Book Vs. Film Special Mega Bonus Edition: I Am Legend

Book Vs. Film Special Mega Bonus Edition: I Am Legend

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

Novella: "I Am Legend," Richard Matheson, 1956

Film: I Am Legend, adapted by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, directed by Francis Lawrence, 2007

Film: I Am Omega, adapted by Griff Furst, directed by Geoff Meed, 2007

Film: The Omega Man, adapted by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, directed by Boris Sagal, 1971

Film: The Last Man On Earth, adapted by Richard Matheson (as Logan Swanson), and William F. Leicester, directed by Sidney Salkow, 1964

Richard Matheson has a mildly special place in my heart, as the writer who taught me that authorship matters. In fifth grade, I ran across his classic short story "Born Of Man And Woman," and it gave me the serious chills. Some time later, I read another story of his, "Dress Of White Silk," and realized it was recognizably written in the same voice. A little light went on in my head. For whatever reason, even though I was accustomed to working my way through entire library shelves of books in a series by, say, Beverly Cleary or Scott Corbett, and I understood that single authors sometimes produced many books about the same characters, it had never properly occurred to me that authors often have distinct authorial voices, and that if I liked the way a specific book read, I could go back to the same author for something in that same style. It was simultaneously exciting, liberating, and kind of a "duh!" moment.

And looking back on it, it was also sort of ironic, because I eventually wound up discovering that I didn't actually like Matheson's authorial voice much. His short stories are often terrific–"Mad House" strikes me as particularly brilliant–but I tend to find his writing style blunt and simplistic, full of flat declarative sentences, unnuanced characters, and windy vapidity. (In keeping with my book-vs.-film fascination, I read his novel A Stir Of Echoes three years ago out of curiosity, but put his What Dreams May Come down half-read the following year, and never went back. I've considered writing it up for this column, but that would require finishing the book and watching the film again, and my Robin Williams tolerance plunges annually.) So while I remembered "I Am Legend" as being at least entertaining the first time I read it, when I re-read it last week, I found it fairly tedious.

But it has a really unbeatable premise: There's a man who's fairly sick of life, but has to fight for it every day, because he lives in a world populated entirely by monsters. He's alone, and has been for years–so far as he knows, he's the last man alive. And then one day, out of the blue, a woman turns up.

It's pretty clear that this is a winning premise, because the four films based on "I Am Legend" all hung onto it, even the ones that tossed out pretty much everything else. In fact, some of them have so little to do with the source material that for this column, I'm not going to bother with what the films change from the book; it'll be much shorter and simpler to discuss what they actually keep.

But to do that, we have to start with the novella: What it's about, what it does well, and why I find it so dull. Basically, it's written as a sort of choppy two-act play. In the first half, Robert Neville, the as-far-as-he-knows last man on earth, is living an uneasy life because he's surrounded by vampires. There was a war; the sides or causes are never discussed, though America apparently won. The horrible weapons used apparently caused terrible dust storms. Then suddenly mosquitoes were everywhere, and then a plague hit and people started dying. And then they all came back from the dead, though most people refused to believe in vampires until it was too late. And somehow, the only person who survived is Robert Neville, a none-too-bright blue-collar worker. (There's a vague mention of his plant closing down, but no details about his job.) He theorizes, eventually, that he's immune to the vampire bug because he was once bitten by a vampire bat and exposed to a weak version of the bacilli, but there's no proof of that.

So he lives in his old house, now with the windows boarded up. And every day, he goes out and gathers supplies and fortifies his den, and every night, the vampires gather around, fight and howl, occasionally eating each other, and waiting for him to snap and come outside. One of Neville's former neighbors, Ben Cortman, is now a vampire, and apparently a fairly smart one; while the others all apparently howl mindlessly, he calls "Come out, Neville!" over and over, in one of the book's creepier touches. None of the other vampires speak, though presumably they have some brains, since the women keep stripping and dancing luridly to try to draw him out. Neville obviously hasn't gotten laid in quite some time, what with being the last man on earth and all; the novella points out many, many times that he's thinking about women and that it's really getting to him. Later, he starts doing experiments on vampires, and he always chooses women, and he always thinks about their bodies and scolds himself for it. The childish, naughty prurience of this whole business is worthy of a Piers Anthony novel.

