SHOCK takes a look and listen to Ron Grainer’s lush score for 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN.
Though it was rather faithfully adapted in 1964 with the Richard Matheson scripted (though credited under his pseudonym Logan Swanson) Italian/US co-production THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and then, decades later as the irreverently plotted but effective in tone verboten-titled version starring Will Smith, no one has properly brought the existential horror of Mathesons 1954 novella I AM LEGEND to the screen.
Thats a curious fact, as Mathesons chilling story reads like much of his fiction almost as a screenplay. Its practically penned, resting almost entirely on the shoulders of a single character; It has solid scares, pathos, action and its themes are still timely.
And yet, filmmakers and producers endlessly ignore just how perfectly designed a tale it is.
With that, all of the existing I AM LEGEND adaptations are excellent films in and of themselves, each taking elements of the Matheson tale and building new worlds around it.
1971s THE OMEGA MAN however, stands alone.
Its not a good mirror of the novella at all, but its an epic, kinetic dystopian horror film by way of early 70s action thriller. Its tough, lean, haunting, literate, strange and emotional. It boasts the second of three remarkable, sophisticated sci-fi-based performances by Hollywood legend Charlton Heston (the others being 1968s PLANET OF THE APES and 1973s SOYLENT GREEN), is urgently directed by Boris Sagal and is held together by an absolutely rapturous, orchestral, funky and experimental score by Australian-born composer Ron Grainer (DOCTOR WHO, THE PRISONER).
In the film, we follow Dr. Robert Neville (in the novella, Neville was not a doctor rather, he was just an every-man; THE LAST MAN ON EARTH cast Neville as a doctor as well, but inexplicably re-named him Morgan), a military scientist who, when the world is in the grip of a biochemical plague, develops an antidote to obliterate the rapidly spreading and fatal disease. But, as we see in flashback, when his helicopter crashes, he fails to deliver the serum, having only moments to inject himself with it before he too succumbs.
And, as we learn immediately from the opening moments of the film, Neville is now the last man on the planet.
Seems the disease has spared some victims death and has instead turned them into a hive of albino lunatics. Sick and seething, these survivors wear black robes and hide in shadows as their condition renders them photosensitive. In the story, theyre full-blown vampires, weak and blood-hungry, who come calling for Nevilles blood at night. These monsters emerge after dark to annoy Neville as well, though not to consume him. Rather, under the leadership of lunatic leader and ex-newsman Matthias (KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARKs Anthony Zerbe), they rage against Neville as representing the evils of modern man, the same sort of species that destroyed the world.
They want Neville dead but Neville refuses to go gently.
Like in Mathesons text, Nevilles purpose in life becomes to stand in firm opposition to these psychotic fiends, to defy them and scar them by not only living, but living relatively well.
Things deviate further from the novel when survivors show up, when blood transfusions are received, when action sequences and a then-edgy interracial romance swells. And thats fine. THE OMEGA MAN simply uses Mathesons text as a springboard to become its own sort of sweeping, expansive entertainment.
And again, my God that Grainer score…
Using plenty of percussion, piano, a haunting and creatively placed water chime (an instrument that is struck while submerged in water) and a swooning, string heavy orchestra, Grainer distills the melancholy from the story. The score, in its quiet moments laced with Spanish-tinted trumpet, delicate piano and guitar, mourns the loss of humanity; that sense of loss is omnipresent in the film because of this music, though its juxtaposed with moments of fist-pumping triumph as Neville fights back and Grainer adds a dose of rock and roll to the orchestra, with trip-hoppy backbeats, throbbing bass and a victorious horn section.
Best of all, Grainer adds a grandiose pipe organ to sting the score, giving the film an alternately funereal and, eventually, a spiritual skin. It may be the end of the world, but there’s still hope, there are still those left reaching for salvation…
The two main themes of the film, one almost constructed like a lullaby and the other a more melodic action theme that kicks into high gear during the more frenetic scenes, are orchestrated and re-orchestrated in various ways, each time manipulating us as we lock on to the familiar progression of notes that are then slowed down, sped up, stripped down and over-inflated.
During one fragile scene, the main theme is played by a lilting hurdy gurdy. It’s unforgettable…
Its a beautiful, lush and disorienting landscape of music for an eminently re-watchable and thundering motion picture.
Heres a selection of key cues below:
Incidentally, the band STEREOLAB, from their album Margarine Eclipse quoted THE OMEGA MANs score in the track Margarine Melodie. Have a listen.
You can buy the full THE OMEGA MAN score on CD from the folks at Film Score Monthly