Monday, November 4, 2013

Of Omega Men And Living Legends

The movie The Omega Man (1971) was one of my all time favorite movies as a kid. It stuck with me for a number of reasons. As an only child, I could certainly appreciate the devil-may-care attitude of the main character, played by Charlton Heston. He wasn't bothered by solitude; he seemed to thrive on it. He had a nice apartment with cool manikins, a really neat SMG, and a sportscar. Plenty of monsters to kill. Who needs companions, with all those spiffy toys? They take the edge off a lonely apocalypse...

Of course, The Omega Man is a less-than-faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson's vampire SF novel I Am Legend. An earlier film The Last Man on Earth (starring Vincent Price) was a lot closer to the novel. The protagonist of I Am Legend isn't Charlton Heston's Nietzschean superman-survivor from The Omega Man.

In I Am Legend, Matheson's still-human viewpoint character Robert Nelville is military veteran: the last veteran, in fact. But he's hardly a combat monster or superman. He's the last little bit of the military-industrial complex, as a friend pointed out yesterday. The last bit of a dying social order.

Neville's home isn't cool; it's a sad place, more or less constantly subjected to vandalism. The windows constantly need re-boarding with fresh planks because the house is besieged every night by vampires living and dead. In fact, as my friend also observed, Romero's whole house-under-siege by shambling zombies motif in Night of the Living Dead owes more than a little to the shambling dead vampires of I Am Legend.

Now, I always liked the vampires in The Omega Man. They were kind of scary. Robed vampire-cultists hiding in dim communes in all the abandoned buildings of downtown Los Angeles. They were also cool. The vampire cult leader Matthias (perhaps a play on "Matheson"?) was intelligent, menacing, and charismatic; a long-haired icon of the undead counterculture with great shades. (Later in life I got to meet the actor Anthony Zerbe who played Matthias - a nice guy!) With their spotchy pale faces and dark hooded clothes, they also resembled the mutants who lived underground in the ruined human cities of the Planet of the Apes series.

Matthias on the left, played by Anthony Zerbe

The Omega Man's vampires were the figure of race rebellion, 60s counterculture, and insurgency against The Man:

There's a lot to work with here. And perhaps it's not an accident that a year later Charlton Heston's political career began its decisive turn to the right. He supported Nixon's reelection. Another decade, and a self-financed right wing PAC later, the former civil rights advocate of the 60s would be just another of Reagan's ex-liberal camp followers. By the time of Heston's interview with Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine, and now suffering from Alzheimer's, he fell readily into the trap created by his own ideology, blaming America's pervasive gun problems on our country's racial diversity.

In the end he had become Neville. The last of his kind, out of touch with the present times, and irrelevant to the future.

A sad end for the man who kissed Zira in the 1968 Planet of the Apes.

Nelville's undoing at least opened up some positive possibilities: a new society of living vampires, for which he would be a living legend, a Dracula-in-reverse. We can't say that any good came out of Heston's decline and fall. As Marx pointed out in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, history repeats itself: "the first time as tragedy, then as farce."


But on to the vampires of I Am Legend!  The novel is best known for being the first full-length treatment of vampirism as a disease caused by bacterial infection. People become infected with vampirism through infection of open wounds by bacterial spores. Once these spores germinate, the patient experiences a period of lassitude. Many of the infected die, to rise again as quasi-intelligent, shambolic "dead" vampires.

A minority of the infected never truly die. Instead, the bacteria and the body enter into a new symbiosis in which the vampire retains its full intelligence and vigor. These so-called "living" vampires are revealed by the novel's end to be developing into a new (post)human society. In fact, they begin an aggressive campaign to clear the cities of the dead vampires.

Both forms of vampire require blood for sustenance. Both are also resistant to bullets, but readily killed by staking or other weapons that create open wounds penetrating more deeply than 1" into the flesh. Both kinds of vampire avoid sunlight, because it kills dead vampires and harms living ones. Both kinds avoid garlic, and many if not most are afraid of crosses.

The avoidances are revealed to be a psychological vulnerability or category mistake of sorts on the part of newly risen vampires. They see that they are now obviously "undead": they crave blood, have fangs, and are vulnerable to sunlight. So they become vampires through a kind of auto-interpellation. As a result of this psychological operation, vampires instinctively fear the trappings of the vampire hunter - such as crosses and garlic - and develop a kind of psychological blindness to their own reflection in mirrors.

Poor things.


Living Vampires
Intelligent human-bacterial symbiotes

  • High Concept: Living vampires thanks to a bacterial infection
  • Trouble: Stakes kill us
  • Aspect: We crave blood
  • Aspect: We have the same feelings you do
  • Aspect: We're building a society of our own
  • Careful: +2
  • Clever: +3
  • Flashy: 0
  • Forceful: +1
  • Quick: +1
  • Sneaky: +2
  • I'm A Survivor Just Like You: Take a +2 to Clever Approach to persuade someone that you are not a vampire - you're just another human being.
  • Molecular Glue: Bullets cannot harm living vampires because they have a subcutaneous layer of glue that acts like living kevlar.*
  • Walk Among You: With a little make-up to block the sun's rays, living vampires may walk outside during daylight unharmed.    

*Piercing weapons that can keep a wound open (arrows, crossbow bolts, swords, pikes) deal normal stress.

Dead Vampire Mooks
  • +2 at: Grabbing and biting; Vandalism
  • -2 at: Running; Thoughtful action
  • Aspect: Shambling, snarling, dead vampires
  • Stress: 6-12 (12-24 dead vampires; 2 per stress box)


  1. Neville's pad in Omega Man is the sort of place I'd want to ride out the apocalypse in.

  2. Trey's right--that was like the ultimate bachelor pad of the apocalypse. Sure beats grubbing away in some dank and dismal hole in the ground.

    This is still a fun movie, very D&D-with-an-SMG. You have managed to make a popcorn-apocalypse movie much more thought provoking with this well thought out post.

  3. Thanks, Trey and Jim!

    Definitely the place to be in the "popcorn-apocalypse" (as Jim put it).