On some level, the book is immersive as it describes the little details of Neville's solitary, hanging-by-a-thread life: He grows and harvests garlic, hanging it from his doors and boarded-up windows. He goes from house to house, killing vampires during the day. He muses about why they are the way they are, and constructs basic tests to find out whether various vampire-related superstitions are true. Periodically, he rages and smashes things, or drinks himself into oblivion. It all pretty much reads like this:

 

Driving slowly to Sears, he tried to forget by wondering why it was that only wooden stakes should work.

He frowned as he drove along the empty boulevard, the only sound the muted growling of the motor in his car. It seemed fantastic that it had taken him five months to start wondering about it.

Which brought another question to mind. How was it that he always managed to hit the heart? It had to be the heart; Dr. Busch had said so. Yet he, Neville, had no anatomical knowledge.

His brow furrowed. It irritated him that he should have gone through this hideous process so long without stopping once to question it.

He shook his head. No, I should think it over carefully, he thought. I should collect all the questions before I try to answer them. Things should be done the right way, the scientific way.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he thought. Shades of old Fritz. That had been his father's name. Neville had loathed his father, and fought the acquisition of his father's logic and mechanical facility every inch of the way. His father had died denying the vampire, violently, to the last.

At Sears he got the lathe, loaded it into the station wagon, then searched the store.

There were five of them in the basement, hiding in various shadowed places. One of them, Neville found inside a display freezer. When he saw the man lying there in his enamel coffin, he had to laugh; it seemed such a funny place to hide.

Later, he thought of what a humorless world it was when he could find amusement in such a thing.

About 2 o'clock, he parked and ate his lunch. Everything seemed to taste of garlic…

After lunch, he went from house to house and used up all his stakes. He had forty-seven stakes.

 

And this is why I find the book tedious. Much of it is long passages of trivial detail about what he's thinking and doing, and given his simple life, he tends to think and do the same things over and over. And it's written in such a limping, tell-don't-show style that it often isn't very interesting. Flashbacks break the monotony by explaining how Neville's family died: His daughter succumbed to the plague, and her body was burned in a mass cremation pit; when his wife died, he buried her himself to spare her that, so she came back as a vampire. Presumably he killed her, since he later visits her mausoleum, but no details are ever given. Which is pretty typical of "I Am Legend"–Matheson is apparently trying to wear his readers down and make them feel as exhausted and tedium-racked as Neville himself. So key moments like him having to kill his wife are missing, but we get pages upon pages of banal, empty flashback dialogue where they argue about whether she's healthy enough to cook him breakfast, or should just go back to bed.

Here's another case where all the details are intact until a key moment: Eventually, Neville runs across a dog that hasn't died or become a vampire dog, and he's ecstatic. He spends a full 18 pages of the 159-page novella trying to lure the dog in. It's hurt and cagey, and he has to seduce it slowly with food and water and trust and distance, and it's all he thinks about, and the whole process is described in excruciatingly mundane, minute detail. Finally, he captures it and brings it in, but it still doesn't trust him, and he has to spend more time winning it over. The sequence ends abruptly with the sentence "In a week the dog was dead." No explanation, and nothing more ever said about it; all this is apparently just in there as another body blow to his humanity.

Then the book suddenly skips forward three years; I'm not sure why, except that it lets Matheson point out that Neville has survived a long time in his vampy world, and has become jaded, and that his sexual drive has faded away, so we don't have to endure him thinking about "the women and their bodies" over and over. Pre-time-jump Neville was fairly thick; he took an interest in the science of vampires, but his clumsy research, captured in plodding point-by-point detail, often came to nothing. Post-jump Neville is more mature and settled, and has done more experiments and learned more about the biology of vampirism.

Then the woman turns up. When she sees him, she runs in terror, and he runs her down and bullies her back to his house, ostensibly for her protection, but more obviously because he doesn't want to be alone. Matheson repeatedly points out that Neville isn't sexually attracted to her, because that part of him is dead; in fact, her body kind of repulses him. Man, the misogyny runs thick in this book.

