The Omega Man

Starring: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe and Rosalind Cash
Warner Home Video
RRP 12.99
Certificate: PG
Available now

Seventies end-of-the-world movie? Call for Chuck H. This time he's doctor and army colonel Robert Neville, the one man immune to the outbreak of global germ warfare. But if Mankind is dying out, Neville ain't alone. First, there's The Family, a bunch of albino guys and gals who've also been turned into atavistic, homicidal loonies. and then, there's the possibility that a few others have not fully succumbed to the virus. Based on Richard Matheson's I Am Legend...

Be honest. This film is, at best, a guilty pleasure. Sure, it was prescient and its warning still holds. No contest, there are some well-executed scenes, such as the eerie opening in a deserted downtown LA. And it zips through its 98 minutes. But, a 'good' movie?

Let's start with Heston. He gives one of his off-the-shelf he-man performances, delivering the epithets 'bastard', 'sonofabitch' and 'dammit' as only he can. Some of his cynicism is amusing, but we have been here a thousand times before. And - SPOILER ALERT, SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU'VE JUST ARRIVED FROM MARS - Neville even gets to die in a crucifixion pose.

Then there are the bad guys. They are led by Anthony Zerbe, possessor of the world's only right-angled eyebrows, in a Jimmy Saville wig. His followers are decked out in black robes and cowls and given to repeating the last word of the Zerbster's sentences in a way that reminds you of nothing more than a goth version of Cardinal Fang and the Spanish Inquisition. "Among our weapons are silly contact lenses, a daily facial wash in Fuller's Earth and an almost fanatical devotion to ham acting."

On top of all that, there is the dialogue. Does Zerbe really order Heston to be hauled off at one point with the words: "Take him to the little room... for questioning"? You'd better believe it (although while I freeze framed, I must admit I couldn't spot the comfy chair).

So what stops you hitting 'eject'. Erm, give me a minute, with you in a sec, almost there, YES! There are some interesting things going on. The recreation of a deserted big city is as good, if not better than that in 28 Days Later, and director Boris Sagal holds the oppressive mood quite well. Meanwhile, a strong - but also very Prisoner-esque - score from Ron Goodwin helps build the tension when what is on-screen would otherwise fall flat. And when it sticks to being a B-movie the film gets in, does it job, and gets out quickly in a mindless Friday-night-at-the-multiplex way.

But, given the source material, it remains a disappointment. I Am Legend is a chilling - some would claim, classic - portrait of isolation. Unfortunately the screenwriters don't appear to have had quite as high an opinion of it as most other people, and bugger about giving the film their own political agenda.

The original's vampirism is dropped for bio-warfare ('twas the time of Agent Orange after all), as are other critical elements such as Neville's former best friend being his nemesis (Zerbe's character is instead a one-time TV pundit) and the role played by the 'hero's' wife (here replaced by a Black Power ally in Rosalind Cash). Then we get discontinuities like the hippy student who declares that it was his ambition to join Heston's bio-war lab. Oh really!

That last addition illustrates what really is wrong with the script. It is not they should not have tampered with the original text, but that they do it badly.

I know that some people like the film a lot (and, by the way, our esteemed editor is looking for something to fuel his mailbag). They will be pleased to know that the DVD transfer is good and there are some fun extras, alongside the ubiquitous trailer and - copied from the far superior Soylent Green disc - a very ho-hum 'essay' on Chuck's sci-fi movies.

A five-minute introduction from some of the cast members - but not Heston - and one of the screenwriters preaches quite nicely to the coverted. But the real nugget is an archive promo featuring Big Chuck discussing how he should approach the role with pop-anthropologist Ashley Montagu.

Strangely enough, the one aspect of a very staged encounter that rings true is Heston professing a familiarity with Montagu's work. The British-born professor played an important role in the US struggle for civil rights with groundbreaking works that destroyed the notion of race as a differentiator between peoples. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Heston, for his part, also supported that battle rather than the National Riflemen's Association, and marched alongside Martin Luther King in numerous protests.

History lesson aside, though, the promo is cheesy, a real Roquefort - and even if Montagu appears to offer some useful insights and suggestions, it is hard to see them in the finished product. Amusement comes more from watching the interplay between a slouching Heston and a very stiff academic, all aided by Mr Voice Over.

One, then, for fans only to buy and for others to rent when they fancy a retro-night around a four-pack.

Paul Dempsey

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