Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Last Man Among the Walking Dead



I had a recent moment of synchronicity in which I was working my way through a couple more hardcover collections of THE WALKING DEAD comics, and then had a hankering for an old black and white horror and/or sci-fi film. In retrospect I shouldn't be surprised, and to say that the comics, the craving and the movie that I chose weren't linked is an exaggeration. But I hadn't connected them in a conscious way, at least not until I discovered that THE LAST MAN ON EARTH was available to stream on Netflix.


I didn't know it, but it's somewhat common knowledge that Richard Matheson's story I AM LEGEND (which LAST MAN is based on) influenced NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. At the time I was watching Vincent Price roam around, shoving aside ghoulish shells of the people they once were, it was like a hundred lightbulbs going on in my head and then popping.

"Wait!!" I thought to myself. "Does that mean... the entire modern zombie canon was brought into being because of a vampire story?"

As it turns out: A little bit, yeah.

In I AM LEGEND, Robert Neville (played by Vincent Price) seems to be the last person on Earth after a vicious plague that spread out over the world, killing people and turning them into vampires. The book was adapted into film a few times, but specifically in LAST MAN the vampires were slow-moving, moaning, groaning corpses that look and behave a lot like a zombie aside from being able to speak, and the fact that they drink blood instead of eating flesh.

George Romero (Commander-in-Chief of the DEAD films) had read Matheson's novel, and written an unpublished short story based on it (see "Richard Matheson-Storyteller: We Are Legend"). That short story led to the screenplay for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which begat DAWN OF... which begat DAY OF... which begat... well every single piece of zombie media since then. The list is of biblical proportions, and it leads right up to THE WALKING DEAD.

The inspiration for I AM LEGEND came, of course, from Bram Stoker's DRACULA and the Bela Legosi film of the same name (See "I Am Legend is named Vampire Novel of the Century"). Matheson had seen the movie as a teenager, and read the book while he was in the army. He was, arguably, the first person to take the vampire story into this new territory: giving it a scientific cause, a disease. These weren't dark powers from the devil, there was no magic, it was science.

Am I the only one who's mind is blown by that? Vampires begetting zombies? I feel like a zoologist who just discovered snakes and wolves have a common ancestor. Sure, vampires and zombies are both undead creatures who devour the living, but they're still different enough, at least as far as I'm concerned. One has personality and intelligence, the other doesn't. Vampires have supernatural powers, zombies don't. A stake through the heart wouldn't kill a zombie, and it would have zero response to garlic or a cross. Whether a vampire makes you into a vampire is more complicated than a simple bite. And yet, the vampire in fiction inspired a twist on the classic version, that inspired a twist on the classic zombie. I think that's fascinating.

I also think that I spend way too much time thinking about vampires and zombies.

Richard Matheson--Storyteller: We Are Legend via Tor.com
I Am Legend is named Vampire Novel of the Century via The Guardian
The Last Man on Earth via IMDB.com
The Last Man on Earth via Netflix

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