To cut a long story short (mostly because all the detail above is relevant to the film adaptations, whereas what comes next is only pertinent to one of those films), Neville spends a lot of time bullying the woman, Ruth, and emotionally blackmailing her or threatening her. Even though he met her during the day, when the vampires can't come out, he thinks she might be a vampire, or she might be infected. They have long, tedious conversations about the disease that produces vampirism, and how it spreads, and why he doesn't have it, and about her life. He's brutal to her and she cries a lot. Nonetheless, she develops a sympathy for him, and confesses that yes, she's carrying the vampire plague, and she's a spy and an infiltrator, and her people are coming for him. She represents the faction of infected people who never died, so while they're essentially vampires, they aren't mindless monsters, and they're rebuilding society. But this requires them to do away with the dead monster-type vampires, and with Neville, whom everyone considers a monster himself, because he stalks the daytime and kills people in their beds, leaving behind withered corpses.

And this is the point of the title, and the point of the book. Neville has become to vampires what vampires used to be to people: An unnatural monster with special powers, a creepy horror that kills indiscriminately. In the end, they break into his home, capture him, jail him, and prep him for public execution, to help still the population's terror of the monster. The story ends with him taking some poison Ruth gave him, and musing over his legacy, and how he's become legend.

So basically, the novella has three major thrusts. 1) Here's what being all alone in the world is like. Isn't it dull and awful? But would death be any better? 2) All the superstitions about vampires (fear of garlic, mirrors, running water, crosses, etc.) might have some basis in science, or they might not. Let's analyze each one in tiny detail, with a lot of theorizing and some experiments carried out on vampires. 3) A human in a world of monsters would be as scary as a monster in a world of humans.

To my mind, the major problem with the novella is that Matheson doesn't really integrate those three things at all, and the result is a crowded, overlong, detail-numbed book. I suspect it would have worked much better as a simple short story without all the experimentation on vampires and day-to-day Neville-ism–basically, just a setup and then a punchline in the form of thrust #3, the really innovative one.

Of course, it's also the one that gets lost from virtually every film adaptation of Matheson's book. Taking them in order from most faithful to least:

The Last Man On Earth, 1964

The first adaptation of "I Am Legend" is surprisingly true to the novel. It begins in September 1968, with shots of deserted streets strewn with corpses. Vincent Price starts as Neville, though his name's been changed to Robert Morgan for some reason. Also, rather than a factory worker, he's a brilliant lab scientist who was uniquely positioned to learn about the vampire bug as it spread, and to watch as Ben Cortman, his colleague at the lab, became increasingly frantic and paranoid about how vampires were totally taking over.

Apart from all the insight into Ben's pre-vampire life–a sequence at Morgan's daughter's birthday party, where Cortman shows up and everyone talks civilly together about the dust storms and the plague tearing across Europe; a scene at Cortman's garlic-festooned home, where he raves about vampires–the film follows the novella step-by-step. It naturally omits all the pointless dialogue and circular activity, and it also omits most of Neville's experiments on vampires: injecting garlic into their bloodstream to see what will happen, dragging them out into the sun, etc. But it does follow Morgan around on his errands, picking up garlic from the supermarket (where it's apparently stayed fresh in the meat locker for three years somehow), sharpening stakes and killing vamps, and so forth.

A few noteworthy changes:

• The film spends far more time than the novella on Morgan/Neville's daughter. She's a cipher in the novella, barely mentioned except when Matheson covers her father's trauma over taking her body to be burnt. In the film, we watch extensive scenes of her playing with friends and running around, then later lying in her bed, succumbing gradually to the plague, moaning for her mother as she goes blind under the disease's influence. It's pretty chilling.

• The sequence with the dog is far less protracted. He runs across it, offers it food, lures it in. Then he tests its blood and realizes it's infected. We next see him burying a dog-sized bundle with a wooden stake sticking out of it. Creepy!

