IT CAME FROM THE DRIVE-IN:
Hey there, cats and kittens, welcome back to the Ground Zero Drive-In Theater. I know some of you will be surprised to find us here in the day-glo confines of Horror Garage, but we pulled up stakes from our former plot o’ ground and hit the road and here’s where we landed.
Or maybe I should drop the “we” and just say here’s where “I” landed. That’ll make things a little easier. My name’s Norm and I’m the proprietor around here, and I’ve gotta say I like the look of the place. There’s a psychotronic vibe going on in Horror Garage that’s sure enough on my wavelength.
You must feel the same way, because you’ve already bought yourself a ticket. So pull on in and park your chariot. You’ll see that nothing much has changed around the Ground Zero. Straight ahead, there’s that big eyesore of a screen, those rows of in-a-car speakers that have all the aural quality of the finest Toys ‘R’ Us walkie-talkies. And there’s the snack bar, where you can stock up on the best pre-microwave taste treats any postwar economy could produce.
Which is another way of saying that if you’ve come looking for a half-caf double-latté, or a guava-pineapple juice smoothie, or a scoop of ice cream served on a chilled slab of Carrara marble, you’d better get the hell out of here. You’ve come to the wrong place. What we’ve got here are your All-American basics. Hot dogs. Popcorn. Soft drinks with plenty of sugar. And coffee—just plain goddamn coffee—served up black and hot and infused with enough caffeine to keep you awake through an Emma Thompson triple-bill.
Not that you’ll find anything like that playing on the screen here at the Ground Zero. Nope, we offer you the visual equivalent of our gustatory delights—drive-in movies the way God and Sam Arkoff intended them. I’m here to book the program, tear your ticket, and open your eyes to a few treats you may have missed (especially if you’re a member of the generation that grew up with VCRs rather than drive-ins).
You want Emma Thompson, go somewhere else.
You want Gummie Bears or sprinkles, get your ass out of here.
We don’t have any fuckin’ sprinkles.
* * *
What we do have is post-apocalyptic testosteronic Chuck Heston action, in the form of a little epic called The Omega Man. Those among you who are in-the-know will recognize this one as the second film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel, I Am Legend (the first being Vincent Price’s The Last Man on Earth). I’ve heard that Matheson doesn’t think much of the Heston film—it’s certainly true the movie doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with Matheson’s book, which is undoubtedly one of the best horror novels ever written—but I’ve got to admit that The Omega Man is one of my favorite films. Maybe the difference is that I don’t think of it as a Richard Matheson movie. To me, it’s a Chuck Heston movie.
Let me explain something to the younger members of our audience, the ones who only know Charlton Heston as the N.R.A. guy, or maybe as Moses. You may be surprised to learn that in the late sixties and early seventies, Chuck was the sci-fi movie king. Heston staked out the territory Schwarzenegger would inherit when he was pumping out stuff like the Terminator movies, Predator, and Total Recall. (In fact, for awhile it looked like Schwarzenegger would star in yet another version of I Am Legend, but the film never made it into production.)
However you feel about Arnold’s sci-fi career, Big Chuck was there first. Heston was the first major star to take a run at sci-fi movies, starting with the brilliant Rod Serling-scripted Planet of the Apes.* He followed that one up with a sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and then starred in The Omega Man and Soylent Green. To paraphrase one of the characters in The Omega Man, when it came to early seventies sci-fi Heston was “the Man... and I do mean The Man.”
Of course, in those days calling someone The Man was not exactly a compliment. The Man tear-gassed college students protesting the Vietnam War. The Man sent out draft notices. The Man shipped your buddies home from said war in plastic bags, then came looking for fresh meat.
But in tonight’s feature, Big Chuck is undeniably The Man... Omega version. We can see that from jump. There he is, driving through L.A.’s financial district in his shiny convertible, popping an 8-track tape into the cassette deck, grooving to the cocktail-generation sounds of “Theme From a Summer Place.” Looks like he might be on his way to some Republican fund-raiser where he can suck down a couple bourbons and talk about guns and Patrick Henry and the best way to gut an eight-point buck. Spear some cocktail weenies while he’s at it, bitch about that Vietcong sympathizer Jane Fonda and her pot-smoking brother, the one who makes biker movies.
Big Chuck could work up a head of steam doing that. He’d explain it all. This younger generation, flushing Western civilization right down the toilet. These goddamn hippies. The way Chuck figures it, you can lay the blame on Hanoi Jane and her stoner brother. Man, if someone had cut off Henry Fonda’s balls before he’d managed to reproduce, the world wouldn’t be in this mess. Yeah. If Heston had done the job himself, if he had old Hank’s gonads dangling from his rearview mirror right fucking now, the world would be a much brighter place.
