109. The Omega Man (USA 1971)

Director: Boris Sagal

Starring: Charlton Heston, Rosalind Cash, Anthony Zerbe

Music: Ron Grainer
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Novel: Richard Matheson
Screenplay: Joyce Corrington/John William Corrington
Favourite Moment: a lonely Robert Neville surveys an empty Los Angeles from the grounds of a futuristic UCLA building
Something Great? Neville's climactic battle with Matthias's gang
Something Terrible? Charlton Heston's stunt 'doubles'!
In One Line
A plague survivor tries to stay alive in a city full of psychopaths*


Biochemist Robert Neville has survived a Sino/Russian germ war which has killed off the vast majority of the planet's population. At night he is attacked by the other survivors, a violent, plague-scarred and mutated horde who have been rendered psychotic by their illness and afflictions. By day, Neville hunts down their 'nest' in the hope of killing off 'The Family' and their charismatic leader, Matthias.
During his daytime searches, Neville discovers that there are other survivors who live by day and have yet to develop the tertiary symptoms of the disease. During the height of the plague, Neville tests an experimental serum that saves him from the disease and left him permanently immune to its effects. He hopes to use his own blood to heal the non-psychotic survivors so that they can leave the city and find a new Eden.

Young woman finds middle-aged bloke irresistible; yes, folks - that's Hollywood!


The whole philosophy of the SV reviews is to find one or more things in a film that make life just that little bit better. Sometimes there's a feast, other times it's meagre pickings. There are lots of films within the 150 or so (there are a lot more to be resurrected/added) in this list that would fail their cinema MOTs, but each of them has at least one performance, image, some music, an idea...or they just conjure up a certain feeling that leaves an indelible mark on the heart, brain or soul.
I love The Omega Man. There is SO much that's wrong with the film that if someone said "It's not very good, though, is it?" I'd understand, probably shrug my shoulders, and give the impression that I sort of agreed with them.
Given the chance, I'd like to explain why I love the film so much.
But more than likely, I'd probably just NEVER SPEAK TO THEM AGAIN.

A run-of-the-mill night at the Broadway club, Norris Green, L11.

Probably the first thing that anyone thinks of when considering Charlton Heston is his cold dead hands speech. A shameless and often deeply unpleasant right-wing Republican, Heston was an unlikely choice for this incarnation of Robert Neville - a man who has a loving sexual relationship with a black woman.

There are more than a few elements of Heston's Republican pesona/real life character in this version of Robert Neville, but they are tempered by chemistry professor Joyce Corrington's often-inspired screenplay. Plague survivor Lisa (Rosalind Cash) is a feisty and caring partner for Neville and there are nods to the political and stylistic influences of the Black Panther movement in her words and clothing codes.

Her brother Richie (Eric Laneuville) is an idealistic and equally caring character who proposes that The Family's behaviour is the result of their illness and that they should be treated with kindness and healed, rather than exterminated by Heston's avenging angel.

The film is filled with nods to 1970/71 (although a number of years have passed in the film, and a dusty '1975' calendar is seen in a car showroom.) which give the film a dated feel, but are also a fascinating snapshot of the time. The lonely Neville watches and rewatches Woodstock on the big screen. Biochemistry student (a remarkable stroke of fortune in the crying-out-for-a biochemist times) Dutch looks and talks like a Haight-Ashbury survivor, and the nightmarish 'Family' are a ghoulish nod to Charles Manson and his murderous acolytes. Corrington's script/Sagal's film veer far away from Richard Matheson's source novel, but I like to think of them as part of a linked continuum, as both novel and film have given me so much pleasure over the years.

As a child/teenager, I spent years trying to track down Richard Matheson's source novel. Science Fiction in 'those days' was very much the preserve of the genuine geek, and there were few outlets for any sort of sci-fi literature or paraphernalia. I Am Legend was out of print, and though I realised that there might be a way of finding it via mail order (easier said than done) or an advert in the Exchange and Mart, I hoped that my occasional second hand bookshop quest would bear fruit eventually.

After Will Smith's (very) moderately OK version came out in 2007, the book and the story became ubiquitous for a while, and that special sense of underground fandom was lost as 'my' book became the world's property.


Anyway, I found a copy in the mid eighties, and I give it a re-read every couple of years ago. It's a beautiful, soulful and bizarrely uplifting novel from a brilliant writer, and as I say, the only film version of I am Legend that comes anywhere close to replicating the dreamlike paranoia and yearning of Matheson's sci-fi colossus is Boris Sagal's pulpy reimagining.

In the novel, Neville is attacked by vampires when darkness falls. In The Omega Man the vampires are now light-sensitive humans, bleached of hair and skin, covered in plague sores and psychotically vengeful in response to Neville's 'science' and his visible lack of the afflictions that characterise 'The Family'.

There's a great grand-guignol performance from Anthony Zerbe as TV anchorman/social commentator Jonathan Matthias, the leader of The Family. Matthias has a post-plague ambition: to destroy all the evidence of the 'science' that "destroyed the world". He keeps the more radical elements of The  Family at bay, including the radicalised black Family members who want to drive Neville from his 'honky paradise'. Matthias is an evangelical, false messiah figure, but Corrington's screenplay frequently evinces sympathy for Matthias and his beliefs - even though the focus of the narrative leads us to see things through Neville's eyes.


The male half of Northern cabaret duo Peaches n' Zerbe.

Ron Grainer's music is superb throughout, and the best thing he had done since his The Prisoner theme from 1967. It's such a pity that he didn't score more films in his long and illustrious career after the release of The Omega Man.

Oscar winner Russell Metty's cinematography is stunning - from his wide angle shots of a deserted Los Angeles, to his brilliant tracking shots of Neville's dying world during the opening titles.

There are so many iconic, dream-like set ups and scenes throughout the film. Best of all is Neville's thrilling dash home from the cinema (when he realises he has misjudged the time due to his enjoyment of Woodstock) which sets the scene for the rest of the film's action. And one of my favourite lines in all of the films history has to be Neville's reaction to his tardiness: "Oh my God! It's almost dark! They'll be waking up soon!"


Banararama decide to call it a day.

There's enough religious imagery throughout the film to keep a biblical scholar happy for weeks, and though the Christ imageryof the last shot is not exactly subtle, it WAS mind-blowing when I saw it for the first time as a thirteen year old.

There's lots wrong with the film. Terrible, clunky dialogue rears its head on several occasions and Heston's stunt doubles put William Shatner's terrible Star Trek stand-ins to shame in their lack of verisimilitude. 

But it's a small-ish price to pay for a splendid, exciting and occasionally moving pulp sci-fi classic.


*My life story, come to think of it.

SV 9.4.22

Revised: 12.4.22

 Click on the pic below to see The Omega Man trailer.