• But then again, it's Vincent Price, and virtually everything he does is creepy. In one scene, he watches astonishingly high-fidelity home movies of his dead family, and laughs hysterically at their antics, until he breaks down weeping. His eerie, unsettling laughter is the scariest part of the film.

• Toward the end, he decides the antibodies in his blood will cure Ruth of her vampirism, so he injects his blood into her as she sleeps. She wakes up cured, happily able to sniff garlic, and confesses that she's a spy and her people are coming, but now they don't have to kill Morgan, because he can cure them all. But when her people show up in massive force, she isn't able to get them to listen to her.

• In the film's biggest departure from the book, Morgan doesn't get captured by Ruth's people; when they break in, rather than trying to explain or negotiate, he shoots several of them, then runs away, tossing weak little grenades at them as though trying to attract their attention. Eventually, they bring him to bay on the altar of a church. Meanwhile, their women and children, who are inexplicably following the vampire paramilitary force around, file quietly into the church. He screams at them "All of you freaks! Mutations! You're freaks! I'm a man! The last man!" Then one of the vampire soldiers kills him with a spear, and rightly so; he's pretty clearly a crazy, crazy, dangerous bastard. And Vincent Price, which in and of itself probably merits death.

The quick summary: This film version actually improves on the book in some places, by taking a longer look at the world pre-calamity, so you can really feel how awful and jarring the world post-calamity is. Still, tedious, sentimental, extensive Price voiceovers drag it down quite a bit. Later adaptations give the protagonist something onscreen to talk to; this one forces him to talk to the viewer, and the results are pretty stilted. The black-and-white cinematography is more muddy than sharp, and Price is unpleasant and stuffy enough to make a not-so-appealing protagonist. Overall, the whole film is a little stiff and staid, but it takes the subject matter pretty seriously, and it's mildly spooky and solidly interesting to watch. Oh, and unlike the rest of the films below, it actually, you know, adapts the book.

 

The Omega Man, 1971

Oh, Charlton Heston, with your horse teeth and self-satisfied "I'm too sexy for this tan" drawl. Is there no movie you can't simultaneously make more cheesy and more entertaining? Actually, The Omega Man would probably be plenty cheesy without him for various reasons, beginning with its must-be-seen-to-be-believed bad guys. In this version of the story, the plague wiped out a lot of people, and the survivors all turned into hideously scarred albinos who, for some unknown reason, were all biologically compelled to don Jawa robes and sunglasses. They look like the bargain-basement version of the mutants from Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.

The sunglasses at least have a point: The plague victims are all extremely light-sensitive, and the glasses protect their eyes. Still, it's impossible not to laugh whenever a mob of them shows up in their monk robes and faux-cool shades. It looks like the costumers blew about $15 on each actor and called it good. They're impossible to take seriously as bad guys.

Heston is pretty hard to take seriously, too. Like Price's version of Robert Neville, Heston's version is a scientist who was working on a cure for the plague. The film opens with him cruising around L.A., fast and angry, then whipping out a big-ass gun to shoot at a moving shadow behind a window. Since there's initially no indication that this is a post-apocalyptic movie, he comes across like a loony, possibly a criminal who goes around shooting up buildings. He never really becomes convincing, either as a survivor type or as a scientist: He's Charlton Heston, frequently shirtless and sweaty or oiled-up.

Like the novella and the previous film version, The Omega Man walks through a bunch of detail about Heston's day-to-day life as the last man on earth. He plods around, he shoots up buildings, he goes into a movie theater and watches Woodstock and recites along with the dialogue, to indicate how often he's seen it. He gathers supplies. At one point, all the phones in the area start ringing, and he screams "There is no phone ringing, dammit! There is no phone!" Then he goes home to his high-rise, where he, um, dresses in a frilly poet shirt and a velvet lounge jacket and plays chess with a bust of Caesar while chatting it up. He leaves the windows open so he can hear the mob of mutants below chanting "Come out, Neville!" in one of the few direct steals from the novella.

