Sci-Fi Review: "I am Legend" (book/movie)


May 18, 2012
Book: "I Am Legend" By Richard Matheson

Even depression and alcoholism can’t defeat a vampiric-zombie apocalypse.

Despite its vampire origins, this book originated many medical, zombie, dystopian thrillers. Robert Neville is alone. Very alone. Well, not completely alone. His family, friends, and neighbors have all come down with a bad case of vampirism. However, this sickness more closely resembles zombism (without the brain eating). The vampires have an intelligence much closer to (but slightly above) your typical walking dead.

The story opens with the protagonist literally boarded up in his home, living off a generator and the food he manages to pilfer during daylight hours. Over time, he has managed to find a way to survive in a world where people (and sometimes animals) are dying of this strange disease that very closely resembles vampirism. Despite the best efforts of the world’s scientists, everyone had gone to rot except Neville (or so we think). So he has shored up his existence with a greenhouse full of garlic, strategically placed mirrors and the occasional Christian cross. All this helps to keep the relentless vampire apocalypse at bay during the wearisome nights. During the day, Neville makes repairs to his fortifications, hunts downed weaken vampires and dispatches them with wooden stakes and picks up supplies around the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The author brings a nice sort of thriller-suspense element to the table as he plays with this constant cycle of safety and danger as the sun rises and sets.

The nights are where the fun begins. At sundown, Neville must be back home safe and sound or risk being overwhelmed by the masses. The vampires are not too strong physically, but at night they are at full strength and they come out in never ending swarms. Every single evening, Neville sits in his home stares at a mural of some nameless and beautiful landscape of a long forgotten time of yore and drinks himself into numbness at he listens to the vampires throw rocks at his windows and mirrors, beat on his walls and (in a particularly chilling way) call out his name.

The author makes interesting leaps into scientific plausibility for this plague that has besot mankind. He mixes in classic vampire legend with microbiology and psychology. It’s a great mix for pleasing modern readers. The theories for how some of the vampire legends evolved from truth (like the chemical qualities in garlic scent being repellent to the vampire germ) and some are just psychological (the Christian vampires fear a cross because somewhere in their infected brains they have memories that tell them they should be). The main character is just a plant worker, an everyman. Yet, we follow along with him over the months as he educates himself with library books on how to learn about microbiology and test out theories and hypothesis on the vampires so that he can learn what happened and why its happened, and see if maybe he can change the course of things. He’s pretty much alone with a lot of time on his hand (in between vampire slayings), but it may be a bit of stretch given that he does have daily maintenance on his home/fortress to keep up and supplies to obtain (and there is nobody around to help him). Still these ideas of working science into legend really help to build up the mystery, suspense, and tension. They are also the precursor elements for many similar books to come.

The true story is here. It’s not about vampires, zombies, or zombie-vampire hybrids. It’s about a man who thinks he’s the only person left in the world. Who has buried and reburied his loved ones. A man utterly broken and alone, fueled on fumes of whisky to carry out the primal instincts of his body. Survival. Some reviews may disagree, but the book has real strength here. We get inside this man’s head and really feel his struggle and his sense of hopelessness. We follow his ups and downs as little glints of hope dash past him and then are snatched away by the cruel reality of this dystopian world: his mind’s struggle with his body’s desire—the impetus of life. Of particular note, is Neville’s struggle with carnal temptation when the female vampires outside his house try to tempt him with their attributes of flesh, his spiral into deeper and deeper alcoholism and his violent lashings of frustration at the trappings of his environment. All of this is felt and related to the reader in a very compelling way. This, my fiends, is the heart of the story.

The ending, which is a bit of a twist, sets a nice perspective on things. It’s dark and sort of unsuspecting. The author goes from spending a vast majority of the book, zoomed tightly and claustrophobically on a sole protagonist to suddenly panning wide and taking in a much broader view. Sort of inline with the Twilight Zone style that the author helped create when he wrote for that show.

Movies: As part of reading this book for my podcast we also watched the three movie versions (I think there is also a straight to DVD fourth version as well).

Classic horror actor Vincent Price starred in the first one (The Last Man On Earth) which was filmed in black and white without sound - so it's over dubbed. This film was a little wooden but probably stuck the closest to the original work. In fact, Richard Matheson himself was involved with the writing of the script but ultimately changed his name to a pseudonym because he didn't like the results. If you watch it, watch it in black and white.

Charlton Heston starred in the second version (The Omega Man). This one was probably the best of the three. While it does stray from the book, it has real heart. The main actors put on good performances in dealing with the crazy nocturnal albino mutant society that has arisen in this post apocalyptic world. Major complaint - the cheesy and awful music. Bonus - Charlton Heston delivers some cheesy one-liners that will set the stage for Arnold Schwarzenegger in years to come.

Will Smith stars in the third version we watched (I Am Legend). This movie is rife with big budget effects, but probably also suffers from this. The CGI vampires make it a bit cartooney. It also strays from the book a lot. I wasn't a fan of Will Smith in this role, but he does have a compelling scene with his dog at one point.

Lastly, I'll add that all three movies convert the protagonist into a "scientist," rather than the gritty everyman he is in the book. I guess Hollywood felt too nervous about a regular person, putting in the time to learn about chemistry and biology to try and discover the secrets behind the vampire-disease afflicting the world. However, Matheson made it work in the book, and making the character an ordinary person just trying to survive on his own tenacity was a much more compelling tale then the three movies tell.... but I guess that's nothing new.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic), this book and the movies based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: "No Deodorant In Outer Space". The podcast is available on iTunes or our website.
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