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Contrary to what it declares, this is not a vampire story. It contains no vampire characters. The only talker among the straggling corpses surrounding the house is Ben Cortman, Neville's old car pool buddy. Haitian legend prescribes voodoo conjuring to raise the dead for a slave labor force, and Cortman, with his endlessly-repeated command of “come out, Neville”, is merely trying to get Neville to go back to work.
Robert Neville overlooks a lot of things, but this one's major.
But then its 1976 imagined from the early 1950's. He probably didn't see the 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie. He probably rightly concluded that Tourneur's 1943 masterwork, I Walked With A Zombie was not about lurching monsters but ghostly possession. And he couldn't have taken in a matinee of Night of the Living Dead, where the deceased dine on the living because they are infected by a foreign pathogen. That was 1969. Matheson is prophetic, but he's not Nostradamas, for Chrissake.
So forget about stakes through the heart, sunlight disintegration, or flesh-burning crosses. Hell, forget about bites on the neck, metamorphotic bats, or even silver bullets. These are presumed manifestations. The essence is that a vampire retains an individual personality, albeit with some drastic behavior modification. They are beguiling, devious, and formidable adversaries because they can think. The mob shambling around Neville's home is mindless, or a single note stuck in a groove like Cortman.
Matheson's short story, Dance of the Dead might be fantasist literature's first zombie hit*, with I Am Legend batting cleanup. I don't know the chronology that well, but I cannot find any literary roots by any author past mid-century.(1) Zombies' nascent suckling seems to be raised from the 90210 world. Which is scary because, besides its presentation format, the most important innovation Hollywood has added to the horror genre, based on the utter numbers, is The Time-Release Spoof. This is cringingly true of the two films from this source material. The Last Man On Earth in 1964, but, even better, look at The Omega Man from 1971 starring Charlton Heston. Was either honored by a turn on Mystery Science Theatre 3000?
If only Neville'd seen them as zombies in the first place. Let's suppose he'd gone into the abandon houses and found in the beds vegetable pods that looked like brussel sprouts on steroids(3). He wouldn't feel the Hiroshima guilt making him Godzilla if he knew they'd ripen into zombies. Who cares about another weary ‘50s suburbanite shambler smoking Marlboros, driving a Ford, and spewing McCarthyisms? Neville makes everything so complicated with too much analysis and scientific methodology because he thinks their rationality can be saved. You help someone who's been bitten by a rabid dog, but you shoot the coyote attacking your sheep.
However, his obsession with a cure and lugubrious obstinacy to destroy all the changelings certainly reads as worthwhile goals in Neville's world. He is, after all, the last infection-free human after the plague has rendered his fellow humans into shuffling somnambulists with an indiscriminate bloodlust. It's no wonder he's cynical, angry, vindictive, stubborn, petty and mean and self-destructive, since “life would be equally purposeless no matter what his decision was” (Tor PB, ISBN 0812523008, c.1995, p.61). He's also terribly frustrated, sexual and otherwise, because he knows without a mate it's all moot. His actions are not so much anti-heroic as they are merely common and instinctual. Mistaken evaluation is brought on by a profound emotional despondency.
This is really more of a ponderance on society's complete and total destruction of the individual. The group is always safest when nobody's questioning its incorporation. When innovation or growth is not considered healthy or productive, stagnation becomes the status quo. And the mob fears any change. In I Am Legend, Humanity's future remains just as grim when the new human hybrids carry out their killings with “pure joy” (p.156) on their faces. This is now a “world in which murder [is] easier than hope” (p.128).
But Neville's defeat should be looked at from two perspectives, and the key is Matheson's choice to end a 3rd-person narrative with a 1st-person point of view. It is literally his last word on individual verses group thinking.
From the reader's chair, you've identified with Neville all along. He's been the quintessential average Joe struggling against a narrow-minded, life-strangling, oppressive society of others. The situation is not his fault, but he is trying to change things for the better. Being killed by the people he's trying to save by killing becomes a bitter but grand lampoon, and his “coughing chuckle” (p.159) at the end is pure ironic guffaw because, among self-righteous sadists, only the truly heinous are respected enough to remember.
But, if you change your viewpoint as Matheson has subtly instructed, and look at things from the group's side, Neville is the Count Vlad the Impaler of the moment. While they slept, he was the “invisible specter who had left . . . the bloodless bodies of their loved ones” (p.159). In their minds, he represents the abomination the world has become, slaughtering both the innocent and the guilty, and has to be cleansed by death for the New Order to continue. Ruth, very logically and humanely, presents the tough and plausible argument that a group of individuals must be preserved at the sacrifice of a single individual. Regrettably, it is war and some must die for the betterment of all.
The author is not ambiguous about his position, however. The group has lost a worthy individual from its shortsightedness. The New Order suffers the same petty deceits as the old one, at least for a time. But with all sides making the same judgmental errors, Matheson, with a cynic's final sigh, condemns all of modern society to the foibles of a herd animal mentality.
Matheson has given us quite possibly the finest horror novel in the last half of the 20th century. It has set the bar by its continued rejuvenation, durability, relevance, readability, and uncountable borrowings from artists and hacks alike. Part of this is Matheson's me-vs-them-vs-otherthem-vs-me plot in that its structure can be lifted up and placed over any similar scenario, thus hedging out the cultural obsolescence of most horror novels. The zombies can be Apaches surrounding the wagons, crackheads trying to break in for drug money, or gangmembers of the Bloods(4) usurping your territory. The universal model makes it enduring, but what makes it endearing is Robert Neville. He is all of us, scrambling for a tolerable code of duty and responsibility for himself as well as his relationship with the group, bound in the mercurial world of situational ethics and behavior.
This is truly legend.
1) newly-discovered data has led to a revision of this research. Go here for the update.
*it has the distinction of revived corpses dancing for others' amusement, hence the original idea of the chattel ethic.
3) Probably the best horror film of the 1950s is Don Siegel 's insinuation The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, taken from a novel Jack Finney wrote in 1954. Its subtext posits replacement of citizens who don't fit the HUAC's patriotic guidelines by subservient look-alikes grown from vegetable matter. Neville calls himself “predominately vegetable” (p.109), referring to his flat-lined emotional state and his inability to live past day-to-day survival.
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