Movie: 'The Omega Man'

Release Date: August 1, 1971

How It Got Made: These days, it's usually Will Smith who gets called upon to save civilization. Forty years ago, it was Charlton Heston. When he wasn't busy rebelling against those damn dirty apes or discovering what corporations were really trying to feed us, he was fighting off infected albino vampire zombies in 'The Omega Man,' a cult classic released 40 years ago this week that holds a special place in the hearts of cheese-loving sci-fi fans, including Tim Burton and Smith himself (who remade it as 'I Am Legend').
Heston reportedly came up with the idea to film Richard Matheson's 1954 novel 'I Am Legend' after reading it on a plane, unaware that it had already been filmed in 1964, as an Italian-made movie called 'The Last Man on Earth,' starring Vincent Price. In the screenplay developed for Heston's version, the plague that has apparently wiped out all of humanity (save the inventor of an experimental vaccine who used the serum on himself) doesn't come from mosquito-borne bacteria but from biochemical warfare between China and the Soviet Union. As in Matheson's novel and the previous film, Heston's last uninfected man finds that he's not alone; soon he's defending himself every night against nocturnal, plague-infested mutants who see him as the infection.

A new twist comes in the form of another group of feral humans, young and still unzombiefied, that Heston's Robert Neville discovers. They're infected but not yet turned. They rescue him when he is captured by the mutants and is condemned to death by their neo-Luddite leader, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Neville struggles to recreate his vaccine in order to save the survivors, and he even falls in love with their leader, Lisa (Rosalind Cash). With a new vaccine made from his own antibodies, Neville is ready, like Christ, to redeem humanity with his own blood sacrifice, but a final war remains to be fought between the zombies and the survivors.

'The Omega Man' - Trailer

The movie addressed many issues of the day, in pop form. There was the Cold War dread of a global conflict that would wipe out civilization, homegrown fears of urban crime by roving nocturnal gangs, echoes of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements (the survivors, led by Cash's Lisa, are a largely African-American group), worries that science and technology were progressing faster than human moral development (a standard sci-fi trope, but here voiced by the villainous mutants, who blame chemists like Neville for their predicament), and even apprehension over a counterculture turned violent (the mutants call themselves 'The Family,' with the nihilistic demagogue Matthias evoking Charles Manson).

Directing the movie was TV veteran Boris Sagal. To serve as a set for his desolate postapocalyptic urban landscape, Sagal's location scouts discovered they needed look no further than downtown Los Angeles, whose shopping district was all but abandoned on weekends.

How It Was Received: The film received mixed reviews. It cemented Heston's fondness, however, for these sort of last-sane-man-on-Earth roles. He'd succeeded not long before, with 'Planet of the Apes' (1968). Two years after 'The Omega Man,' he'd go back to the well again for 'Soylent Green.'

One thing not much remarked upon: the interracial romance between Heston and Cash's characters. Such couples were uncommon on screen in 1971; indeed, they still are today.

Excerpt from 'The Omega Man'

Long-Term Impact: The film boosted (or at least did no harm to) Heston's career, which remained fruitful for another three decades. Zerbe, too, remained a busy character actor, most famously in another postapocalyptic sci-fi saga, as a councilor of Zion in the 'Matrix' trilogy. Cash, for whom 'Omega Man' was only her second film, went on to play feisty women in a slew of TV guest parts.

'Omega Man' launched two careers of actors who made their film debuts as youngsters in the movie. Brian Tochi went on to do character parts, most famously in 'Revenge of the Nerds,' and as a voiceover actor, best known for the role of Leonardo in the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' movies. Eric Laneuville, who played Lisa's little brother Richie (the first guinea pig for the new vaccine), went on to be a series regular on 'St. Elsewhere' and became a prolific TV director.

Sagal went back to directing television, which he did for another decade, before dying in a 'Twilight Zone'-type helicopter accident on a set. These days, he's better known for being the father of 'Married... With Children' and 'Futurama' star Katey Sagal.

'The Omega Man' made an impact in other ways, too. Sagal's eerily empty cityscape vistas proved influential on other filmmakers; similar scenes appeared in nightmare sequences in Taylor Hackford's 'Devil's Advocate' and Cameron Crowe's 'Vanilla Sky.' Other films used similar zombie/infection/end-of-the-world plots, notably 2002's '28 Days Later,' in which the deserted city is London.

Tim Burton cites 'Omega Man' as one of his favorite films, one he'll stop and watch whenever it comes on TV. He says he especially likes how Heston drops a mordant quip every time he gets violent (a habit since adopted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, and countless other action heroes). Burton got to repay the favor when he remade 'Planet of the Apes' in 2001 and cast Heston in a cameo, where he got to repeat one of his famous lines in a new context.

In 1994, Warner Bros. began planning a remake. It went through 13 years of turnaround, involving numerous script rewrites, directors (including Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro) and stars (Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Schwarzenegger, Nicolas Cage), before finally ending up with director Francis Lawrence and star Smith. Their 'I Am Legend,' shot on location in New York, was released in 2007 and became one of the year's biggest hits.

How It Plays Today: The technology and Nixon-era paranoia, along with Sagal's '70s-TV-cop-show-style direction, date 'The Omega Man' in an amusing but not fatal way. Heston's old-school charisma and an evergreen premise overcome the cheese factor to keep 'Omega Man' scary and relevant.

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.