It’s the near future (1975!) and germ warfare between Russia and China has wiped out virtually all of the human race, but scientist and US Army Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is able to immunise himself.
The film starts with Neville driving around deserted streets in a snazzy red convertible. There’s an enigmatic smile on his face and he’s listening to the theme from A Summer Place on his car’s tape player. It’s a beautiful day and all seems well with the world . . . until he sees some shadowy figures stirring in windows several floors above street level.
Suddenly he stands up in the driver’s seat, whisks out a tommy gun and starts shooting. As he continues driving, the camera begins to pick up corpses littering the streets.
Looking at his watch, he mutters that he’s got to get home because it will soon be dark and “they” will be out again . . .
“They” turn out to be “The Family” – soulless remnants of human beings who have turned into savage mutants intent on killing Neville, who they see as representing the society that led to the cataclysm.
Neville holes up in his lush apartment, living with all the modern conveniences (including a well-stocked bar) and avoiding capture and execution by the mutants.
He eventually meets a few other refugees from the plague. One of them is a clever black girl called Lisa (played with great charm by Rosalind Cash) and it’s not long before the two of them are figuring out ways to start civilisation over again, even though the “Family” is always lurking out there, ready to pounce on them.
The conflict between Neville and the plague-infected “Family” led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) – who cannot stand the light and live in the shadows coming out only at night to scavenge and set fire to their old neighbourhood – is one of science against superstition, and, while it lacks the vampiristic teeth of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, it still has an eerie topicality.
Heston grimaces meaningfully and watches endless re-runs of Woodstock (1970). Watch out for the brown acid, Chuck!
This is one of two great science-fiction allegories starring Charlton Heston, the other being Richard Fleischer’s thriller set in the 21st century, Soylent Green (1973).