Being the last man on Earth.
On a recent Sunday evening, trying to relax, I turned on the television and saw an ad for a new comedy series called The Last Man on Earth. It wasn’t clear how everyone else had died.
I had learned what I needed to know, or had remembered it: television does not relax me. I turned the television off, took an Ativan, and listened to The Teddy Charles Tentet, a terrific jazz record.
Phil Miller is the last man on earth—which makes him the world’s greatest handyman—world’s greatest athlete—[etc.]
The last man on earth.
But of course one is not the Last Man on Earth. There are other people, equal claimants to the Earth. It can be vexing to share it with them.
The Last Man on Earth, 1964. Crumpled bodies, emptied streets. A sign reads: COMMUNITY CHURCH THE END HAS COME; Vincent Price speaks: “I own the world. An empty, dead, silent world.”
A plague has slain all of humanity—all but Price, as Richard Morgan. The afflicted went blind before dying. The government insisted on burning the corpses to slow contagion. Morgan’s daughter died, and her body was thrown into the pit at the edge of town and burned. When his wife died, he hid her body and buried it. That was how he learned the dead come back. It is a vampire plague, and each night after dark, Morgan’s former friends and neighbors hammer at his windows: “Morgan, come out. Come out.”
By day, Morgan methodically hunts for and slays sleeping vampires and drags as-yet unresurrected bodies into the pit to burn. By night, he listens to records and defends his home with garlic and mirrors: “They can’t bear to see their image,” he says in a voice-over. “It repels them. I need more mirrors. And this garlic’s lost its pungency.”
Morgan falls asleep in the community church and must fight his way home after dark through crowds of incompetent vampires. Once inside, he reminisces about his wife by watching old film reels of good times they had. He laughs until he cries. We see the happy times, the birthday party and the children playing together, the worldwide spread of the disease, the blindness and surprisingly affecting deaths of Morgan’s neighbors and his own daughter: “Mommy, where are you? Mommy, I can’t see. Mommy … Mommy, help me. Mommy. Mommy, please help me … Mommy. Mommy. Mommy, where are you?”
Why “surprisingly affecting”? Because this movie is shit. Which is not to claim that shit is not interesting. We eat, food nourishes our bodies, shit is a byproduct of that process that gives certain indications. Fecal occult blood tests are an important diagnostic tool. Let’s get into the bullshit and see what the bull ate.
Morgan finds dead vampires with strange stakes in their bodies, not manufactured by him. He decides other humans must exist. “Where did they come from? Where are they hiding? Why haven’t I seen them?”
Burying a dog on the outskirts of town, he meets another human, Ruth Collins. She is infected, but she and her community have found a way to hold the illness at bay with a vaccine. So there are three kinds of last men on Earth: vampires who spread disease, half-vampires who manage their illness and slay evil vampires, and Richard Morgan, an uninfected singleton, who is surprised to discover that he has been killing them all indiscriminately.
You’re a legend in the city, moving by day instead of night, leaving as evidence of your existence bloodless corpses. Many of the people you destroyed were still alive. Many of them were loved ones of the people in my group.
Collins, armed, has been sent to keep Morgan in place while her group attacks his house to kill him—tonight. “You can’t join us,” she tells him. “You’re a monster.” Attempting to prove his worth, Morgan uses his immunity to create a new vaccine for the half-infected Collins. Now she can tolerate garlic and she can face herself in the mirror.
Look. Look! You see? It worked, Ruth. The antibodies in my blood worked. My blood has saved you, Ruth. Do you know what this means? You and I can save all the others.
But it’s too late to call off the scheduled attack. Morgan is pursued by his half-human assailants through the streets. “There he is—in the church!” Wounded, he rails at them: “You’re freaks. All of you. All of you. Freaks, mutations. You’re freaks. I’m a man. The last man!”
He is killed on the altar of the community church. It is unclear whether his last words express puzzlement or pride: “They were afraid of me.”
1971’s The Omega Man is, like The Last Man on Earth, based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 story “I Am Legend,” on which more shortly.
Charlton Heston is Robert Neville. Again the lonely watching of the film of happiness and community: this time it’s not home movies of children at a birthday party, but the Woodstock documentary. Again the rush home, combat with the infected adversaries. Again the flashback that explains the plague. This time it’s germ warfare: “Abort firings. Interception will fragment bacilli-carrying missiles.”
