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The Shadow Destroyers
Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow's L'ultimo uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth, 1964)
James Iaccino here uses a central Jungian archetype to shed new light on an oft-overlooked Italian/US adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, starring none other than Vincent Price.
Introduction to the Shadow Destroyer
Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung likened one's unconscious to the land of the dead. Each individual's inner self contains an assortment of haunting and terrifying presences that want their voice to be heard by the conscious ego. These dark demons are the antithesis of the life force and hence the very embodiment of Thanatos, the death instinct; collectively, they are referred to as the Shadow Destroyer. In order to avoid a fragmented psyche, the individual must occasionally satisfy the impulses of the Shadow Destroyer—even if that means hurting one's closest companions.
The Jungian image of the Shadow Destroyer is best represented in horror cinema by the figure of the zombie, an undead creature that wants to eat the flesh of the living in order to satiate its own cravings. George Romero's popular zombie series, consisting of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1979), and Day of the Dead (1985), depict a growing mass of these undead figures coming seemingly out of nowhere to inflict their bloodlust on the slowly shrinking members of the human race. There is no doubt that Romero's works shaped the evolution of the modern horror film by creating a highly effective Shadow Destroyer that would be imitated many times on the big screen (see, e.g., Creepshow , The Evil Dead , The Return of the Living Dead , Shock Waves , Lucio Fulci's Zombie , and most recently, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later ).
Prototype of the cinematic Shadow Destroyer
On those cloudy days, Robert was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. If he had been more analytical, he might have calculated the approximate time of their arrival; but he still used the lifetime habit of judging nightfall by the sky, and on cloudy days that method didn't work. That was why he chose to stay near the house on those days.
He walked around the house in the dull gray of afternoon, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trailing threadlike smoke over his shoulder. He checked each window to see if any of the boards had been loosened. After violent attacks, the planks were often split or partially pried off, and he had to replace them completely; a job he hated. Today only one plank was loose. Isn't that amazing? he thought.
And so begins Richard Matheson's classic vampire novel, I Am Legend (1954)... Often ignored in the catalogue of Shadow Destroyer films is a less appreciated Italian work, L'ultimo uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth, Italy/USA, 1964), that was inspired by Matheson's novel and was a direct influence on Romero's later Living Dead trilogy. L'ultimo uomo della Terra chronicles the last days of Dr Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), one of the few surviving humans who has not been infected by a mysterious plague that has swept the entire world, turning the dead into vampire-like creatures. Though Morgan is not himself tainted by the virus, he has experienced significant loss in his life: namely, the death of his young daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland), followed by that of his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) and, finally, his best friend and fellow scientist Ben Cortner (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). That Virginia and Ben return from the grave to make Morgan join their ranks only contributes to the latter's perpetual misery and anguish.
Thanks in large part to the directorial skills of Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, Price succeeds in giving a very restrained, matter-of-fact performance as the tortured Robert Morgan, a performance that contributes to the film's pathos and believability. Reviewer David Smith notes that "Price is wonderfully downbeat and perfectly ordinary...the ‘Everyman' [whose looks match his personality]: droopy shouldered, unshaven, lip curled, his clothes just hanging on his rather large frame." Some critics have even commented that L'ultimo uomo della Terra holds up better than the more well-known 1971 remake, The Omega Man (starring Charlton Heston), due to the inclusion of Price as the reserved hero.
On one level, the Shadow Destroyers in L'ultimo uomo della Terra are the vampiric zombies that Morgan combats on a day-to-day basis. Apart from their lumbering movements, limited vocabulary and pasty-faces, the creatures appear very much like their former selves. They are still wearing the clothes in which they died, reminding the viewer that they have not completely abandoned the trappings of their human existence. Morgan's description of the zombies as "weak, mental incompetents...like animals after a long famine" suggests that he wants to distance himself from his brethren as much as possible. But the repeated attempts of the undead to break into his home and place their "bite" on him serves as a continual reminder to the frustrated Morgan that he cannot escape what most members of his race have become: lost souls in search of eternal rest.
