In 1975, a border conflict between China and Russia results in biological warfare releasing a plague that kills most of Earth’s population. Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), a military doctor in Los Angeles, injects himself with an experimental vaccine, making him immune to the plague—perhaps the only one on Earth. He spends his days patrolling LA and killing members of an albino mutant family. They think Neville is the symbol of the science they believe destroyed the world and want to kill him. He locks himself in his fortified mansion at night.
One day, in a department store, he sees a woman who runs away, and he is not sure she was really there. He is captured by the Family and put on trial, sentenced to burn at the stake in Dodger Stadium by the Family’s leader Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). He is rescued by Lisa (Rosalind Cash), the woman he had seen, and by Dutch (Paul Koslo), a former medical student. They are part of a group of survivors, protected for a while from the plague by their youth but will eventually die from it. Neville thinks he can help them by creating a serum from his blood.
Back in Neville’s house, they begin treating Lisa’s brother Richie (Eric Laneuville). As Neville and Lisa are about to get seriously acquainted, the power goes out in the house, and it is attacked. Neville manages to fill the generator with fuel and kill Matthias’s second-in-command Brother Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick). If the serum works, Neville and Lisa plan to leave the city with the survivors and leave the Family to die. Cured, Richie insists the Family should have the serum too and brings it to them. Matthias kills Richie.
Lisa succumbs to the disease and becomes one of the Family. She allows the Family into Neville’s home and they set his equipment on fire. Zachary mortally wounds Neville. They find him dying in a fountain the next day and he hands Dutch the serum as he dies. Dutch takes Lisa and the survivors out of the city.
The film was directed by Boris Sagal and written by John William and Joyce Corrington, based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. It is basically the same story as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, but much of the protagonist’s backstory is different. The plague is from biological warfare instead of bacterial plague spread by rats. Neville’s crucifixion death was not in the script but was added later. Mainly, the Vincent Price version was a melodrama, turning on the character’s feelings of guilt, and the Charlton Heston version was a more shallow Seventies action film.
The kiss between Heston and Rosalind Cash is supposedly the first interracial kiss in the movies. Heston, a guest on Whoopi Goldberg’s show, was asked about this and he kissed Whoopi. Rosalind Cash said of her role that it was spooky to screw Moses. The film received mixed reviews. It was considered a flawed potboiler, but some of the apocalyptic images were striking. It was one of Tim Burton’s favorite movies.