Again the sounds of group laughter from outside, calling him to join, and again the refusal. “Neville.” “Shut up! Why the hell can’t you leave me alone?”
The Omega Man is more straightforward than The Last Man on Earth about what membership in groups means, reminds us of, and feels like. This is a melodrama, with a hero and a villain—Matthias, leader of the infected Family. “The Family is one … Neville will come down, down to the Family and to judgment,” he says. “Outside the Family, there is nothing at all.”
The Family captures Neville and puts him on trial. “Does he have a family? Is he of the sacred society? Then what is he?” Neville is what the Family does not wish to know. “You are the angel of death, doctor, not us … and when you die, the last living reminder of hell will be gone.” The Family assigns the role of “knowledge-of-the-past” to Neville and seeks to destroy that knowledge, in a comically obvious way: they aim to immolate him on a pile of paintings and books.
A band of half-infected survivors rescue Neville from being burnt alive by the Family, and he explains himself to them.
Neville: I don’t have it.
Lisa: Have what?
Neville: The plague. I’m immune.
Dutch: Everybody has it!
Neville: Everybody but me. There was a vaccine … My blood might be a serum. The stage that boy’s in, my antibodies could reverse the whole process, stop it.
Dutch: Christ, you could save the world.
And, as if that weren’t Christified enough:
Child: They say the Family comes in the night when it’s dark. They say they’re going to come some night and take Ritchie’s soul, and tie it all up in a bag, and give it to the Devil. Is that really true? Do you know if that’s really true?
Neville: Oh, we wouldn’t let that happen. Not a chance.
Child: Are you God?
And if that still weren’t enough, in the end Neville dies in a fountain of his own healing blood, pierced by a spear in his side and hanging from a sculpture, no old rugged cross having been available from the props department.
These murders in churches, these fantasies of saving by the blood, are not accidental; they are intrinsic to the fantasy of The Last Man on Earth. They are the fantasy itself.
The alpha animal, who is subordinate to none, and the omega animal, who is dominant over none … The highest-ranking individual is the alpha animal; the lowest-ranking, the omega animal.
—Klaus Immelmann and Colin Beer’s Dictionary of Ethology, 1992
I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
A film called The Last Man on Earth or The Omega Man could only be an apocalypse scenario film. ΑΠΟΚΑΛΥΨΙΣ is the original Greek for the book we call Revelation.
Sometimes we ask, What would Jesus do? But we know the answer. He would be the alpha male and the omega man, both king and scapegoat. He would take on the sins of the world, then die, saving the world with his blood, and be resurrected in glory. But Jesus could do magic tricks because he was God in a beautiful story, and you aren’t God and this is reality, so try to relax.
“It has been a very fun show to shoot,” said Will Forte, star of the new TV show The Last Man on Earth, “because I get to do a lot of wish fulfillment.” But what are these wishes, and how have they been fulfilled?
The fantasy of complete destruction of the world does not include oneself … precisely because it is accomplished for the sole benefit of the self. The subject remains alone, united with the earth … The aim is to empty the mother’s body in order to totally occupy it oneself, thus regaining one’s place within … The contents of the body are so many obstacles to be swept away in order to reestablish the once perfect union with the mother. Because the contents of the mother’s body represent reality, this wish to rid her body of its contents is of a very crucial nature: destruction of these contents amounts to the destruction of reality … a mysterious domain: the human wish to destroy reality and to be one with the Mother once more.
—Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, “A Short Essay on the Apocalypse,” 1988
My favorite last-man-on-earth film is John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, from 1994: a horror movie about a man, John Trent, who goes mad and is locked in a padded cell when he realizes he’s not in control of his life, but is really a character in an horror story written by Sutter Cane.
Cane’s supernatural fictions are, in turn, not written by him but by otherworldly creatures that control him: “It’s funny, isn’t it? For years, I thought I was making all this up. But they were telling me what to write. Giving me the power to make it all real. And now it is. All those horrible, slimy things trying to get back in—they’re all true.” His horror stories drive the people who read them insane, and his latest best seller, reaching his widest readership ever, will soon cause the apocalypse.
Trent tells Cane’s editor, Linda Styles, that he, like Cane, has contempt for humanity and doesn’t mind if the earth is destroyed:
Trent: Believe me, the sooner we’re off the planet, the better.
Styles: Now you sound like Cane.
Trent: No, not me. You’re the Cane lover.
