Richard Matheson’s landmark novel I Am Legend has yet to be filmed properly, with its full set of sociopolitical fangs intact, but of the three movies birthed from it thus far, Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971), is the most resonant, the one writhing with ideas and anxiety beneath its hippie-dippie coolness. Sure it dates, but Charlton Heston was nothing if not the ‘Nam era’s middle-aged poster-boy cynic-prick, here swapping out Matheson’s hammer-&-stake for a zombie-dispatching submachine gun in a post-apocalypse Los Angeles where Wadleigh’s Woodstock is still playing at the downtown bijou “for the third straight year!” Post-flower-power despair hangs in the movie like smog, but humanity’s salvation comes in the form of an interracial commune, inoculated with the aging conservative gun-nut’s copiously flowing blood. At the same time, Matheson’s bloodsuckers are retranslated here (by menopausal husband-wife screenwriter team John and Joyce Corrington) into cowl-wearing, acrobatic night-worshippers as creepy and inexplicable as your average plague of young E-stoked club-goers, sleeping the day away and occupying the after-hour streets with bonfires and chanting. (The lead boogeyman, the movie-stealing Anthony Zerbe, is more of an unsavory cult-leading opportunist than a rebel without a cause.) Sagal was merely a hack schooled in cheap TV, and his clueless eye doesn’t help things, but his film cannot help but exude a sense of waste and catastrophe that ranks as one of the clearest for the Nixon years, and which definitely finds new salience today, not in terms of generational combat but of sheer social-order chaos.
The Omega Man plays tonight at 6pm at MoMA.