I Am Legend, a cinematic adaption of a 1954 horror novel of the same name, is a post-apocalyptic “zombie” film with a difference; the genetically-engineered virus which transforms humans into flesh-eating undead is also active in some animals. The survivors we meet, Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his dog, co-exist with these monstrous creatures (“Darkseekers”) by inhabiting an abandoned New York City in the day and occupying their boarded-up house at night when the beings come out (pictured). Neville’s plight to cure this virus and save humanity is documented through his experimentation on rats and later a “Darkseeker” within his laboratory in his house.
After an encounter with some of the “Darkseekers”, Neville is forced to kill his dog as she has been bitten and becomes infected. Whilst seeking revenge on the “Darkseekers”, he is rescued by two other humans, but they are tracked back to their home and the once-safe house is attacked. Neville blows up his lab with a hand grenade in order to kill the “Darkseekers” and save the antidote he has discovered (which he gives to Anna, one of the survivors). She then takes this to a community of surviving humans and the film ends with the new hope that humanity will prosper.
The Horror Genre:
Broad descriptions of the horror genre assert roughly the same thing, that it, “deals with our most primal nature and its fears: our nightmares, our vulnerability, our alienation, our revulsions, our terror of the unknown, our fear of death and dismemberment, loss of identity, or fear of sexuality.” Much of this is true in I Am Legend; the Gothic elements of darkness and unknowing are exemplified in the elusive “Darkseekers” only living and hunting in the dark. Though there are lions co-existing with Neville in the city, it is only the infected animals which pose a threat to him as they are bloodthirsty. This is typical of the horror genre in that it subverts the idea of dog as “man’s best friend” and makes him a dangerous enemy once affected by the virus. There is also a Science fiction element in that it’s a genetically-modified Cancer cure mutation which causes the virus.
The use of animals to strengthen the film’s themes:
Due to the post-apocalyptic setting of I Am Legend, humans and animals are equalised in a dystopic manner with the natural precedence of man being surrendered; both Neville and Sam become the hunted and the “Darkseekers” become the predators. This is demonstrated in the scene where Neville has a lone deer within the crosshair focus of his gun but surrenders his kill to a family of lions as he sees that they have an equal need to feed. This has a deeper effect on the viewer; the typical horror-genre “Darkseekers” represent a mindless desire for flesh and a devaluation of life. This also draws a more profound parallel between the real-life desire for flesh apparent in those who, for example, are unconcerned about the treatment and slaughter of animals that they eat. In this way, the zombie-esque features of the film are an easy vehicle for a social comment about the mindless human consumption of meat. Seen from Neville’s perspective, the audience associates with the hunted and sees life from lower down the food chain. Though this film is not propaganda aimed at revolutionising the meat industry, the viewer’s sense of humanity being stripped back into a two-dimensional existence where death is an almost constant threat is informed by our recognition of the loss of humanity and moral agency and the indulgence of animalistic desires and instincts by the virus.
The film’s emphasis on God’s will seems, at first, a bit bizarre but when viewed in the context of animals within the film, begins to make sense. It is a man-made cure for Cancer, a natural disease, that mutates into a strain which causes this zombie-like transformation of humans. If the viewer is to indulge the film’s insistence of “God’s plan” (despite their actual religious beliefs), it seems that God is punishing this human interference into genetic diseases. Though this does present a cruel action from God, the film’s characters’ unquestioning faith suggests that the viewer should ignore the unfairness of this aspect of His “plan” and question what it could mean. Once this is done, the film begins to take on a new meaning. It may not have been the express purpose of the directors to incite an argument about human interference with nature, but by uniting the surviving dog and human against the “Darkseekers”, the film once again equalises both living aspects of nature, suggesting that human intelligence has no place in scientific or “Godly” study. It seems to reinforce this theory that Neville only finds the cure for the virus once he sees the metaphorical butterfly on the door to his lab and accepts God’s plan by letting himself be killed. It is the presentation of the equality of man and animal which make this point evident to both Neville and the viewer, specifically through the inclusion of the symbolic butterfly and of Neville’s companionship with his dog.
A more general use of animals in this film is to explore the sense of loss. Both the viewer and Neville himself are comforted by Sam’s presence as they put themselves in his situation of being seemingly the last man in the world. The death of Neville’s family is revealed after the death of his dog, Sam, which serves to exaggerate the sense of Neville being completely alone as we learn that now he is without any family. The childish responses of Neville to certain situations (e.g. reciting all the words to a scene of Shrek, being unable to deal with his emotional reaction to finding other survivors by complaining that they’ve used his food and his fear of speaking to an inanimate female mannequin) are an indication of his prolonged exposure to Sam, a creature who does not understand conversational language or emotional interaction. It becomes more and more evident that Neville is used to acting on instinct and has lost a part of his humanity which only interaction with other humans can maintain.
Animals as symbols:
The differences between the survivor dog (Sam) and the “Darkseeker” dogs are emphasised throughout the film in order to exaggerate the disparity between the dead and the undead species. Firstly, Sam is a real, trained dog and is presented as a companion through Neville’s treatment of her as an equal. For example, he tells her, “eat your vegetables, don’t just push ‘em around.” We also see her in a protective role as she fights off the infected dogs in order to save her master. Her death is enacted before the death of Neville’s family and the viewer recognises her as an extension of Neville as they as inseparable and face the apocalypse together. In contrast, the “Darkseeker” dogs are created using CGI (pictured) which gives them an ugly and formidable appearance as they have no fur covering their muscular bodies and no pupils in their eyes. They are always seen snarling and eager to attack any survivors, which increases the unease in the viewer.
There are a few moments of peace created by animal presence during the film, most notably at the beginning when birdsong is heard through an abandoned New York City (pictured). This lack of human population and inclusion of nature is eerie within this ruined urban setting but ultimately sets a tone of peace and tranquillity which will later be abolished by the viewer’s knowledge of the “Darkseekers”. Secondly, the occasional inclusion of a butterfly, a typical symbol of beauty, highlights the character’s references to God’s plan and instils a hope of forthcoming redemption and order in the viewer’s mind.
The universality of the human/animal bond:
The ability of the virus to affect certain animals means that I Am Legend is not akin to most “zombie” films. However, there are many films that present a similar human/animal bond like the bond between Neville and Sam, such as Lassie or even Marley and Me. The connection presented emotionally affects both character and viewer when the two are separated, heightening the impact of the film itself. As in Marley and Me when Marley must be put down in the presence of his owner, Neville must undertake the same action in order to stop Sam’s pain and prevent her turning into a “Darkseeker”. The viewer feels the loss of both the dogs more sharply as they see the pain caused by the necessity of the action.
FURTHER READING REFERENCES:
Dirks, Tim: “Horror”
Eggertsson, Gunnar Theodór: “ANIMAL HORROR An investigation into animal rights, horror cinema andthe double standards of violent human behaviour” [August 2006]
 Tim Dirks: “Horror” [August 2006] [https://www.filmsite.org/horrorfilms.html] [Accessed on 1st April 2013]