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A legendary story

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader

2005-11-14


In 1954 a book was released which still has a cult following along with scores of movie directors trying to adapt it to the big screen. Though the general public might not have ever read (or heard of) Richard Matheson’s (The Twilight Zone, Somewhere in Time, Duel) book I Am Legend, they no doubt have felt the effects of I Am Legend on modern horror through the years.

In I Am Legend, character Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague that either kills or transforms its victims into bloodthirsty vampires. Neville, the only person immune to the disease, finds himself alone in a sea of monsters out to drain his blood. By night, Neville locks himself inside his fortified home as these creatures try their best to break in. By day, Neville combs the city for food and supplies while searching out sleeping vampires and putting a stake to their hearts.

Literally the whole zombie genera can be traced back to this book. Director George Romero, creator of the modern zombie movie, remarked on the web-site JoBlo.com, “I literally ripped off the idea (of Night of the Living Dead) from a Richard Matheson novel called I am Legend and twisted it a bit.”

Without I Am Legend there is no Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Land of the Dead… or 28 Days Later.

In 1964 a feature film based on I Am Legend entitled The Last Man on Earth was released. Starring Vincent Price, the movie follows most of the plot points of the book, condensing them a bit to fit into a movie’s running time.

Another movie based off I Am Legend entitled The Omega Man was released in 1971 starring Charlton Heston as Robert Neville. This time, the worldwide plague was replaced with an out of control war using bio-weapons, which kill most and turns a few into pale-faced sun-phobic mutants. These mutants, led by Matthias, see the plague as being brought down by God due to man’s wickedness and Neville as the last representation of man’s old ways. These “mutants” are a sort of Charles Manson like family whom setup outside of Neville’s apartment building by night trying to force him out with “cleansing fire.”

In the early 1990s a series of I Am Legend comic books were released following the events of the novel almost exactly. For many years these issues were relatively obscure, but recently, a collected volume of the I Am Legend comic books came out and are available in comic book stores, book stores and online.

Over the past few years, there have been more than a few attempts at an updated movie adaptation of I Am Legend.

Director Ridley Scott spent many years working on his version before the project fell apart in the late 1990s. Scott’s version of the story would have had Arnold Schwarzenegger starring as the Neville character. This time, Neville would have lived in a fortified hillside home, driven an armored Humvee and combating the blood-virus mutated vampire-like “Hemocytes” by night.

The script to this version of I Am Legend was over-the-top; with the Hemocytes attacking Neville’s compound in great vamparitic waves being blasted back by Neville and his seemingly endless supply of automatic weapons. (Think Terminator meets Dracula.)

After Ridley Scott left the project, in 2002 director Michael Bay (The Island) was set to shoot a more traditional take on the I Am Legend story-starring Will Smith. Again, this project never made it out of the pre-production stage.

As recently as a few months ago there was news of yet another director working on yet another take on I Am Legend. This time, Francis Lawrence (Constantine) is set to bring it to the big screen with a 2007 release date.

At least that’s the plan. If there’s anything that the Ridley Scott and Michael Bay’s attempts at am I Am Legend movie can teach Lawrence, is that there is a divide between planning on releasing a movie and actually releasing that movie.

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