Styles: I just like being scared. Cane’s work scares me.
Trent: What’s to be scared about? It’s not like it’s real, or anything.
Styles: It’s not real from your point of view, and right now reality shares your point of view. But what scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view.
Trent: Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re not talking about reality here. We’re talking about fiction. It’s different.
Styles: Oh, reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.
Trent: No, that wouldn’t happen to me.
Styles: It would if you realized everything you ever knew was gone. That’d be pretty lonely—being the last one left.
John Trent transparently is the horror-writer Sutter Cane: horrified by responsibility, by the realization that he is, in most cases, the author of his own life, Trent disowns his self-authorship and projects it into an author-adversary, Cane, who can be opposed, though never defeated. Trent is so horrified by his responsibility for his own life, and by the unending competition with his fellow human beings for control over our shared reality, that he uses Cane’s creative powers to destroy the offending world—by making it insane or unsanitary, by eating it all and reducing it to shit.
The last scenes are in a deserted city, with no other group members. On this vacant and destroyed Mother Earth, all is undifferentiated unity with the dead mother (“all those horrible, slimy things trying to get back in”) in a cruel fable of granted wishes.
In the Mouth of Madness ends with Trent watching the film adaptation made from the book of his life. “I’m God now,” says Cane, “you understand?” The Last Man on Earth stares at his own image, his own reflection, and laughs until he begins to sob.
By now we know the basic scenes from Richard Matheson’s story I Am Legend.
He sat in the living room, trying to read. He’d made himself a whisky and soda at his small bar, and he held the cold glass as he read a physiology text. From the speaker over the hallway door, the music of Schönberg was playing.
Not loudly enough, though. He still heard them outside …
It was the women who made it so difficult, he thought, the women posing like lewd puppets in the night on the possibility that he’d see them and decide to come out.
He sat staring moodily at the bookcase, listening to Brahms’ second piano concerto, a whisky sour in his right hand, a cigarette between his lips.
Neville would rather stay at home with something in his mouth to suck on than go outside and play and fight on the social battleground. Oral cravings, oral violence—mouths of madness:
I’m an animal! he exulted. I’m a dumb, stupid animal and I’m going to drink! …
He drank directly from the uptilted bottle, gulping furiously, hating himself, punishing himself with the whisky burning down his rapidly swallowing throat.
I’ll choke myself! he stormed. I’ll strangle myself, I’ll drown myself in whisky!
When Neville is captured by the half-infected survivors, a woman takes pity on him and spares him public execution—how else?—by offering him, as Death-Mother, her poisoned breast.
She reached up quickly and unbuttoned her blouse. Reaching under her brassiere, she took out a tiny packet and pressed it into his right palm.
“It’s all I can do, Robert,” she whispered, “to make it easier. I warned you, I told you to go.” Her voice broke a little. “You just can’t fight so many, Robert.” …
He thought, I’m the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.
All of this raises certain questions about our leaping-off point, a new comedy series called The Last Man on Earth. It is not obviously the stuff of comedy. Comedy celebrates love and friendship, joining a community and adding to it, eros, union, reproduction, social binding and incorporation. The Comedy of Errors: “We came into the world like brother and brother; And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.” Measure for Measure: “What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “Our day of marriage shall be yours, One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.”
Tragedy is about the breaking of those bonds, about decay, dissolution, isolation, and death—the death that comes too late. Tragedy is about being the The Last Man on Earth.
The Last Man on Earth can only be a “comedy” of union, of reunion, with the mother’s dead body. Mother Earth is destroyed, rival siblings are destroyed, the obstruction of the father is destroyed—all the obstacles of reality are destroyed, and the ancient wish is fulfilled: The Last Man on Earth has his mother to himself.
But the destruction of reality is psychosis, plain and simple—just as Norman Bates in Psycho destroys all other people he encounters, in order to have, and to be, his own dead mother.
Being The Last Man on Earth is a suicide mission. It is only attractive to the sick soul who, failed by his father, has had to destroy himself in an attempt to become a super-father, to be the first man—the poor soul who thinks that he is God the Father and the Son of God, and that his blood can save us.
It won’t. He can’t. He is sick. We are not sick. And even if we are sick, we don’t want to save or to be saved. We want to kill.
These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.
J. D. Daniels is the 2013 recipient of The Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize. He will contribute an essay on group dynamics to the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review.