A number of scenes have the zombie Destroyers picking up rocks and planks to pound against Morgan's doors and boarded-up windows. While their actions are in vain, they do succeed in driving the man to the limits of his sanity. Clearly Romero lifted some of these sequences for his own Night of the Living Dead; even his zombies resemble those of L'ultimo uomo's (minus the shocks of silver-gray hair, of course).
However, there is another type of Shadow Destroyer depicted in L'ultimo uomo della Terra, and that is Robert Morgan himself. The scientist has killed countless numbers of the undead during the hours in which they are resting. He has plenty of stakes to do the job, having equipped his home with an old-fashioned wood-cutting machine. After Morgan has impaled the zombies, he makes sure they will never become reanimated again by dousing their bodies with gasoline and then burning them in landfills located at the city's boundaries. To combat those he has not managed to dispose of, he strings mirrors and fresh garlic around his residence, hoping these will be sufficient to ward off their nightly visits (which appear to be increasing in frequency).
Horror film historian John McCarty remarks that many cinematic vampire slayers of this period were quite ruthless in the way they killed their prey. For instance, in Hammer's Horror of Dracula (1958), Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) "doesn't just drive the stake in. He pounds it home with an almost ghoulish zeal as blood gushes from the screaming vampire's collapsed chest." According to McCarty, the zealous – almost fanatical – manner in which these slayers attempt to rid the world of evil becomes just as despicable as what the vampire does to his victims. Paradoxically, L'ultimo uomo della Terra's Robert Morgan has become the very thing he is fighting: an inhuman Shadow Destroyer bent on wiping out every last trace of the undead's existence.
One is reminded here of the line delivered by the female lead Barbara (Patricia Tallman) in Tom Savini's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead: "They are us!" she declares as she sees her own species torture and abuse the creatures. All of these films reveal that there is but a fine line separating the wanton level of death and destruction engaged in by the zombies and that of their human counterparts.
The most astonishing revelation in L'ultimo uomo della Terra comes when Morgan finds that he is not the only human to have survived the plague. A woman by the name of Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia) crosses his sights and, once confirmed that she is not infected, is invited back to Morgan's home. There, Ruth relates that a number of people (like herself) have been taking daily injections of a vaccine that keeps the "vampiric" germ from multiplying in their systems. They regard Morgan as a terrible monster, chiefly because he has mistaken the lingering survivors for vampires and has inadvertently slain many of them. Reviewer Tamara Hladik states with some irony, "The last man on Earth has spent his last years exterminating the last vestiges of humanity, a humanity he might have saved!"
Morgan can scarcely even begin to fathom the seriousness of his crimes. He has transformed himself into a Shadow Destroyer far more culpable than the zombie menace. In the final minutes of the film, the few remaining humans brutally gun down the zombies surrounding Morgan's house and pursue the disbelieving Morgan throughout the city until both parties end up in an abandoned church. In a quite moving scene laden with religious overtones, Morgan yells at his kindred who have turned against him, "You're freaks, all of you! Mutations!" They respond by spearing the man at the altar of the Lord. Before the scientist expires in Christ-like fashion within Ruth's arms, he tells her quite simply that "they were afraid of me."
The ending of L'ultimo uomo della Terra works on a number of levels. First, it shows how savage the human race has become in its efforts to combat the zombie Destroyers; the living will even attack each other if they believe there is "just cause" for their actions. Second, the existential conclusion is reminiscent of many other zombie movies, including Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. Our hero has fought the good fight, but still perishes in the much larger war – with the entire world as his enemy! What is most tragic here is the fact that Morgan never truly understands why his own kind were fearful of him. In fact, he threatened their existence more than the undead. Unknowingly, Morgan dies clueless to his own Destroyer nature.
Final thoughts on the Shadow Destroyer
Although Vincent Price had less than fond memories working on L'ultimo uomo della Terra in the record freezing temperatures of Italy in 1963, this post-apocalyptic work remains a significant commentary on what can happen to the human condition when mere survival becomes the all-important priority. If such a situation arises, will we become like Price's Robert Morgan, freely giving in to our Shadow Destroyer urges, or will we retain our everyday identities by exercising restraint on these impulses? The answer lies in the dynamics of our unconscious... or does it?
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