There is another George A. Romero in cinema. Yes, you heard me right. This Romero is the one who steps out of his zombieland of the Living Dead series and contributes to genre cinema often-understated gems in character study. One such stray from all things undead and flesh eating is ‘Martin’. It is an overlooked realistic interpretation of the vampire mythology filmed in the summer of 1976 and released right before the director would deliver his epic zombie masterpiece ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) which forever cemented his reputation as the master of that sub-genre. Not only did George A. Romero single handily reinvent the zombie in 1968 with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ making this monster forever iconic in popular culture he at the same time rejuvenated the horror film ripping it right out of the gothic era and catapulted it into modern times. This thought provoking and emotional spin on the vampire is creatively refreshing as well and it firmly stamps Romero’s auteur signature all over the modern horror movie as one of its primary innovators.
The story of its title character is a portrayal of a misunderstood lonely young man and his fight with inner demons due to a vampiric lust and his conflicts with family and the dark history that surrounds them. Romero approaches the material of his own screenplay seriously creating a bleak and disturbing yet touchingly humorous in places dramatic tale handled with much pathos. The film opens with Martin Mathias (John Amplas) boarding a sleeping car train to Braddock, Pittsburgh and spotting a young woman traveling alone whom he then follows to see where her compartment is. That night he prepares a syringe and picking the lock of her private room door before he enters we see the first of many black and white flashbacks that Martin has which the director sprinkles throughout the course of the movie. These depict the romanticism of his vampire seductions of beautiful women and his confrontations with crucifix and torch bearing mobs in around about the 1900s. However, never acknowledged and left up for interpretation the audience never really knows if these are indeed memories of past events or if they are Martin’s visions about his addiction for human blood and his worries of being caught.
Entering the room and during a struggle Martin injects the attractive young lady with some kind of sedation drug and when the frantic wrestling is over he shows sympathy towards his victim by ensuring her that “I’m always very careful with the needles. It won't hurt. It's just to make you sleep." When she finally falls unconscious after taking off his own clothes he then puts aside a razor and precedes to lay her out on the bed stripping her naked as well. He kisses her gently all over and then lies next to her and raising her arm high he takes the razor from the bedside and slits her wrist. As her blood drips all over his chest, he brings her arm to his mouth feeds from her wound and kisses her. Cleaning up after he wipes away all evidence of his fingerprints and makes her murder look like a suicide. This scene establishes Martin’s reluctant nature in his murderous acts showing that he does not want to commit them but is forced to out of a need to survive. He makes sure his victim’s pain and suffering is as minimal as possible in order to fulfil his need to feed. Amplas’ character is one of a tragic interesting figure who we the audience can relate to on a personal level drawing our sympathies and is one of the most endearing, emotional and heart-warming performances to ever be portrayed in horror cinema. It is a truly convincing and fascinating turn by John Amplas.
Arriving at his destination, he is met by his granduncle Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) an old superstitious and religious Catholic grocery shop owner who has reluctantly given Martin room and board, as being his only living relative after another died who was taking care of him in Indianapolis. Referring to Martin as Nosferatu when getting to his home that emphasizes upon his European Middle Ages views Cuda warns Martin that if he murders anyone he will be killed himself. Cuda tries with strong belief to repel him with the use of a crucifix and garlic bulbs hung around the house that Martin mocks with bitter distaste. He displays their ineffectual powers as a defence against him by eating the garlic and grabbing a hold of the crucifix from Cuda. Of course, sunlight has no effect either and he can eat food other than just his intake of blood.
Also staying there is Martin’s cousin Cristina played by Christine Forrest the future wife of George A. Romero. She shows sympathy towards him and everything he has gone through what with the family and their beliefs in a curse of vampirism through their generations. She does not know though of his dark secret of partaking in the act of blood feeding and murder. Christina longs to get out of her drab existence in Braddock and away from the gobbledygook of her grandfather’s superstitions. Her boyfriend Arthur played by SFX maestro Tom Savini in his debut collaboration with Romero is a shipyard mechanic who dreams of leaving the town as well. As with the majority of George A. Romero’s filmography ‘Martin’ also carries a social commentary having the sub-text of economic depression in the setting of Braddock with the struggling suburban town’s residents’ downtrodden lives in the time of stagflation.
During his stay, Martin finds an outlet to release his frustrations by seeking advice from a local radio DJ who nicknames him “The Count”. Martin details to him his desires and yearnings to seduce women and feed off their blood. While feeding on criminals to satisfy his blood lust he still focuses on attractive women and this includes one superbly directed sequence in the stalking and eventual murders of a cheating housewife and her other lover. Executed with pitch perfect precision this is supremely tense stuff. While working in his granduncle’s store Martin delivers groceries to Mrs Santini (Elyane Nadeau) who is bored with her solitary household life and is sad and lonely. She is damaged in her own way much like him. Desperate for communication with somebody and that somebody being Martin she starts an affair with him that is a normal one without bloodletting, which ends in tragedy for both characters and relates ironically to the opening sequence.
Shot on a low budget of just $800,000 with 16mm cameras and filmed entirely on locations in real life Braddock ‘Martin’ is a dark and sad tale expertly told by its writer and director Romero. With a downbeat tone, his visuals in a documentary look throughout and a hauntingly stunning jazz musical score composed by Donald Rubinstein generate a morose atmosphere to supplement the film’s themes of dreaded aloneness and are a cinematic experience impossible to ignore. It is a very different kettle of fish to a traditional vampire movie using its clichés to parody them. This includes a silent film homage scene in which Martin plays a prank on his granduncle. One night when Cuda is walking alone Martin appears from the mist wearing a long black cape caked in white makeup to make his skin look pale and is sporting fake vampire fangs. All the while Rubinstien’s silent movie style soundtrack is playing cornering his granduncle in a children’s playground Martin then reveals his appearance to be just a costume again mocking Cuda. Another wave away of Cuda’s beliefs comes in a scene between him and the local priest Father Howard played by George A. Romero who cares little for Cuda’s old ways and is very much of the New Testament interpretation of Catholicism.
‘Martin’ is indeed about a vampire but Romero concentrates on the human psychological effects of what makes evil rather than using the supernatural elements that go hand in hand with the idea of the vampire. The question the film asks is if Martin is a vampire or not? We know that crucifixes, garlic and sunlight will not hurt him, he does not need an invitation into people’s homes and there are no fangs in sight. There are the flashbacks to events long ago and Martin believes he is 84 years old. I believe these to be gothic romantic fantasies of how vampirism is usually depicted in popular culture coupled with his fears of being caught. He is a disturbed young man corrupted by the superstitions of his family’s extreme beliefs that have convinced him he is indeed a vampire and has developed a sickness that gives him the compulsion to feed on human blood. He honestly believes he needs to in order to carry on living. I interpret an underlying message of the harmful impact of the emotional scarring our families can inflict upon us with the potential of damaging our mental health in our later adult years. George A. Romero leaves everything open ended in a startling conclusion and it is left up to you to interpret it for yourselves.
This is without a doubt Romero’s greatest non-zombie work. It is a striking movie made by one of the horror genre’s most important filmmakers. George A. Romero is a writer and director who is bold, brave and immensely innovative. Criminally underrated ‘Martin’ is a must see for any horror aficionado and anybody who has a passionate interest in celluloid art. You need to see this truly astonishing film.
****1/2 out of *****
Dave J. Wilson
©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.