In 1966, the U.S Army simulated a germ warfare attack on New York City. From June 6 to 10, Army agents released aerosol clouds of harmless agents that engulfed passengers in clouds of gas. Nobody paid much attention. Neither the state nor the city of New York knew about the trial run, and when a single police officer asked what they were doing, they produced false papers that satisfied any questions. The experiment was only publically detailed decades later.
In the meantime, Boris Sagal’s 1971 movie The Omega Man explored what those high casualties would look like while also analyzing a society coming out of the tremendous social shifts of the 1960s. It’s just too bad that The Omega Man is leaving HBO Max on July 31, 2022.
Following the initial 1966 experiment, the Army concluded that germ warfare would be easy to accomplish with potentially devastating results. Under the right conditions, the subway could “expose a large number of people to infection and cause high casualties among the population working in the area.”
That proved totally true in The Omega Man.
Based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (like the Will Smith movie of the same name), The Omega Man remains one of the most fascinating sci-fi movies to come out of its era, raising provocative societal questions while never losing track of its action.
In 1977, Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is the last man in Los Angeles. The movie starts with a long shot on Neville driving in his cherry-red 1970 Ford XL convertible with an automatic weapon, occasionally shooting at mysterious figures in hoods. There’s no traffic, no people, nobody out during the sunny day, just the detritus of a world without its denizens.
Lacking anything better to do, Neville takes in a movie. He can set up the projector himself, but can’t change the movie: the 1970 Woodstock documentary. Neville is an older, stoic, trigger-happy sort of fellow who doesn’t seem like the type to take in the documentary about three days of peace and music. But in his isolation, Neville has come to memorize every word of the film, repeating a gleeful hippie’s words to himself about the need to create a better world.
Such a world seems very out of reach. Neville used to be a military scientist, but when America got caught in the midst of a war between the USSR and China, germ warfare was introduced, accidents happened, and the United States was devastated. By the time martial law was instituted, most of the populace was already dead or dying. Then the military failed, including the pilot who was supposed to take Neville’s experimental vaccine into production.
Neville has taken it himself, and it works, but what good is one person vaccinated?
While Neville essentially runs Los Angeles by himself during the day, at night he is on the defensive. The hooded figures that are part of a group known as The Family emerge. Instead of killing them, the germs mutated these people. Now they are a ghastly pale white, right down to their pupils. Their leader, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), was a news anchor reporting on the last days of humanity. Now, he preaches against everything humanity once stood for, especially modern technology. Every night, they hold joyous book-burning sessions.
Neville’s life of solitude in his apartment seems to mock everything The Family stands for, hence the war between the two factions. While The Family clearly has the numbers, Matthias insists that Neville not be captured using the ways of man — that is to say, guns.
The Family isn’t zombies — they don’t eat people and are clearly intelligent — and they’re not vampires either, although they hate any form of light. They more closely resemble the trend of communal cults that were taking hold at the time of the movie’s release, and Matthias leads them with an iron fist.
Eventually, The Family overpowers Neville, puts him in a dunce cap, and takes him to Dodger Stadium to make him pay for his crime by burning him alive. Matthias points out, correctly, that he has been murdering their members, although they are trying to murder him as well for the manly sin of science.
Neville is rescued by Lisa (Rosalind Cash), a woman he saw earlier roaming the stores of Los Angeles but dismissed as a hallucination. But she’s very real and doesn’t have time for Neville’s crap. The two escape on a motorcycle and Neville is introduced to other non-cult survivors who have been looking for some hope. He just might be able to provide them some if he can get a cure from his blood.
The Omega Man was a huge hit at the time, although critics panned it as a shameless blockbuster. While its third act leaves some of its questions unresolved, it dares to ask big questions. Its visuals take care to make the viewer feel Neville’s isolation, and the challenges that The Family raises to Neville’s various plots don’t have a clear resolution.
If it’s a summer movie, all summer movies should be more like this.