Five (1951), an early example of a Cold War era post-apocalyptic film, tells the story of five nuclear holocaust survivors. Released twenty years later, The Omega Man (1971) is the story of the ‘last man alive’ — after biological warfare has wiped out the world’s population. Cocooned in his apartment, conversing with a bust of Caesar, visiting crumbling cinemas to watch old movies, Robert Neville is nostalgic, and starved of human company. With his sanity under strain, and harassed at night by diseased mutants, he’s barely hanging on.
Both these stories conjure up a believable, post-apocalyptic world. The destroyed city — a reoccurring theme in post-apocalyptic stories — is either poisoned by radiation, or riddled with disease. The abandoned city in Five is littered with the dried out husks of the dead — skeletons sitting in cars, and old newspapers blowing in the wind. In The Omega Man it’s just as creepy, but lightened by Robert Neville’s humorous quips, and sarcastic observations.
In post-apocalyptic stories, the abandoned city is a toxic wasteland — contaminated with sickness, and genetic mutation — crawling with zombies, and terrifying monsters. It’s polluted with radiation in Five, and a contagious mutation in The Omega Man. There’s a clear, almost biblical, demarcation between the damned — the afflicted: the sick, and the mutated — and the blessed, who are free from sickness and disease (their external physical health mirrors the health of their inner value system: focused on serving the needs of the group).
In addition to the biblical tone, popular philosophy permeates the genre. The overriding question is: what values should the newfound society live by? There are two models to choose from: the unselfish, striving to make a better world, and those filled with hatred, or an eagerness to take power for their own ends. The hero often comes face to face with a society, which initially appears beneficial, but is later revealed to be a lie. Eric, in Five — who arrives washed up on the shoreline — initially seems positive, and life-affirming, but he is later revealed to be an egomaniac (naturally, his sick mind is reflected externally, on his body, when he picks up radiation poisoning). The hooded, albino-like mutants in The Omega Man are called ‘The Family’; they are united by their hatred of technology.
In the turmoil of the post-apocalyptic world, humanity is torn between those seeking selfish-advantage, and those aspiring to forge a decent society. The hero is usually better at keeping his cool, and seeing the bigger picture — thinking beyond himself, being aware that the survival of humanity is at stake — he can only help that goal, if he is able to retain his own humanity.
Charles, the black character in Five gets on with Michael, the hero, and it looks like they will form the pillar of a new, egalitarian society, but Charles is killed by Eric (as he leaves the house, to venture into the city where he dreams of leading a neo-feudal kingdom). The character of Charles seems like a missed opportunity, not only is he the most likeable character, but his experience might make him a good choice to lead the group. However egalitarian their post-apocalyptic society might hope to be, US cinema in 1951 wasn’t ready for a heroic, black central character. The racial theme is explored in The Omega Man, with the only other person alive turning out to be a black woman — who becomes romantically involved with the hero. Again, their relationship is promising (including an early interracial on-screen kiss), but when she becomes infected with the mutation, she betrays him to ‘The Family’.
Both the endings of these stories have a moral tone. In Five Roseanne is seduced by Eric’s personality — in contrast to Michael’s hardworking, pragmatic nature. Her foolishness in trusting Eric, and returning to the city with him, leads to the death of her baby, and a desperate trek across land back to Michael. Robert Neville sacrifices himself, but manages to pass on the serum, which will save humanity. In each case, the survivors start a new life by leaving the city.
Like other post-apocalyptic stories, Five, and The Omega Man are mostly warnings about human fear, leading to catastrophic war, the collapse of civilisation, and the struggle of surviving in a post-apocalyptic landscape. But, they are also celebrations of human determination, overcoming loss, and the hope of building new communities. They remind us to celebrate, and protect, what we enjoy now — before it can be taken away from us.