Take your stinking hands off me, you damned dirty family!
Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) – the lone surviving human after a pandemic – fights madness in a deserted the Los Angeles. In addition to the scourge that is loneliness, he has to face the survivors who are horribly mutated by the disease. Ironically, the reason Neville survived unscathed, is because he was a scientist working to cure the plague when an accident forced him to try the experimental cure on himself….
The antagonists of this film – called “The Family” – are something like vampires or zombies. Unlike traditional zombies, they neither crave brains nor are they simpleminded monsters, rather they are intelligent and angry. The Family is not particularly like vampires either, they lack the essential romanticism and thirst for blood; they are created by viral means though. The family is most reminiscent of a cult or other organization that exists based on control and the charisma of its leader, which, to make things even more fun, is one of Neville’s old friends and fellow scientist, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Matthias’ – and thus the Family’s – anger and resentment leads to nightly attempts to destroy Neville as – to the the Family – he is a symbol and the last remnant of a dead culture and society; the same past that led to the global plague. This hatred of the now-dead culture leads to the family eschewing any technology more advanced than a catapult as the plague apparently also causes dread Ludditism. As with any cult, they have a hierarchy of sorts, but their reason for being is simply to mourn the past – they seem to stay around for no other reason than to destroy Neville and otherwise cause mayhem – and are thus nothing more than the same remnants of the old, frustrated by their state of existence. They represent those who’ve lost hope, those who no longer wish to be saved from a living hell. Their hostility toward Neville is nothing more than their resentment that he remains normal while they have been mutated into creatures who can no longer bear sunlight and are thus doomed to an existence in darkness.
In addition to The Family attempting to destroy him, Neville has to deal with the pain of being the last normal man on Earth. He does this by attempting to keep his mind active, mostly by engaging in insane conversations with the statues in his fortress / apartment. Neville keeps himself busy by destroying the family while they sleep during the hated bright days. Loneliness, for Neville, is a much greater threat than the physical danger posed by The Family; without normal human companionship his life has little meaning or purpose. Since he was a doctor of medicine, who – by the nature of that profession – would live to help others, his life would have less value with none to help. The mission he’s chosen for himself is a perversion of his desire to be an angel of mercy, rather than attempting to cure those who have been stricken by the illness, he simply kills them out of hand. This great loss of hope is the force that’s dragging him down the path of madness until he’s lucky enough to run across other survivors.
The other survivors of this catastrophe are all young people led by Dutch (Paul Koslo). Presumably their young immune systems were better able to cope with the plague than those of older people. Still, as they get older the disease begins to eat away at them until they metamorphose into monsters like The Family. These young people – naturally resistant to the plague though they are – have no way to become immune and so, eventually, they succumb too; until they meet Neville. Within Neville’s blood is the vaccine that he used to treat himself before he became infected, that is, his blood is a vaccine to the plague. The young survivors have a great deal of difficulty in trusting Neville because many of the people that he killed, thinking them to be members of The Family, were actually normal survivors who had adopted a nocturnal life-style for self-defense. Neville eventually wins their trust by performing a miracle and curing Ritchie (Eric Laneuville) when he begins the transformation. Thus proving his value to the young survivors, they are ready to follow Neville. As is often true of young people in a post-apocalyptic film, these survivors represent the hopeful future (seeaka The Road Warrior for another great example). The problem is that they need a champion to lead them to the promised land of their collective futures. Neville represents that hero, a man who, within his very blood, holds the key to their salvation.
This film is replete with Christ imagery. Neville clearly represents Jesus in that he is the way to salvation from a living hell through his blood. The Family represents the Jews, they seek to destroy Neville as a false prophet and basically evil being who threatens their society. To The Family, mental represents nothing so much as the “old way” which they consider anathema. The Family’s leader, Matthias, was once a friend to Neville but now is his enemy. Matthias blames technology for the destruction of humanity and, with his followers, has become a Luddite. This rejection of the gifts that Neville has to offer, is no different from the rejection of the rabbis of Jesus Christ’s gifts. Finally, the survivors represent the apostles, or, at least, the followers of Jesus, the Christians. Ultimately though, despite all of the symbolism and hackneyed message that the film contains, it fails to accurately capture the nature of Jesus, unless there’s a part of the story that’s less well-known where Jesus killed a bunch of his enemies rather than try to reason with them; of course, a hero who actually did something like this would only be appropriate for an action film about 15 minutes long as, without all the blasting away, he would be easy meat for the villains.
Despite all the lofty goals, this is nothing more than a simple action film with pretensions to quality. Most of the film is about a troubled loner who has the freedom to drive fast and kill his enemies with no other authority in sight. Really, it’s little more than a western, with The Family serving the role usually reserved for Indians. Rather than being a story of a savior of humanity, is the story of a man who represents the American ideal of Rugged Individualism to a degree that will make the NRA bounce up and down excitedly in their seats. The disconnect between the crazy killer and the savior imagery is too much to overlook and leaves us with a disparate hero, one with two sides, neither of which fits well. Aside from the insane amounts of violence, the aspect of Neville’s personality that doesn’t fit the Savior motif is his sexuality. He is attracted to one of the survivors, a pretty young black girl named Lisa (Rosalind Cash). The purity usually required for a Savior is absent here, but that can be overlooked only because their relationship is interracial, something that was quite the taboo in the early 1970s. Saviors, by their very natures, have to be transgressive of societal values and norms.
At least there were no damned dirty apes.