The 1971 "The Omega Man," starring Charlton Heston, is severely dated with its hokey music and fashion sensibilities but it provides a window into the psyche of the 1970s and gives startling ecological reminders that are hold true now with perhaps greater urgency.
Set in 1977, John William and Joyce Corrington's screenplay foresees a world that has been destroyed in 1975 by a biological plague during a war between the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. Neville (Heston) was a military scientist working on an experimental vaccine which he uses on himself. Immune, he continues to live in Los Angeles alone while hunted by a group of plague victims, "The Family," led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe).
Light-sensitive and transformed into albinos, the Family consider Neville a symbol of a sinful past as well as a murderer. He is, according to Matthias, "One creature caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark...(with)...his cars, his guns, his gimmicks." He is "that creature of the wheel, the lord of the infernal engine, the machine." Although encouraged by another his lieutenant, Zachary, to use nitro or other weapons, Matthias explains "he will be destroyed not by guns, not by machines, not by the evil forbidden things that destroyed the world."
Finally captured by the Family, he is saved from the Family by a woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), a former member of the Family, who wants his help to save her younger brother, Richie (Eric Laneuville) and introduces him to a small group of people, mostly children, who have yet to "go over." Neville attempts to make a serum derived from his own blood as a romance forms between him and Lisa.
Although based on the Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, "I Am Legend," "The Omega Man" diverges in several respects. "I Am Legend" as a science fiction vampire novel set in Southern California in the late 1970s. The protagonist, Robert Neville, in the only survivor of a plague that has turned humanity into vampires and he theorizes that he became immune after because he was once bitten by a vampire bat.
That novel couldn't predict the socio-political landscape of the 1970s. China was clearly on the minds of major political figures. The People's Republic of China replaced the Republic of China in the United Nations in November of 1971. In June, the United States had just ended its trade embargo against mainland China. Of the three Chinas, mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the mainland (People's Republic of China) had now become more widely accepted despite fears of communism.
Earlier in the year, Charles Manson and his followers were found guilty in a Los Angeles court and later sentenced. In April, Manson was sentenced to death which was later commuted to life in prison.
Less sensational than those lurid murders, was the growing environmental movement. In 1970, the mayor of San Francisco, Joseph Alioto issued a proclamation for the first Earth Day on March 21 and by the next year, the United Nations was on board. In the same year, US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, called for an environmental teach-in, or Earth Day, to be held on April 22 and the grassroots response was dramatic, involving thousands of schools and organizations nationwide.
One such public event included protests against the Vietnam War, although this was more of an aberration for the Earth Day celebrations than the rule. In 1970, a documentary film about the 1969 Woodstock Festival was released.
"The Omega Man" is very much a product of these times, with a social agenda rather than a pure slash and gore horror flick. There is no doubt the movie is meant to make a comment on the times.
"The Omega Man" uses some clips from the Woodstock film as Neville visits a movie theater, re-watching a film that he has seen so many times, he has memorized the words as a participant explains, we humans need "just to really realize what's really important...What's really important is that if we can't all live together and be happy, if you have to be afraid to walk out in the street, if you have to be afraid of...violence of somebody, what kind of way is that to go through this life?"
The leader of the mutants, Matthias, a former newscaster talks about something that very much concerns us in 2007. He sees the downfall of the world they knew as directly connected to modern machines and is portrayed as a cult leader, with black robes and talk about "The Family." Movie goers in 1971 could not avoid drawing parallels between Matthias and his family and Charles Manson and his family who had committed the 1969 Tate (Sharon Tate, Wojciech Frykowski, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent) and (Leno and Rosemary) LaBianca murders.
Manson had participated in the summer of love as an ex-con in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district where he began seducing his first followers. He had already served time for pimping an underage girl and most of his followers were women.
"The Omega Man" also has visual allusions to Neville as a Christ-like figure, a savior dying for the sins of man in order to save humanity. The prominence of African Americans in the movie such as Matthias' lieutenant (Lincoln Kilpatrick as Zachary), Lisa and her brother.
Although he had won an Academy Award for his role in the 1959 "Ben Hur," Heston wasn't new to the science fiction genre. He had already starred in the 1968 "Planet of the Apes" and the 1970 sequel "Beneath the Planet of the Apes."
As a result, "The Omega Man" isn't about fearing other men and even reconsidering what is the norm if the world is inhabited by vampires, but about the fear of communism, war and the summer of love turning into a summer of hate. It also reminds us that the concern about pollution, cars and industry were a hot topic in 1971, even as the environment is today, in 2007.