Speak of the devil! Just the other day I mentioned that it's been decades since I last saw the second movie adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and just yesterday while channel surfing I discovered that my local cable service had given me a new "free" on-demand movie channel. This one is shared by the Fox Movie Channel and a service called Vutopia, and the latter has quite a bit of interesting stuff, including Boris Sagal's Seventies spin on Matheson's "last man on earth" theme.
The Omega Man deviates the most out of the three versions of I Am Legend. While The Last Man on Earth and the I Am Legend movie stick with the idea of quasi-undead nocturnal hunters stalking our hero, Sagal's film turns the main menace into a religious cult: "The Family," led by a TV newscaster turned mad prophet (Anthony Zerbe). They conform to Matheson by being forced by their albinism to hide from the light during the day, but they are intelligent (albeit clinically delusional) creatures driven by an ideology that blames "the Punishment" on man's dependence on technology. Matthias, the leader, wants to take his remnant of mankind back to medieval simplicity, symbolized by the black robes and hoods the Family wear. Matthias doesn't know Robert Neville personally but may have heard of this military doctor as one of the experts struggling to find a cure for the plague. He hates Neville as a "slave of the wheel," a symbol of the damned past who must be purged before the world can begin anew in Matthias's twisted image. The cult angle is perhaps the most distinctive Seventies touch of the film, though in practice these hooded palefaces, handicapped by their aversion to useful technology like firearms, put one in mind of so many washouts from the Sith Academy. As a Seventies fan I find them sort of cool, but I admit that they come across a little campy as well.
The Omega Man brings Neville out of his shell sooner than any other version of the story. He gets captured by the Family and interviewed by Matthias before they plant a dunce cap on his head and condemn him to be executed in a sports arena. He gets rescued by some apparently healthy humans led by Lisa, a blaxploitation heroine (Rosalind Cash) and Dutch (Paul Koslo). They're in charge of a bunch of kids, including Lisa's brother who, like her, has a touch of the plague. When he takes a turn for the worse, Neville takes a chance that a vaccine he'd administered to himself could make his blood usable in a serum to cure the disease. As Richie reverts to his natural negritude and Neville scores with Lisa ("I'm not sure if I remember how this works," he says modestly), our hero decides to quit his fortress and trek with his new friends to make a new start somewhere. But Richie proves too good for his own good; if Neville's serum could cure him, couldn't it cure everyone in the Family? He goes to Matthias's lair, he and Lisa having lived with the Family briefly, to offer Neville's services, only to learn with extreme prejudice that Matthias isn't interested in going back to normal. His mistake sets up the final showdown between Neville and Matthias, when we learn that the spear is sometimes mightier than the gun....
Since it looks like some humans will survive, The Omega Man misses the point of Matheson's novel. While Heston's Neville may be an obsolete sort of individual, that's different from the horror of realizing that everything you are and know is not only obsolete but is already being replaced. And it's one thing for Neville to become a "legend" to the inheritors of the earth, the equivalent for them of vampires for humans, and a-damn-nother thing entirely to make him a Christ figure (his blood saves, you see), right down to striking the cruciform pose as he dies. Sagal's film isn't just the least faithful adaptation in tone of I Am Legend, but it's also more dated than The Last Man on Earth, which was made eight years earlier, and more dated than the Will Smith movie will ever get. The Omega Man is more embedded in its time than either other movie, but since that time is the Seventies, its datedness makes it an often-entertaining spectacle that the right audience is quite likely to enjoy immensely. Heston is a hoot, as he usually is in dystopian conditions, and at the same time he gives a respectable performance. Imagine William Shatner in the same role (which could be awful or awesome, depending on your tastes), and then imagine the next step on the evolutionary chart, and you have Charlton Heston. Rosalind Cash keeps pace with him with what looks like a precocious self-parody of a genre archetype that arguably hadn't even come into existence yet -- and she bares her chest nearly as often as Heston does, though not in as frontal a fashion. Also, you can not mow down or set afire too many chalky hooded dudes in a film like this, and in this regard The Omega Man does not neglect its responsibilities. This might not be the most faithful I Am Legend film, but it may be the most fun.
The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by frankyponty.