Only one problem with that particular scenario—there are no testicles dangling from Big Chuck’s rearview at the beginning of The Omega Man. There isn’t even a pair of plush fuzzy dice. That’s the first tip-off that Chuck’s world is not a very nice place. He’s the last real man on earth. A Sino-Russian border war escalated a few years back, and everyone was wiped out by germ warfare.
Everyone but Chuck, a military scientist who’d discovered a vaccine for the bug just a little bit too late to save the world. The only person he managed to save was himself. Now the world (or, at least, downtown Los Angeles) is his very own oyster.
The upscale stores, the fancy hotels and the movie theaters are all his, but it turns out he’s not too happy about it. Being alone kind of takes the satisfaction out of being right about the world. One of the best scenes in the movie has Heston watching Woodstock in a deserted theater. Chuck mouths a “peace and love” monologue along with an onscreen hippie, and you can practically see the acid dripping off Heston’s lips as the ratty little daisy-clutcher’s words burn in his mouth.
So Chuck can have anything he wants, but none of it means anything to him. He’s lonely... so damn lonely that he even misses having a yappy car salesman around when he’s picking out a new Mustang ragtop to replace his convertible.
Yeah. Chuck’s lonely, but he’s not alone. There’s the Family, a pack of plague-surviving mutants who go around dressed in black robes. They’re born-again Luddites who only come out at night—the plague has turned them into light-sensitive albinos—and they busy themselves with book-burning, museum-trashing, and hunting Big Chuck, the living symbol of the dead civilization they despise.
The Family is led by an ex-television anchorman named Matthias (played by Anthony Zerbe at his weaselly best). Cross up Charlie Manson with Dan Rather and you’ve got this guy. Well, that might not be quite right. I think Rather’s actually a little spinnier than Matthias, and if you heard some of the stuff that came out of his mouth the night of the last presidential election (or if you remember him signing off his newscasts by staring steely-eyed into the camera and whispering a single word: “courage”), you might agree with me.
Anyway, Matthias has forgotten all about Nielsen ratings. He’s turned in his horn-rimmed anchorman specs for a pair of mirrored Foster-Grants, and he’s tuned in his own frequency. The Family is heavily into punishment, absolution, and “cleansing.” Mostly Matthias has it in for Heston, “a creature of the wheel... a lord of the infernal engines” who has “the stink of electrical circuitry about him.” Matthias longs to bring Big Chuck down from the penthouse stronghold where our hero holes up during the night, dulling his angst with Cutty Sark after a hard day’s work hunting Matthias’ flock with his grease-gun.
Big Chuck’s penthouse is one of those set-designer wetdreams that speak volumes about a character. An albino soul brother in the family’s ranks calls it a “honky paradise,” and he’s right. Chuck’s pad reeks of Hugh Hefner’s “what kind of man reads Playboy?” aesthetic. It’s as plastic as a credit card and just about as hip. There’s bad modern art on the walls. There’s seventies hi-tech, including quadraphonic stereo, TV surveillance, a private elevator... and even an automatic Genie garage-door opener!
As soon as Heston hits this pad he drops his grease-gun, cues up some lounge music on the quad, and pours himself a little something in a brandy snifter. Then he strips off his Adidas family-killin’ tracksuit (and one look at his fish-belly white middle-aged torso will definitely convince you that the male body aesthetic has changed since 1971—no filmmaker in his right mind would let a guy like Heston take off his shirt in front of a camera these days), trading it for a ruffled shirt and a dark lime crushed-velvet dinner jacket that always reminds me of a couch an aunt of mine had back in the sixties. He boils up a bratwurst for dinner, after which he settles in for a long night playing chess with a bust of Caesar. As Chuck says, “Your move, Imperator.”
Actually, it’s Matthias’ move. He doesn’t let up. When he’s not using a catapult to lob blazing fireballs at Chuck’s penthouse window, he’s setting traps. And Chuck’s vulnerable—he’s getting a little frayed around the edges. All this solitary shit is getting to him. He thinks he hears ringing telephones when he knows he’s alone. At one point he’s in a department store, getting just a little bit aroused by the mannequins in the women’s department, when he suddenly thinks he spots the real deal—a woman with a pulse. He chases her but she disappears, and pretty soon he decides that he wasn’t chasing anything but his own imagination.
Being the kind of guy he is, that particular revelation leads Chuck to the closest bar—a place with plenty of sullen 8-track jazz and a good wine list. While he’s in the cellar playing sommelier, Matthias springs a trap and catches him. Before you can say “Holy kangaroo court, Batman,” our hero’s been sentenced to death for his sins against Matthias and the Family.
