I think zombie movies are most successful when they focus on what it means to be a survivor. Take our world, fuck it up, and then tell the story of the people living in that world. The world is some modification on ours, so we can relate to it; but the world is also changed, so it's a little more interesting.
Zombie survival stories are distinct from other post-apocalyptic stories in that the world is largely intact. All the stuff that mankind has built for itself is still there. The difference is that all the people are gone. The stories generally revolve around being lonely and coming to understand how much we depend on each other (both for infrastructure and for emotional support). But of course we live in a world that celebrates the resilience of the individual, so at the same time the stories are about how one resourceful person can survive untold odds and carve out a life. And that of course is one of the other themes: transcending just surviving to rebuilding civilization. These are the nuts and bolts that hold a zombie film together. The monsters, the action, the gore… these things are all secondary.
I Am Legend is a zombie movie (although you might not know it from the preview). Well, they're technically supposed to be vampires, but the vampires exist in great numbers and resulted from a worldwide infection. Whatever, they're nocturnal zombies. Anyway, the story is most successful when it concentrates on Robert Neville's (Will Smith's character) survival story. It's fascinating to watch the desolate city, his daily routine, and his bond with his dog. That stuff is all goodness. That's what a good zombie movie is made of: a great survival scenario.
I thought everything about the movie was quite successful until somewhere around the point where he makes contact with another survivor. It's not that adding someone else to the mix was inherently bad, it just happened so late in the film that it couldn't be fully developed. And the ending was just plain terrible. Why do we need so many stories of needless martyrdom? There's a place for sacrifice, but it has to have meaning. More often than not it feels like a cheap Hollywood cash-in for emotional filler. I personally like it when a storyteller has the balls to kill off a primary character when it fits the storyline. When characters survive everything unscathed it takes the bite out of their dangerous environment. But its another thing entirely to have a character take their own life in the face of danger when there were hundreds of valid alternatives. That's just cheap. It's not like the story of I Am Legend was lacking loss. Robert Neville loses everyone he knows, his whole family, and most poignantly his last companion, Sam. But Neville's death is pointless.
But I digress. The ending left some large questions about the evolution of the infected unanswered. Supposedly Robert Neville is some sort of brilliant scientist, yet he is completely oblivious to the obviously evolving intelligent behavior in the infected. In the theatrical ending, none of that was addressed. I didn't realize it at the time, but apparently that wasn't the original ending. In the original ending Robert Neville begins to see himself through the eyes of the infected. To them he is a murderous invader; he is the villain. The meaning of the title is different: he is a legend to them, as opposed to him being a legend to the remaining human survivors for creating a cure or some crap. The role reversal is a far more interesting premise, but apparently it was deemed unpalatable by the general movie-going public.
You know, I had the same problem with Wanted last week; an interesting story adapted to film and being changed for the worse. Sure, you have to change some things to a story when it crosses mediums. But don't change the freaking premise. In doing a little research on the original book I found out that it's been called out as a key inspiration behind such films as Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. This is a story that was instrumental in shaping a whole genre, and had already inspired two direct film adaptations. What about this makes a filmmaker think they can make a last minute change to the ending and have the same impact?
Okay, I'm done ranting. Seriously, I really enjoyed the first two acts. It's just frustrating that the ending was a total cop out.