Can a novel celebrate infection? Richard Matheson thought so, and that book is called I Am Legend. First published in 1954, it’s been the source material for three movies: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007), referred to below as Will Smith. I Am Legend also inspired Night of the Living Dead (1968), the only good movie in this list and also the one that didn’t put Matheson in the credits.
Can you film confusion, though? That’s where things stall. None of these movies opt for a conclusion as dark as Matheson’s—the germ wins, spoiler alert—but that’s not why they collapse. Depicting years of self-taught, halting scientific inquiry is the assignment here, and I don’t know that any director can be blamed for not nailing it. If Chantal Akerman or Yorgos Lanthimos had been given the remit to make this as slow as it wants to be, we might be talking about something else.
Matheson’s protagonist, Robert Neville, spends the book trying to figure out what he’s up against. An unknown plague, spread by dust storms, kills off the entire population of the world. Some of the dead, though not all of them, come back. Matheson calls these vaguely undead figures “vampires,” but they don’t spend a lot of time sucking blood. They act more like zombies, though Matheson never uses that word. (And unlike zombies, some of them are coherent enough to try to form a new society.) The story is a series of frustrations and Neville only finds his answer the very end of the book. The “vampire germ” laying waste to humanity triumphs, but the vampires don’t, not exactly. Ain’t that a bitch? Infection is part of life, maybe life itself.
This flux defeats the movies. In the lamest, Will Smith, the uninfected people (there’s only one in the book, and that’s Neville, but never mind) create a closed, quasi-military encampment that represents the opposite of Matheson’s hero. (The germ, not the gun.) The idea that a walled, armed-to-the teeth community could populate a new world—Will Smith, you starred in a white power fantasy. The movie literally ends with guns, god, and America.
And a vial of pure blood, borne by a light-skinned mother and child.
I came to the book after re-watching The Omega Man: Charlton Heston alone in an empty Los Angeles, stealing cars from abandoned showrooms and playing chess with a bust of Caesar. I rewatched and re-read everything because I wanted to know why the movies were stilted — which they are, even if L.A. has gravitas when emptied, or Vincent Price (the star of the 1964 version) has gravitas every time he speaks. But the strings of each movie go lax, even in a world full of zombies and empty of resources. They lack the tension of the world we live in right now. They’re unable to engage the germ, not head-on, and they fall apart.
Matheson’s book marks a couple of divisions within the 20th century. In 1954, autodidacts and self-starters were not unknown, and the idea that someone could educate themselves into vague scientific expertise was not out of the question. Matheson’s Neville slowly and painfully teaches himself microscopy and phlebotomy and basic human biology. By the time of Will Smith, the protagonist must have an entire laboratory in his basement because only paid professionals with fancy houses can save us. Slow and painful are two states of being we cannot accept now.
In the book, we only know that Neville works at “the plant,” and much of his Inglewood neighborhood works there, too. Very post-war 1950s U.S.—the suburban encampment has full employment but could still be described as working class. Neville spends the book educating himself in a library and the germ still wins, because it would, so he takes cyanide pills to spare himself the pain of being a minority of one.
Hollywood never made that movie.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is, as far as I can tell, the moment when pop culture embraced zombies as we know them now, and as they now dominate pop culture itself. Before this, zombies were more or less mummies, animated by magic or something else outside the characters. From I Am Legend onwards, zombies implicate us. Something happens in the world that we have made and that something turns us into zombies. We become the Other and it’s nobody else’s fault.
Where is the line between the living and the dead, the sick and the well, and how does the transition between these states feel? If you broke down Matheson’s categories of character, there might be three? Four? Five? Alive, dead, infected but not dead, really really dead, a smart vampire, a dumb vampire. Six. I Am Legend is about discovering and understanding those changes but the movie adaptations can’t render that.
The only movie that succeeds doesn’t try. Here is George Romero talking about Matheson’s book during a 2008 interview with Cinemablend, around the time of Diary of the Dead, his fifth installment in the Night of the Living Dead series:
I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend, which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you’re going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead? Diary of the Dead goes back theoretically to that first night. I didn’t use the word “zombie” until the second film and that’s only because people who were writing about the first film called them zombies.
Here he is in 1979, talking to Dan Yakir for Film Comment:
I read a book called I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and got very much into the socio-political through-line that’s present in it, although it doesn’t really follow through.
Savage and inaccurate burn but go on, George.
Inspired by it, I wrote a short story which dealt with a revolutionary society coming into being in the form of a zombie society—people coming back to life as soon as they die—and it was a trilogy right from the jump. In Part I, they appear, but operative society seems to be staying on top of it, even though there’s a lot of chaos and people don’t know how to handle it.
It’s Part I that we turned into Night of the Living Dead: the new society appears and attacks every aspect of our society and all the mores down to religion and concepts about death. People don’t really know how to deal with it other than just defend themselves. The scientific community has absolutely no answers. The radiation scenario that people feel is an explanation in Night of the Living Dead was actually one out of three that were advanced in the original cut of the film, but the other ones got cut out and people have adopted that radiation thing as the reason why the dead are coming back. I really didn’t mean that to be.
The scientific explanation is the weakest part of Romero’s concept, and this is exactly what defeated the other filmmakers. Matheson’s Neville is a self-loathing amateur scientist, which made sense when kids still got chemistry sets for Christmas. But, even in 1964, the autodidact shut-in was too weird a profile for the leading man, so The Last Man On Earth turns him into a bonafide scientist, which allows him to investigate the germs before things get disastrous.
A great deal of time in this first movie is spent on the slow death and rebirth of Neville’s wife, Virginia.