Big Chuck’s not gonna knuckle under, though. He takes one look at his black-robed jury and asks them if they’re from the IRS. But Matthias doesn’t rise to the bait. He doesn’t need to. He slaps a dunce cap on Chuck’s head, lashes him to a tumbril, and parades him through the darkened streets so the Family can take their last licks at the bogeyman who walks in daylight.
The procession ends at Dodger Stadium, with Big Chuck the biggest stick in a pile of kindling. Just when Matthias’ crew is ready to toss a match, the stadium lights come on, blinding the light-sensitive mutants. Another couple ticks of the clock and Chuck’s bonds are cut, and his next stop is an old locker room where waits the woman he spotted in the department store.
It ain’t exactly love at first sight. In some ways, this woman is the anti-Chuck. Her name is Lisa, and she’s played by Rosalind Cash—she of the full-on afro and shiny snakeskin suit.
Lisa butts Chuck with a .45 as a hello, tells him, “Up against the wall, mother.” He recognizes her, but Lisa lets him know PDQ that there’s no time for chitchat. Before you know it Chuck’s ramrodding a motorcycle, his ass between the snakeskin thighs of a Black Panther pin-up girl. After three years alone, this he can handle. He tells her, “Okay, baby, hitch up your drawers!” and they make their Evel Knievel-style escape.
From here on out, Chuck’s a different man. He’s a dog on the scent. It turns out Lisa is part of a small band of survivors (mostly children) who haven’t yet contracted the full-blown plague. Chuck knows the anti-bodies in his blood can provide a cure. He tells Lisa, “It’s genuine 160 proof old Anglo-Saxon, baby,” and he goes about transfusing her little brother, who’s about ready to turn albino.
So Lisa saved Chuck from Matthias. Chuck saves her brother from the plague. Things start to develop. Sure, Lisa and Chuck are from different worlds, but the important thing is that they’re both ass-kickers. And, hell, pickings are slim. Look at it from Lisa’s point of view—besides Matthias’ albinos and the kids, the only other guy in the running is a shaggy onetime med-school senior named Dutch. And since he’s played by Paul Koslo—who went on to portray a string of toadies in Charles Bronson movies—you can understand why Lisa puts the moves on Big Chuck, the last man on earth who’ll wear Madras Action Slacks.
The mutual seduction scene is something else. There’s Lisa in her fetching dashiki and her big ’fro. There’s Big Chuck, setting the scene for some brandy snifter romance in his Hef-style bachelor pad. He slips some smooth tunes on the quad—forget Barry White or Marvin Gaye, this is 101 Strings jazz, man—and the games begin.
Watching these two go at it is kind of like watching Barry Goldwater slipping the tongue to Angela Davis. Follow that line, and it’s the ex-senator from Arizona who goes down in flames. Pretty soon Chuck is ready to forget all about his private war with Matthias and the Family. He makes a little speech about moving his band of survivors to a place “nobody ever bothered with, a river nobody ever dammed, a mountain nobody ever built any bloody freeways to, where everything we do will be the first time it ever happened.” Fact is, he sounds kind of like that daisy-clutching Woodstock hippie he was smirking at back in the first reel.
But there’s just something about the guy. Despite his flat-earth politics, you can’t help but root for Big Chuck as he tries to work things out. Even wearing Banana Republic jackets and Adidas tracksuits, the guy is somehow larger than life. In Ben-Hur, you wanted him to show up those goddamn Romans. In Planet of the Apes, you wanted him to show up those goddamn talking monkeys. In The Omega Man, you want him to show up Matthias and his goddamn goons.
Of course, things don’t go quite according to plan toward the end of The Omega Man, and pretty soon Chuck has to put on his action pantsuit and go one last round with the Family. But I think I’ll leave the ending alone for those of you who haven’t seen this one. Hopefully I’ve whet your collective appetite and you’re ready to hunt up a copy of The Omega Man so you can see what happens for yourselves. It’s not hard to find on video—if your rental store doesn’t have it, you can find a copy for under $15 bucks. A DVD was announced awhile back, but to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t yet appeared (hopefully the DVD will include some of the missing scenes I’ve heard about). You can also score a really cool soundtrack at
* Tim Burton is currently remaking Apes with Mark Wahlberg in the Heston role. Get serious. An ex-rapper can’t fill Heston’s shoes. I mean, if you were trapped on a planet populated with gun-toting gorillas, who would you want calling the shots—Marky Mark or Big Chuck?
Copyright © 2001 Norman Partridge.
Copyright © 2007 Norman Partridge