Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

A notable precursor to the contemporary zombie movie
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ecently, I picked up a copy of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend at a second-hand bookstore. Matheson—whose high-concept man vs. truck short story Duel was to launch the career of Steven Spielberg—made a name for himself in the genres of science-fiction, horror and fantasy. His writing spans novels and short stories, alongside work in television and film. I Am Legend, itself no stranger to the silver screen, has been adapted no less than three times, and is, in some ways, a reflective document of post-war American culture. First published in 1954, it laid an early foundation for zombie movies such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) series, and critiques many of the same social and cultural concerns associated with these later films.

“a reflective document of post-war American culture”

The plot revolves around Robert Neville, the ‘last living man on earth’. He navigates a post-apocalyptic landscape where every other man, woman, and child has been converted into zombie-like nocturnal vampires. It is a cautionary tale, negotiating the long-term impact of violence and exploitation in the atomic age.  At times, the 1950s narration feels similar in tone to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (which is perhaps not a coincidence, since Matheson penned one of the show’s most famous episodes). In short, the novel is not afraid to embrace the hyperbolic or the melodramatic. But the tone is one of the qualities that makes I Am Legend interesting: it is a novel that draws upon the language and motifs of post-war capitalism, of the 30-second commercial and the soap opera, to articulate a culture that is in crisis. Its legacy lives on not only in the works of popular novelists such as Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King (who called the novel “an inspiration”), but resurfaces as Hollywood screenplay during times of historical turmoil, most notably with 1971’s The Omega Man and 2007’s post-9/11 I Am Legend, starring Will Smith.

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