I Am Legend: The tragic story of the book that Hollywood hates.

I Am Legend is an awesome book. It's probably better in memory then in actuality, but I don't really care. I loved that book as a kid, and again as a slightly older kid, and then as whatever the hell I am now.
It's both an excellent horror novel, an engaging portrait of extreme loneliness, and a thrilling adventure. It's author, Richard Matheson, really sort of pioneered the concept of an apocalyptic and inhospitable world populated by things that want to eat you- things created by science, things that could be explained by logic. It's the mixture of science and terror, emotion and gore, that really sell I Am Legend, and cement its place as one of the rather prolific authors best stories.
The book follows Robert Neville, who is, as far as he knows, the only survivor of a worldwide disaster/plague of some sort that turns everyone else into flesh eating, night walking monsters. By day, he ventures into the world, gathering supplies, being depressed and moody, visiting the shrine to his dead family, and methodically searching for, and killing the then comatose monsters.
By night, he retreats to his house/fortress, drinks, and deals with their attempted reprisals. If this sounds simplistic, it isn't- there is a lot to spoil, and the story touches on so many things that it still remains fresh after all these years, despite, at this point, this sort of set-up seeming rather old hat.
Though the books creatures are more akin to vampires then literal zombies, and most snooty 'zombie elitists' (yes, they exist) will sneer at this distinction, most of them behave much more like the zombies that have come to dominate popular culture- and the novel inspired countless zombie movies and tales that came after, especially the granddaddy of them all, Night of the Living Dead.
However, all is not well with this books legacy. It has inspired three different film versions, and all of them are utterly terrible.
The first attempt, 1964's 'The Last Man On Earth', was a joke. It stayed impressively close to the book, but starred Vincent Price as the main character.
With his creepy mannerisms and unsettling voice, he's a perfect villain- but as a hero he just came off like a perverted survivalist nut who was constantly fondling things and impossible to take seriously.
It didn't help that the 'creatures' were made up of what seems to be the least enthusastic extras of any film ever- they're repeated cries for blood sound like some sort of retarded choir practicing selling peanuts.
It also doesn't help that the more 'advanced' zombie vampires, that come out towards the end, look like some weird militant beatnik dance cult. We've seen the future, and it is wearing a beret.
It gets points for being faithful, but loses all of them for being executed so amazingly terribly it makes the whole thing seem silly. I would recommend watching this film, after reading the book, only if you can completely divorce the memory of it from the novel itself.
Here's the trailer:
Next came 'The Omega Man', which is god awful on so many levels- but, at the same time, relentlessly entertaining because of it's sheer cheese factor. You will see many worse movies, but you will never see one quite like this.
It stars Charleston Heston as a man named Robert Neville, which is about the only similarity with the novel. It's got a sassy black girl with a afro, a bunch of shirtless boys on motorcycles, a soundtrack that is so dated and ill-fitting it comes off like some sort of modern art sound clash, and probably the most nonsensical plot that could be dredged up.
Probably the 'best' part of the film are the creatures- instead of the shuffling, animalistic zombies of the novel, Heston is up against some sort of wierd order of albino monks, who run around in robes and wear sunglasses and all appear to have been dipped in flour.
Their weird reliance on medieval weapons and stilted speech patterns totally baffle the mind, as do the scripts constant insistence that Charleton Heston was one of the best scientists of all time, despite him mostly parading around with his shirt off and shooting things at random.
Here's the trailer.
Now of course, we have the recent 'I Am Legend', which pretty much went right everywhere it stayed with the book, and wrong everywhere it didn't. I'm no idealist- I know that to film a novel you have to make concessions for the difference in the medium, to fit everything in- but they changed and bastardized so many things, so needlessly, to make the movie, it's a shame they even share a name.
But lets forget about these three absolute travesties of cinema, and I'm talking mostly to you, Omega Man, though that movie is perfect for a get-drunk-and-watch-terrible-things-and-laugh-uncontrollably-until-someone-chokes-to-death kind of night.
I Am Legend remains an extremely influential, and gripping, novel, that, despite being written in 1954 and dealing extensively with what is now some rather well-treaded post-apocalyptic ground, still feels new and exciting.

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