What does Omega Man actually keep from "I Am Legend"? Not much. There's this guy, and he thinks he's the last man on earth, and we watch him think that for a while and go about his routine. The mutants do catch him and put him on trial and attempt to publicly execute him for his crimes, though in this case, it's because their leader (Anthony Zerbe) has proclaimed him a representative of the evil machine society that spawned the plague. (The mutants eschew guns and anything else high-tech. In the film's most hilarious scene, they show up at Neville's house to lob flaming rocks at it with a trebuchet. Zerbe, presiding over his trial: "Is he of the Family? Is he of the sacred society? Then what is he? He is part of the dead. He has the stink of oil and electrical circuitry about him. He is obsolete. You are discarded. You are the refuse of the past.") Okay, wait, maybe the film's most hilarious scene is when they clap a dunce cap on him and throw him onto a tumbrel to roll him off for execution. Actually, the film has a lot of most-hilarious scenes, largely having to do with robed albinos throwing themselves off of buildings and onto Heston, or sitting around in rooms mumbling to each other. Well, those scenes and the ones with Heston talking to Caesar.

Anyway. The other thing the film actually keeps from the book is the moment where a girl suddenly shows up, and the astonished last man on earth chases her around. In this case, though, the girl (Rosalind Cash) isn't a vampire spy, she's a sassy black momma with a big 'fro and a righteous '70s 'tude. At least half the time, she sounds about three seconds off from calling Heston a jive, nowhere turkey. She also turns out to be one of a group of survivors, mostly kids, hiding out in the hills. Her brother has the plague and is on the verge of going over and becoming one of "the Family," meaning he's becoming chalky makeup-pale and might don a Jawa robe at any minute. But Heston-Neville, borrowing a trick from his predecessor in Last Man On Earth, cures the kid with a blood infusion. Then protracted silliness happens.

Oh, incidentally? Heston-Neville is immune to the plague because he shot himself up with the first and last dose of the experimental cure he was working on.

The quick summary: This version of the story is unintentional high camp. It has a lot of the rawness and sprawling pacing of a '70s classic, without the serious material that might make those elements palatable. It's profoundly self-important, in ways that are utterly unearned. It plays like a drive-in-movie horror film, goofy and glaring and cheap. But boy, if you have the hots for Heston's oiled-up, half-naked bod, yet you don't like films about gladiators, this is the movie for you. Just try not to roll your eyes at Heston's pointedly Christ-like death at the end. Like Price-Neville in Last Man On Earth, Heston-Neville winds up at the wrong end of a spear, but he's standing in a fountain at the time. By the time he dies, his blood has suffused the fountain, leaving him standing ankle-deep in blood-water. The survivors take some of that with them, with the implication being that they'll somehow be able to use their no technology whatsoever to synthesize a cure from his blood. Then he dies, arms spread wide, legs together and turned to the side, a spear in his side, all in an unmistakable Christ-on-the-cross image. Gag.

 

I Am Legend, 2007

The most recent take on "I Am Legend" isn't really any more or less faithful than Omega Man, but it needs to come after it simply so I can point out what the latter film took from the former. I Am Legend isn't a remake of Omega Man, but it borrows liberally and obviously from the earlier movie, almost as much as it borrows from the novella it's supposedly based on. The two films open the same way, with the protagonist (in this case, Will Smith, who keeps the Robert Neville name) cruising around deserted streets, driving fast and angry because he knows he can, because nobody else is going to be on the streets. I'm relatively convinced that the conceit of Will Smith populating his world with mannequins which he talks to was inspired by Omega Man's conversations with Caesar, since there's no such thing in the novella.

And the scene in which Smith-Neville watches Shrek and recites along with the dialogue at excruciating length is straight out of Omega Man, though at least in the former case, Heston-Neville was alone, and not subjecting anyone else to his movie-karaoke.

That aside, what does I Am Legend take from "I Am Legend"? Again, not a lot. There's a last man on earth, you see a lot of his day-to-day routine, and then a woman shows up.

