In the late ’60 and early ’70s, long after he had already conquered pop culture as Ben Hur, Moses, and God (that’s right, he’s the voice in the burning bush scene opposite himself in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but not the voice in the tablet scene…so now you know), Charlton Heston cornered the market on post-apocalyptic heroism with a dash of masculine entitlement and a pinch of unbridled arrogance. PLANET OF THE APES, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE OMEGA MAN, and SOYLENT GREEN established Heston as our grinning, gun-toting hero with a heart of iron. And arguably the most balls-to-the-wall example of Heston at his most “Chuck” is in 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN, celebrating its 45th anniversary this very day!
The second of three (to date) adaptations of Richard Matheson’s highly influential 1954 vampire novel, I AM LEGEND – which was also more or less the direct inspiration for George Romero’s ghoulish NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – THE OMEGA MAN may not have traditional zombies by any stretch of the imagination, but I counted it for inclusion in ZOMBIEMANIA for two reasons. One, the mutated members of the Family exhibit behavior similar to that of Voodoo-era zombies, behaving as if psychically connected and under the sway of a “high priest,” the deranged demagogue Matthias. Two, I love the movie. So there.
Why do I love THE OMEGA MAN? Well, there’s Heston’s swaggering performance, the now horribly dated but then-progressive attempt at race-mixing romance, the eerie makeup that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny but definitely weirded me out as a kid, the absolutely mesmerizing musical score by Ron Grainer (the perfect accompaniment to a long road trip, if only all the other cars would get off the highway to satisfy my desire to play Robert Neville), and even the insanely self-important behind-the-scenes contemporary promotional featurette in which Heston waxes philosophical with anthropologist Dr. Ashley Montague!
And let’s not forget that Heston, having already played God, keeps getting mistaken for the deity in his ’70s roles. Here, a young girl asks him point blank if he is God…and he doesn’t say no! After all, why should he? He’s “genuine, 160-proof old Anglo-Saxon, baby!” And then there’s the final scene…but perhaps I’ll leave that for you to enjoy in all its sledgehammer subtlety yourself.
Yes, this is an occasionally embarrassing slice of ’70s exploitation cinema, with some jarringly unsubtle observations on race relations and an almost laughable attempt at deeper social commentary on Man’s inhumanity to Man as well as the struggle between the forces of technological progress and primitive religious traditionalism. But the real value of THE OMEGA MAN is its kitschy sci-fi charm, Heston’s Hestonism, Anthony Zerbe’s hammy villainy as Matthias, and that Grainer score. The movie also set a benchmark for post-apocalyptic adventure that has influenced film makers for decades afterward, resulting in the likes of NIGHT OF THE COMET and 28 DAYS LATER…, and that’s no small achievement.
And remember…”THERE IS NO PHONE RINGING, DAMMIT!”
(Parts of this article were quoted and/or rewritten from the book I co-authored with Andy Hershberger, the now sadly out-of-print ZOMBIEMANIA: 80 MOVIES TO DIE FOR, published in 2006. It was one of the earliest comprehensive guides to the zombie movie genre, and we’re now working on an updated, expanded edition titled ZOMBIEMANIA RISES: 100 MOVIES TO DIE FOR. So take heart…and brains…and intestines…)