Very influential frames here from 1964.
Matheson begins with classic vampire antigens like crosses and garlic but all of that falls away as the book moves from myth to science. Will Smith, on the other hand, takes us from science to the myth of American exceptionalism.
Matheson is explicit about the role of myth.
“THE STRENGTH OF THE vampire is that no one will believe in him.”
That’s from Stoker’s Dracula and he runs with it.
And, before science had caught up with the legend, the legend had swallowed science and everything.
Hollywood narrative demands mythic individuation, characters with distinct attributes. But how to do that, when anybody and everybody is ill? We’re always trying to create teams from the living and the dead and the sick and the healthy. Sontag, in 1978, from Illness as Metaphor: “The tubercular could be an outlaw or a misfit; the cancer personality is regarded more simply, and with condescension, as one of life's losers.” The movies simply won’t go with Matheson’s conclusion, that the infected who manage to live are the winners, but winning isn’t a good thing.
Matheson also brings race into it, without much cloaking. Sorry, George Romero!
Friends, I come before you to discuss the vampire; a minority element if there ever was one, and there was one.
Our author is out here, front and center, making fun of horror movies and racists and politics, all at once.
At one time, the Dark and Middle Ages, to be succinct, the vampire’s power was great, the fear of him tremendous. He was anathema and still remains anathema. Society hates him without ration.
But are his needs any more shocking than the needs of other animals and men? Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from his child? The vampire may foster quickened heartbeats and levitated hair. But is he worse than the parent who gave to society a neurotic child who became a politician?
And then he makes sure you’re reading.
Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out? Why do you wish him destroyed? Ah, see, you have turned the poor guileless innocent into a haunted animal. He has no means of support, no measures for proper education, he has not the voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence.
Robert Neville grunted a surly grunt. Sure, sure, he thought, but would you let your sister marry one?
He shrugged. You got me there, buddy, you got me there.
The movies don’t chase that down, shocker. The Omega Man casts Ruth, the spy lady from the infected camp, as a black woman, which doesn’t go anywhere.
Matheson really wants you to think about scientific rigor. (Science fiction was really about science, early on.)
It had come to him, after a half week of drinking, disgust, and desultory investigation, that he was wasting his time. Isolated experiments were yielding nothing, that was clear. If there was a rational answer to the problem (and he had to believe that there was), he could only find it by careful research.
Neville keeps beating himself up, a vibe Heston does a good job of reproducing.
He sat in the kitchen staring into a steaming cup of coffee. Germs. Bacteria. Viruses. Vampires. Why am I so against it? he thought. Was it just reactionary stubbornness, or was it that the task would loom as too tremendous for him if it were germs?
And then the light bulb.
He felt a shudder run down his back. Was it possible that the same germ that killed the living provided the energy for the dead?
The idea of good guys and bad guys, essential to Hollywood, dissolves here. Matheson hints at this with his “don’t hate on vampires” meditation. Everyone has their own life force. Who’s to judge?
Wait—virus versus germ, though. Say more.
It wasn’t a virus, then. You couldn’t see a virus. And there, fluttering delicately on the slide, was a germ.
Bacteria are not viruses! Listen up, Donald John!
All he could think was that here, on the slide, was the cause of the vampire. All the centuries of fearful superstition had been felled in the moment he had seen the germ.
The illness categories of the book defeat the filmmakers: humans, infected humans who don’t die, and the vampires. The movies only want two categories, which destroys Matheson’s arc.
The kernel of the book comes in a note that Ruth, the spy from the infected people, writes to Neville after her crew has captured him.
We are infected. But you already know that. What you don’t understand yet is that we’re going to stay alive. We’ve found a way to do that and we’re going to set up society again slowly but surely. We’re going to do away with all those wretched creatures whom death has cheated. And, even though I pray otherwise, we may decide to kill you and those like you.
So it’s basically HIV or a vaccine or what.
I took them all the time I was here. I kept them in a belt around my waist. You’ll discover that they’re a combination of defebrinated blood and a drug. I don’t know myself just what it is. The blood feeds the germs, the drug prevents its multiplication. It was the discovery of this pill that saved us from dying, that is helping to set up society again slowly.
He takes her seriously—Neville is a hornbat but he respects a woman’s right to be scientific—and re-checks the germ in the microscope.
He looked into the eyepiece for a long time. Yes, he knew. And the admission of what he saw changed his entire world. How stupid and ineffective he felt for never having foreseen it! Especially after reading the phrase a hundred, a thousand times. But then he’d never really appreciated it. Such a short phrase it was, but meaning so much.
Bacteria can mutate.
The infected are a new breed. The alive are a new sick alive, a dead living in limbo. Neville is an old mode; though the book never mentions computers, it could be a book about man-machines replacing men.
Ruth and Neville have one last conversation
“Your—your society is—certainly a fine one,” he gasped. “Who are those—those gangsters who came to get me? The—the council of justice?”
Her look was dispassionate. She’s changed, he thought suddenly.
“New societies are always primitive,” she answered. “You should know that. In a way we’re like a revolutionary group—repossessing society by violence. It’s inevitable. Violence is no stranger to you. You’ve killed. Many times.”
“Only to—to survive.”
“That’s exactly why we’re killing,” she said calmly. “To survive. We can’t allow the dead to exist beside the living. Their brains are impaired, they exist for only one purpose. They have to be destroyed. As one who killed the dead and the living, you know that.”
Like you can know anything!
There are a grip of good academic papers on zombie theory. I highly recommend Laura Diehl’s 2013 paper, “American Germ Culture: Richard Matheson, Octavia Butler, and the (Political) Science of Individuality.”