I recently saw two films for the first time since childhood. If there is ever proof that we are not born with taste, that taste is a reflection of our willingness to move past what we know or are exposed to, then the proof is in this proverbial pudding. Two of the coolest movies to an adolescent in the early 1970s were Elvis On Tour (1972) and The Omega Man (1971). However, the sight of a pasty Rock and Roll King, dressed as a lounge lizard Batman, bejeweled in a string of rhinestone Christmas lights, with a shoe-polished football helmet for hair and sideburns reaching down to his collarbone, singing Sinatra’s “My Way”, is the stuff of nightmares.
Even more horrific is Omega Man‘s Charlton Heston as a doomsday martyr with a Savior complex, dying for our sins. Boris Sagal’s apocalyptic oater is a delightfully dated and tacky fantasy. Who better to fill that role than all-American, granite-jawed Heston? The dialogue is jaw dropping. Omega Man was one of several ideologically right-leaning science fiction films that Heston gravitated to. (His choice of roles revealed a shrewd awareness on the actor’s part towards development of a public persona). It was a natural to follow epic Biblical melodramas with parts casting him as a messianic loner. The essence of American power and strength, highlighted by his carved-in-marble Roman profile, Heston was built for adolescent males to emulate and females to swoon over.
Throughout the 60s and 70s Heston gravitated to roles that called for him to be impaled in the arc of the drama. El Cid (1961), Khartoum (1966), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Will Penny (1968), Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973) and The Last Hard Men (1976) all find Heston in St. Sebastian-mode.
Omega Man was (poorly) based on Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. The story had been previously filmed with a femmy Vincent Price in Last Man on Earth (1964), and would be later with Will Smith in I am Legend (2007). No version got it right, but the closest was George Romero‘s Night Of the Living Dead (1968), which was merely inspired by Matheson’s novel, rather than a direct adaptation.
Heston never looks more like an old man Jesus figurine than he does here, in his polyester white Baptist dress shirt and Fred Mertz-style high trousers, oozing blood. Heston is Neville, the lone survivor of the 1975 apocalypse.He shoves in an 8 track tape of Strangers In The Night as he cruises through the ghost town that used to be New York City (of course). He steps into a theater, turns on the projector, and watches Woodstock (1970) “showing in its third straight year.” Neville has every line of dialogue memorized.
He hears the city’s imaginary phones all ringing simultaneously and does his best James Franciscus impersonation: “There is no phone ringing, dammit! There is no phone!” (a line which echoes Jimmy’s’ “Get out of my head!” in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Neville sees a shadowy figure running behind a skyscraper window. Within a few seconds and a choppy edit, Neville pulls out his Tommy gun and rat-a-tat-tat!
“Oh my god it’s almost dark. They will be waking up soon!”
Yes, the mole men are coming. Thankfully, we have Chuck to set things right.
The mole men channel Ray Bradbury, torching Picassos and plenty of books.
“Shut up! Why can’t you leave me alone?”
Nevill dusts three mole men.
‘Not three!” “Yes, three. They should have stayed clear of the light!” “There was no light!”
“One creature. Alone. Outnumbered 100 to one. Nothing to live with except his gadgets, his toys, his stuff, his guns.”
“Honky paradise, brother.”
“Forget the old ways, Brother. Forget all your pains and remember the family is one against that thing! That creature of the wheel, that Lord of the infernal engines. He will be destroyed, but not by guns, not by evil things, not by the tools that destroyed the world…destroyed the world.”
Chuck has got the test vaccine to fight the plague: 93 b71. He injects himself before the evil can do its dirty deed, and thus he preserves himself as the sole, immune savior.
Head mole man Anthony Zerbe brings out the instruments of the Inquisition, planning to cleanse Chuck with fire !
Chuck cooks kielbasa for chess mate Ceasar, puts his shirt back on, dons a swashbuckling Errol Flynn corset, and aims his fire stick at the giant, Spanish crossbow thing-a-ma-jig.
Neville loses shirt again and exhales. A hot black babe takes the shape of Rosalind Cash. Chucky has a gf.
Strangers in the night, exchanging glances.
Chuck seized by the mole men!
“Take those Halloween costumes off.”
“Show him our pretty marks.” We reveal our inmost self unto our god (2 cent contact lenses).
Here comes gf to save the day, Chuck revs up his Honda, does his best Evel Knievel, and bonds with a Manson family-styled commune. “I was a med school student when they scratched the world.” The kids are spooked “with you shooting everything in sight.”
“Dr. Neville? Are you God?”
“Honey, let’s see if he is a good doctor first.”
“You’re immune?… with your blood, we could save the world.”
Now why Neville never bothers to explain this to Zerbe is a slight plot hole.
Chuck and Rosalind get naked. Adam/Eve. Alpha/Omega.
Ritchie, Rosalind’s brother, plays naive Judas and betrays Dr. Neville.
Chuck gives his blood, just like Jesus gave his, and meets his end, arms outstretched; a savior for us, a model to remember.
For lovers of great trash (and it still goes perfect with late night cardboard pizza).