L.A. Plays Itself in the Movies: The Omega Man (1971)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: When it comes to Los Angeles’ true literary legacy, Ray Bradbury, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler have nothing over Twilight Zone veteran writer Richard Matheson.

Matheson single-handledly kick-started the zombie/vampire/supervirus/apocalypse genre with his 1954 novel I Am Legend. The genre is more popular today than ever (see Seth Grahame-Smith’s ridiculous literary mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Matheson’s novel has proven just as influential, if not more so, in the cinematic realm.

The novel has been adapted for the screen three times so far: As The Last Man on Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price; as The Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston; and as I Am Legend (2007), starring Will Smith.

Of the three iterations, The Last Man on Earth is probably my favorite. But if I were stuck on a desert island? I’d choose The Omega Man.

Why? Well, for starters, it’s the only version that, like Matheson’s novel, is set in Los Angeles.

Which isn’t exactly a trivial point.

See, Matheson wrote the novel just a few short years after moving to California.

The narrative follows the trials and tribulations of the seemingly sole survivor of a plague that transforms humans into vampires. The protagonist spends his days devising new and inventive ways to keep the blood-sucking masses at bay.

Fortress Los Angeles, anyone?

The swaggering and heavily-armed Heston turns in a me-versus-the-world performance that seems to take the city’s NIMBYest traits and stretches them to their extreme and logical conclusions. The role also seems to foreshadow Heston’s later years as the head honcho of the NRA.

The Omega Man is also the only filmed version set in the 70’s, the setting Matheson chose in his novel. Perhaps that’s a trivial point, but the film was shot in the then-desolate wasteland of Bunker Hill, which gives the proceedings a surreal sense of authenticity. Well, at least the sequences where he’s driving alone downtown.

Watch for the scene where Heston starts up a projector in an abandoned movie theater and then sadly mouths the dialogue to Woodstock. It’s a tender and surreal moment in cinematic history, and worth the price of admission alone.

[This post is part of Metblog’s L.A. Plays Itself in the Movies series.]

7 Replies to “L.A. Plays Itself in the Movies: The Omega Man (1971)”

  1. Re: To specify Evan’s comment above —

    Omega Man is covered at length in the documentary film “Los Angeles Plays Itself” by Thom Andersen which is not related to this Metblogs series in any way, shape or form.

  2. Actually, Rory, all joking aside, I didn’t realize we didn’t give credit to Thom Anderson’s documentary at the beginning of the series. I assumed, just given the title of the series, that it was mentioned, but after your note I checked and indeed it was omitted. I’ve seen Andersen’s film a number of times (check my post archives and you’ll see) and of course I remember “Omega Man” was featured in the film. We’ll need to honor the filmmaker in a major way. To me, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” is the ultimate film about Los Angeles.

  3. Not to be confused with the epic porn doc “Los Angeles Plays With Itself.”

    PS. I had the distinct pleasure way back before the internets roamed the earth to meet Richard Matheson, who was a friend of my stepfather’s. I did so in full gaped-mouthed Twilight Zone fanboyness.

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