That's being a little flippant. One thing I Am Legend does tackle that none of the others do is the idea of the protagonist carrying out lengthy, tedious experiments on the monsters around him, trying to learn more about them. (Once again, as in the previous two movies, Robert Neville is a prominent lab doctor rather than a common grunt, and he was intimately involved in plague research before society fell.) Granted, in Smith-Neville's case, he's trying to find a cure for the plague rather than just get to the root cause, which is already well-known: It's a manufactured cancer cure that mutated, turning the majority of the population into… well, they aren't vampires, exactly. They're light-sensitive and they drink blood, but they're also hairless, scrawny CGI creatures that have as much in common with the zombies of 28 Days Later as they do with vampires.

One change that seems significant, since Legend is the only one of the four films to do this: The infected don't know where Smith-Neville lives. While the creatures in the novella and the first two films are weak and limited enough that the best they can do is stand around the protagonist's home and chant for him to come out, the infected in Legend are super-strong bad-asses, and when they learn where he lives, his elaborate defenses don't hold them back for long; they rip through the walls and ceilings to get to him.

I Am Legend maintains some very, very broad parallels to the novella. For instance, there are flashbacks to Smith-Neville's pre-plague life, and we get to see how his wife and child died–not as victims of the plague, but in a helicopter crash while trying to escape Manhattan. Smith-Neville has a dog; eventually, it gets infected with the vampire disease and he has to kill it, though where the dog death amounted to a single sentence in the novella, it's the most plaintive, heartbreaking scene in the movie. And when the woman (Alice Braga) shows up, he's surly and suspicious and off-putting rather than visibly glad to see her, even though she saves his life when he starts doing suicidally stupid things after his dog dies.

At that point, though, the resemblances to the novella pretty well end, and I Am Legend follows far more closely in the footsteps of The Omega Man: The woman is uninfected and human, and trying to get to a uninfected-human enclave called Antioch. The film briefly throws fans of the novella a curveball when Braga sees the evidence of Smith's work: He captures infected people and experiments on them, and they've all died. He has a gallery of Polaroids of his experiments, which amounts to a wall of pictures of the dead, and she looks at it with sympathy for his victims, and more than a little sad condemnation of his work. Which might lead canny viewers to think she's one of them, but nope, it's a red herring.

As in I Am Omega, it turns out that Smith-Neville's blood holds the secret to a cure for monsterism, so in the end, when he and Braga and the child she's traveling with are trapped in his lab, surrounded by the infected, he sacrifices himself so she can get away with a vial of his blood. The film ends with her making it to Antioch, and a voiceover explaining that Smith-Neville sacrificed his life to provide a cure, so among the survivors… he is legend.

Sigh.

The quick summary: I've already reviewed this film, so I don't have a ton more to say. It's basically an action film inspired by rather than based on the novella, so it isn't much of an adaptation. Considered solely on its own merits, it's about half a decent movie; like the novella and the films before it, it trades heavily on the deadening horror of being entirely alone for years on end. What it does do that none of the others do, and which I found particularly interesting, was acknowledge the wish-fulfillment aspects of a solitary life as well. Smith-Neville is miserable and lonely, but he doesn't let that stop him from nabbing a hot car and speeding around Manhattan like a madman, or practicing his golf swing from the wing of a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier down at the docks. All of Manhattan is his, and he takes advantage of it, and much of the first hour of the film is spent watching him in that process. Which is about as close as I Am Legend gets to the book.

 

I Am Omega, 2007

It's almost cheating to include this one, since technically it isn't an adaptation of Matheson's novel; it doesn't even credit him. In fact, it seems to be an adaptation of the I Am Legend script, made on no budget and rushed to DVD by a group of people trading on the anticipation and huge marketing push for Legend. (Yes, this is from the "studio" that brought you Transmorphers and Snakes On A Train.) One commentator got on my case for even mentioning it in my review, thereby lending it any legitimacy whatsoever. But hey, I felt I had to see it for completism's sake, and it was such a hilarious experience that I have to share.

I Am Omega steals a few things from previous "Legend" adaptations. For instance, at one point, protagonist Mark Dacascos (who isn't a Neville; his character's name is Renchard) hears a news report about the plague, and he claps his hands over his ears and chants "There is no radio! There is no radio!" until it shuts up, à la Heston in The Omega Man. He dresses up all fancy for dinner like Heston and sits around talking to his dressed-up mannequin companion, though he doesn't go to poet-shirt-and-velvet-jacket extremes. He sits around morosely watching home movies of his family, à la Price in Last Man. And of course the film follows the usual "I Am Legend" particulars–last man on earth, day-to-day solitary grind, homemade house-fortress, monsters, sudden arrival of a woman.

