Imagine being the last man on Earth running from the undead who want to eat you…
That’s the basis for Richard Matheson’s top-selling novel, I Am Legend. Published in 1954, the chilling tale is often referred to as the first modern vampire story. It has been adapted three times with leads Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith and even influenced an entirely different movie franchise – George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series.
When first crafting the tale, Matheson himself was inspired by a horror legend.
He said, “As a teen, I saw Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. It occurred to me that if one vampire was scary, then if the whole world was filled with vampires that would be even scarier.”
Shortly after it was released, the rights to Matheson’s novel were purchased for Hammer Studios, known for its successful adaptions of Dracula and Frankenstein. However, concerns over censorship halted the pre-production, and the rights were sold to another producer. The resulting film was The Last Man on Earth.
While Matheson would later consider this to be the most faithful adaption of his work, he was disappointed with the final product. Originally, Fritz Lang was to direct, which excited Matheson. The masterful director, known for The Big Heat and Scarlet Street, had the ability to capture the dark corners of humanity, and his talent would no doubt have been thrilling to see in this science fiction tale. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Matheson also didn’t agree with casting choice of Vincent Price.
He said, “I wrote quite a few pictures for Vincent, and he was marvelous in all of them. But I think he was miscast.”
In his mind, Jack Palance would have been a more appropriate pick.
Finally, Matheson wasn’t pleased with the script changes. He had written the first draft, but after multiple rewrites, he wanted to distance himself from the screenplay and was credited under the pen name, Logan Swanson.
In 1971, I Am Legend was adapted into The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. Screenwriter Joyce Corrington co-wrote the project and made a significant change to the plot. Having a doctorate in chemistry, she believed that biological warfare, not a plague as outlined in the novel, was a more fitting way to create the film’s post-apocalyptic world.
Matheson considered this version to be “ludicrous.” He said, “It was so far removed from the book, but it didn’t bother me.”
While watching television one night, Matheson came across a movie and thought, “When did they make my novel into another film again?”
That movie was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Romero’s friend, Richard Ricci, was a driving force for the project, providing funding and two book recommendations to inspire the budding director, one of which was I Am Legend.
Ricci said, “It lent itself to the low budget, quick production we could afford to make. Its visuals were easy to see and make real. Ghouls from the grave are easier than monsters from outer space. Ghouls were people!”
Romero himself credits Matheson with the inspiration for Night of the Living Dead, sometimes even going so far to say he “ripped” him off.
When Romero met Matheson in person, he jokingly put his hands up in defense and said, “I didn’t make any money!”
Several other writers have also credited Matheson with inspiring their work, such as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen Spielberg.
While Matheson dislikes being categorized as a “horror” writer, since he has written a variety of works, he has contributed much to the genre, including episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), Duel, and The Night Stalker.
Regardless, Matheson considers I Am Legend to be a highlight of his career.