiscriminately, occasionally sticky and cloying.
Chris Duryea is a writer, educator, and blogger living in the greater Boston area. Read his blog at www.chduryea.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. He is currently at work on his first novel, a dieselpunk-infused, second world fantasy.