But it also takes a bunch of little details from I Am Legend as window-dressing for a by-now-pretty-familiar last-man-on-earth scenario. For instance, Dacascos' wife and child die early on; she gets infected and kills their kid. There's a prominent photo of a German shepherd in his home, exactly like Will Smith's pet in Legend. Dacascos uses the same kind of traps Smith uses to snare the undead. He keeps mannequins around the house for company. (They're actually pretty eerie.) Like Smith, he also goes into local stores and pretends to be interacting with the help and paying for his purchases, though he's talking to the rotting corpses of the staff instead of mannequins he's placed there for the purpose. And when the inevitable woman (Jennifer Lee Wiggins) shows up, she's uninfected and on her way to the protected haven of, you guessed it, Antioch.

Wiggins, incidentally, is either the major reason to see this film, or not to see it. Dacascos, a martial artist who gets the obligatory prominent bare-chested martial-arts-workout scene, has the sort of stiff, grunting fighter-charisma of a Steven Segal; he isn't a great actor, but then again, he's playing an emotionally repressed survivor. (At least there's no sign that he's a lab doctor.) Wiggins, on the other hand, is terrible. She howls or whines her lines like an overeager basset hound. Her character's obnoxious, but her acting is worse. She basically turns what might otherwise be a YouTube-level "look at the horror film we made in our backyard" film into camp comedy.

Zombie-fighting aside, I Am Omega is a pretty slack film; like the others, it spends a lot of time just watching its star on his daily business, which in this case, includes planting a ton of bombs to blow up "the city" for some reason. (The no-budget effect when it blows up is kind of hilarious, though not as funny as the less-than-no-budget "effect" of some rednecks blowing up Dacascos' house, which happens entirely offscreen, via some sound effects and an unhappy look from him.) He works out, he gathers supplies, he drives around, he sits around alone. All of which works pretty well for a low-budget film–beater cars and fake blood are relatively cheap, and it's easy enough to pad out 90 minutes of film with 30 of the protagonist just living a low-key life. Maybe it's surprising more people haven't tried to adapt "I Am Legend."

There are exactly two aspects of I Am Omega that none of the other films tackled, and that I actually found interesting: First off, Dacascos' character is not immune to the killer plague like all his predecessors in the last-man-on-earth role. He's apparently just managed to avoid getting the disease so far, by canniness or luck. This comes out whenever he kills one of the undead in such a way that he gets splashed with blood; he frantically cleans himself, usually with alcohol.

Second, Dacascos' character is a zombie-shootin' kill-machine most of the time, but in his downtime, he sits around vapidly, staring into space and popping handfuls of pills. We already know he's hallucinating, from the radio incident; he also seems to be trying to drug himself into oblivion. He regularly fights zombies that turn out not to actually be there. My sister, who foolishly consented to watch this film with me, suggested that the whole movie is much more interesting if you just assume that Dacascos is batshit crazy. There is no plague, there are no undead, there was no cataclysm. Maybe he never even had a wife, child, and dog. Maybe he's just this psycho, living up in the hills, running around shooting at phantasms, and eventually planting a whole lot of bombs around town and setting them off. Sadly, the movie doesn't really support this reading. But by making it so boring that viewers had to put their own spin on it to stay awake, weren't the filmmakers tacitly approving such interpretations?

The quick summary: A disposable piece of cheapo horror, but probably fun for drunk group viewings, if only for the hilarity of Wiggins' squalling performance.

Which version to go with? Of all the versions, Last Man On Earth averages out to be consistently the best film as well as the best adaptation, while the first half of I Am Legend was the most enjoyable for me. But frankly, all the films have pretty big problems, and the novella's plodding tedium just doesn't justify its killer ending for me. I could easily live without the novella or the films, and I can't in good conscience recommend any of them.

Next time on Book Vs. Film:

And coming soon: