The Omega Man 2.0—Unlimited
The following essay has been reproduced from the booklet included with the original CD of The Omega Man soundtrack released in the year 2000 (FSMCD Vol. 3, No. 2).
The Last Man on Earth
Following the smash success of Planet of the Apes in 1968, actor Charlton Heston entered a brief phase as a science fiction hero. It was a logical development for a man who had played some of the greatest historical figures ever depicted and who had made an effective spokesman for humanity in two of the Apes movies as well as the subsequent Soylent Green (1973). Heston’s bearing was such that the only type of role he seemed unequipped to play was that of a regular guy.
The Omega Man was a loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, which concerned the last man on Earth and his struggle with a race of deadly vampires. In 1964 Roger Corman had made a low-budget version in Italy starring Vincent Price (under the title The Last Man on Earth). John and Joyce Corrington’s script for The Omega Man updated the tale as a science fiction narrative about the aftermath of a genocidal bacteriological war. Heston portrayed Robert Neville, a military scientist who had developed an experimental vaccine just in time to spare himself from the onslaught of the plague.
Unfortunately for Neville, the last man on Earth is not alone. At each sunset a vicious tribe of Luddite barbarians—the “Family”—emerges from the shadows to loot and burn. They are led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), a former news commentator determined to reverse the terrible effects of humanity’s stewardship of planet Earth. “We mean to cancel out the world you civilized people made,” he says. “We shall simply erase history from the moment where science and technology threatened more than they offered.”
Ensconced in an apartment house compound laden with security devices, Neville is the last remaining symbol of the world Matthias and his diseased followers mean to destroy. Every night Neville fights off hordes of zombies while doggedly attempting to track down their secret nest. Eventually Neville discovers an additional group of human survivors led by Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and Dutch (Robert Koslo): people who live in hiding from both Neville and the Family, and who have not succumbed to the plague—yet.
The Omega Man ranges from action to social commentary, and is quite effective when it deals with Neville’s loneliness, his sad attempt to keep the rituals and habits of his old life alive, and his desperate battles with Matthias’s creatures of the night. At its best it is a highly enjoyable comic book adventure, with Charlton Heston an incredibly manly action hero and Anthony Zerbe a deliciously arch super-villain who wrings the juice out of each line he delivers.
Heston got the production going after reading Matheson’s novel during a plane trip. “The most interesting element of the story from an actor’s point of view is the last man on Earth is a fantasy idea that almost everyone thinks about,” the actor says today. “The idea of never having to have your clothes laundered because when your shirt gets dirty you just toss it away and go in the store and pick up a couple more the idea of being the last man on Earth is kind of a staggering, almost God-like identity. We had a lot of interesting ideas like he talks to himself a lot, which you do when you’re alone, and if you’re always alone you would do it more. He plays chess with himself with his military cap on the bust of Caesar, and I think that’s all very good stuff.”
The economical production took advantage of early Sunday mornings in downtown Los Angeles to depict the sprawling city as a barren ghost town in which Neville jogs, drives and shops at his leisure during the day. A box-office success upon its release, the film was received indifferently by critics but has since gained a heady reputation as a cult experience. Even in 1971 the political overtones of the story were evident, with Heston’s character, a product of the conservative military, struggling against the antiestablishment, counterculture forces of Matthias’s Family. For Heston, the political elements were a natural outgrowth of the story. “I’ve been a conservative all my life, and in my view a conservative does just that: he tries to conserve civilization,” the actor says. “And that’s what Neville is trying to do.” The film was also groundbreaking in another way. “That was the first film in which a black actress played opposite a white leading man, and I’m very proud of that,” Heston continues. “I thought Rosalind Cash was great and that we should use her.” Although it is unclear if the movie was the first film historically to feature such casting, The Omega Man was certainly one of the earliest high-profile motion pictures to do so, and Cash’s streetwise commentary on Heston’s character is a highlight of the film.
In the three-plus decades that have passed since The Omega Man was made, composer Ron Grainer’s tuneful, pop-flavored score has gained a reputation equal to that of the film in its cult appeal. Eschewing the hard-edged, dissonant sound that dominated sci-fi movies of the period, Grainer’s work is melodic and catchy, with a beautifully somber, Baroque-style title theme that firmly places the story in an elegiac perspective. It is a strange hybrid of conventional film score, wordless rock opera and highly dramatic cocktail music.
According to producer Walter Seltzer, a longtime friend and associate of Charlton Heston’s who made seven films with the actor, Grainer produced exactly what the filmmakers had in mind. “We didn’t want to go too way out,” the producer recalls. “The temptation was to make it kind of weird. We wanted a certain element of exotic sound but we didn’t want it to sound like a futuristic party, and he got the idea very quickly. It’s melodic and not atonal, which is always a temptation. That was all by design; that’s the way we wanted it.”
Grainer wrote distinctive melodies not only for Neville and his opponents in the Family, but also lyrical material for Neville’s romantic relationship with Lisa, a theme for the community of children she and Dutch shepherd, and lovely, thoughtful music for one youth’s recovery from the plague and his pivotal intervention in the conflict between Neville and Matthias. The score essays a light pop vibe in keeping with the music of the period while remaining highly dramatic and effective: Grainer’s strategy was to keep the acoustic forces of the orchestra tonal and accessible, while assigning the score’s more unusual sounds to two early Yamaha synthesizer organs—the EX-42 and YC-30—and a unique instrument called a waterchime. Eschewing trumpets and tuba, Grainer’s brass forces feature four French horns and as many as eight trombones, even in the quieter passages, to give the score a mellow, masculine feeling. To this end, cues involving the “Omega Man” theme (the main title) feature horns, while those with Neville’s theme and the Family theme feature trombones—no cue has both. Likewise the string section focuses on the lower shades of viola, cello and bass, with violins added only to some of the largest passages (such as “Zachary Makes His Move”). The beefed-up percussion section features timpani, cymbal, marimba, xylophone, tabla and African drums as well as the aforementioned waterchime. For the pop-styled cues, a rock drum kit joins piano, guitar and electric bass to act as a rhythm section.
Although the score features at most 49 players, many cues eschew strings entirely for a complement of “only” 17—for example, the motorcycle getaway that is the back half of “On the Tumbril.” The mysterious “Neville creeping around” sequences feature five players (two on organ and three on percussion); the cue that concludes “Neville Crashes Through” is a simple duet for organs.
The stellar sound of The Omega Man can be attributed to Grainer’s orchestrations and a carefully close-miked recording by longtime Warner Bros. engineer Dan Wallin, which give the work a high-gloss sheen that belies its budgetary limitations. Wallin recorded the orchestra on three tracks, left-center-right, and the synthesizers on a fourth track that was later dubbed with the orchestra. This album was mastered from a ½″ multitrack tape of the orchestra synchronized with a mono ¼″ recording of the organs, as retained by the Warner vaults in superb condition.
The Omega Man was a unique effort for Australian-born Ron Grainer, who had made a name for himself fashioning catchy television themes for British programs like Man in a Suitcase, Steptoe and Son, Doctor Who and The Prisoner, the project for which he was best known by American audiences. Although he scored movies like The Assassination Bureau and To Sir, With Love, The Omega Man gave the composer an unprecedented opportunity to display his skill at scoring drama, action and suspense. Suffering from failing eyesight, Grainer scored only a handful of films (several made for television) after The Omega Man and had largely retired by the end of the ’70s. He died of spinal cancer in 1981 in Sussex, England at the age of 59. —