Richard Matheson's novel I AM LEGEND is the Rodney Dangerfield of horror stories--it gets no respect, at least when it comes to Hollywood. Whether it's the counterculture apocalypse of THE OMEGA MAN or the upcoming Will Smith suckfest, making Matheson's straightforward tale into a comparably excellent film is apparently beyond the means of most filmmakers.
But that nearly wasn't the case. Matheson sold the rights to LEGEND to Hammer in the mid-1950s, just as the studio was making a name for themselves with sci-fi/horror hybrids like THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT. Titled THE NIGHT CREATURES, Matheson's screenplay was deemed too horrific by the British censors, and the script (bearing Matheson's bottom-scraping pseudonym Logan Swanson) eventually wound up being shot in 1964 as an Italian-made cheapie, subsequently distributed by AIP. (This wasn't the last time the book came close to becoming a classic film; Ridley Scott was to have helmed a large-scaled version in the early nineties, but was scrapped due to its then-staggering $100-million budget.)
And though the film refers to its creatures as vampires, the undead of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH--wandering corpses the result of a widespread infection--were the prototype for what would become the modern zombie. George Romero has freely admitted using Matheson's novel as inspiration for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but I wouldn't be surprised if he glanced at this film once or twice for reference; the sequences in which the undead besiege Vincent Price in his home are clearly echoed at Romero's farmhouse. (My favorite detail is that the film takes place in the future of 1968, an ironic coincidence not only because of the release of DEAD but the tumultuous state of the nation then as well.)
As for the film itself, while it's not the potential masterpiece it may have been at Hammer, it's still a far cry from the debacle many have claimed it to be. Director Sidney Salkow does an adequate job of substituting Italian locations for American settings, and despite several lulls in the story, the film contains enough scares to keep the viewer interested (the scene in which Price's wife returns as the undead is a creepy highlight). Even the horrendous dubbing--used due to its international pedigree, no doubt--doesn't detract too much from the overall atmosphere; the only time it's really a deterrent is during Price's monologues, when it's often obvious or redundant. I would've much preferred a starker, more isolated version of Price going through his day-to-day activities without the narration.
Thanks to the film's public domain status just about every budget DVD label has released this, so it shouldn't be too hard to track down a copy. In the annals of horror film history, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is the corner zombies turned in transforming from voodoo-powered slaves to flesh-eating ghouls.