In Omega Man, binaries between human and nonhuman nature point to a merging of memories of nature and culture, especially from the perspective of Dutch’s family and its escape to the “wilderness.” Based loosely on Richard Matheson’s novel, I am Legend, Omega Man updates the 1964 film version The Last Man on Earth and replaces vampires with plague-ridden followers of Matthias (Anthony Zerba). Omega Man also includes a prophetic “Christ-like” hero that is missing in Last Man on Earth. Robert Neville’s blood becomes a serum for the plague because he has injected himself with an effective vaccine he—as a scientist—has created. In The Last Man on Earth, Vincent Price (the hero) becomes immune to the vampire disease only because he, by accident, had been bitten by a vampire bat. Omega Man is definitely a product of the early 1970s and its environmental politics, since it asserts that humans’ destruction may come as the result of a devastating biological war. But it also embraces the hope an extended family like that depicted in Woodstock might provide.
Much of Omega Man is set in the city—Los Angeles in 1977, two years after the Earth’s population was annihilated by germ warfare. The calm atmosphere is shattered, first by gunfire and then by a crash as the driver runs his red convertible Ford into a fence to avoid a barrier in the road. The driver, Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), looks back with nostalgia on a world before war and before the plague had destroyed most of the Earth’s population. His memories seem so real that he almost believes he hears phones ringing on the street.
Memories continue with Neville’s re-viewing of the movie Woodstock (1970), “held over for a third straight year.” The clip from the film we see shows both the community Neville recalls and reenacts in the dealership and the peacefulness with which the film begins. During an interview, one of the Woodstock participants states the goals of the 1969 event—“Just to really live together and be happy.” With such a world, people won’t “be afraid to walk out in the streets” is the claim. This brief scene from Woodstock, though, sets up several ways in which nostalgia is treated in Omega Man. The film Woodstock illustrates memories of family, friendship and other social connections, as well as a more natural and pristine world. It also shows what is constructed as a better “family” than that of Matthias and a less destructive response to industry and technology run amok (even before the last global war).
Neville, though, sees Woodstock as a way to capture memories of movie-going itself: “They sure don’t make pictures like that anymore,” he quips. And when he finally gets into his apartment (through another blockade of black-hooded assailants) Neville’s connection to technology and culture is reinforced. A generator provides electricity for the lights, appliances, and music—as well as for the surveillance cameras hooked into his big-screen television. Art fills the big living room, and a chess game is in motion on his table—between himself and a statue of a general. This glimpse of Neville’s apartment is followed by shots of another form of nostalgia—this time for a world free of technology that is gained through violence and fire.
Matthias, former news anchor, leads what he calls The Family in their quest to cleanse the world of technology because he blames it for the plague they carry. A flashback shows Matthias’s reactions as a news anchor during wartime: “Is this the end of technological man? ….The age of the wheel? We were warned of judgment…..Well, here it is now,” he proclaims. Matthias’s attitudes have grown with his disease, so he rejects even weapons from the armory to fight Neville, the last human in the city who is untouched by the plague. Matthias and his family burn all remnants of culture—books, art—and try to kill Neville because he is seen as evil, but only with homemade weapons like catapults and spears.
Matthias and his family look back nostalgically on a world they never knew—before even the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Neville, the scientist and art lover, diametrically opposes Matthias’s mission. That opposition becomes most clear during Neville’s “trial” after he is captured by The Family. Since he represents science, medicine, weapons and machinery—and has killed off members of The Family—Matthias finds Neville guilty of evil, so he is sentenced to suffer a sixteenth century death by fire.
Neville escapes when a different “family” lights of the stadium, however, introducing the third reaction to the global war—Dutch (Paul Koslo), Lisa (Rosalind Cash), and a “family” of children unharmed by the plague and living off the land away from the city, Neville, and Matthias. Dutch and his family provide an alternative response to plague—and embrace a different kind of memory, a nostalgia for a community much more like that depicted in Woodstock. Matthias wishes to destroy all remnants of the “new” world, including Neville. Neville wants to preserve what’s left of it in his urban apartment—with paintings on the walls, books on shelves, technology running it all, and science in his working laboratory, but he wants all of Matthias’s family members dead.
Dutch and his family, on the other hand, left the city to escape both Matthias and Neville—and their violent methods. Neville sees their countryside home when Dutch and Lisa free him from Matthias. In this pastoral setting, Neville also is introduced to humans who are resistant to the plague. The group has returned to a natural world outside the city and includes children scampering in from hilltop gun emplacements. Dutch and his family are far removed from both Neville, who is tied to the city as an exterminator, and Matthias, whose sole goal is the erasure of the past by a fire he claims will purify it.
Yet two of Dutch’s group connect with both Neville and Matthias—Lisa and Richie (Eric Laneuville). Richie is saved by Neville’s blood, which acts as a kind of serum. Because he’s now plague-free, Richie offers his blood serum to Matthias and The Family. Although Neville willingly saves Richie, he does not want him to help Matthias. And Matthias not only rejects Richie’s offer; he kills him because he, like Neville, is not one of the “chosen” (the plague victims). Neville does die (and seemingly on a cross), but not before passing on a jar of serum to Dutch to save Lisa and the rest of Dutch’s family. Dutch takes Neville’s place, too, since he went to medical school before the war and now protects Neville’s blood serum, this time not as a tragic eco-hero but as one attached to a more interdependent communal view of both humans and the natural world.
Matthias and what’s left of The Family remain, but are glued to the city they wish to purify. Matthias’s apocalyptic message resounds for himself and his family, but not for Dutch and his, since they have hope. Despite its post-apocalyptic tone, Omega Man shows a positive future. In a jeep that carries himself, Lisa, and the remaining children, Dutch drives away from the city and the plague, into a green wilderness where Neville’s serum can cure them all. The film not only warns of the dangers of germ warfare; it demonstrates its consequences, offering the only viable solution—an interconnected family.