Directed by: George A. Romero
Horror / Drama, 1977
Distributed by: Anchor Bay
Martin, one of the finest pieces of George A. Romero’s cinematic heritage, along with Night of the Living Dead 1968 and it’s sequel Dawn of the Dead 1978, sees Romero place all the cards on the table and present truly believable situation that much like his previous living dead movies, deconstructs contemporary horror.
The seventies vampire scene belonged to Hammer, Christopher Lee, Jean Rollin with his scantily clad vampire damsels, and the great EuroGoth films out of Spain and Italy, not to mention those dreamy, surreal Eastern European flicks of that time period, and the phenomenon that is Blacula! Capes, Bats, fog, fangs, fake blood and naked women stowed away in a musky castle cellar where synonymous with vampire films – and in some way still are but now it’s bats, fog, fangs, fake blood and naked women gyrating away to techno soundtracks in a musky nightclub cellar. I find vampire movies quite boring, as it’s all pretty much the same, and they are so inhibited by all those rules. Zombies are more my bag, as they are just mean fucked up munching machines from hell. Vampire movies that go for the jugular and blend in the eroticism that’s often associated with the vampire are much more appealing than the spooky Count stalking the nearest village. And that eroticism - with the whole forced Freudian analysis thing where they claim it’s all about male dominance, the fangs representing the male phallus and the bite penetration and all that shit. Well sit those mumbo-jumbo analytics down in front of a Jean Rollin movie and ask them where they male dominance is to be found, and they’d have a hernia. We all know that Rollin is a tribute to woman, and those films bust the old Freudian analysis right open.
Martin on the other hand is a very different vampire movie to the ones that where being made in the seventies, as it is set in a modern world, has no gothic iconography what so ever, but instead plays out against the backdrop of urban industrialized Pittsburgh. Neither is there any outspoken romantic subplot where young maidens swoon over the vampire, instead we see the young (or is he) Martin falling for a middle aged woman – a real desperate house wife - who in her state of depression takes a fancy for the boy. It’s fantastic stuff that should have made a larger impact when it was released, but instead has somewhat fell off the map only to come back as a late night cult favourite.
Martin Matthias [John Amplas – who starred in four more Romero films after this one] is a young man with a problem; he thinks that he might be a vampire. He finds himself in a complicated situation where he must sedate and draw blood from his victims to calm his lust for blood. But is it really vampirism that drives his blood lust, or is the prejudices that are held against him? Right off the bat, during the opening scene we find out just how complex Martin’s situation really is as he prepares his syringes, breaks into a single woman’s train compartment, and sedates her only to slit her wrists and drink her blood. Arriving in Pittsburgh, his much older cousin Tada Cuda [Lincoln Maazel – who only starred in this movie] receives him and takes him to his house so that he can watch over him. Cuda is sure that Martin is Nosferatu. Martin’s other cousin Christina [Christine Forrest – Romero’s wife, and who almost always has a part on his movies, either behind or in front of the camera] also lives in the house, and her boyfriend is played by Romero compadre Tom Savini, this time without his trademark moustache. Cuda holds Martin under strict surveillance, only being permitted to leave the house when going errands as Cuda’s delivery boy. But this doesn’t stop Martin from meeting other people…among them desperate housewife Abbie Santini [Elyane Nadeau – who also only ever starred in this one] …and feeding. Tension builds between the two men as Cuda accuses Martin of the deaths in the area, but still the test’s he sets for him fail to prove that he is a vampire. Martin and Abbie’s relationship grows, and after a failed exorcism, where among others Romero as a priest also takes part at the pre-dinner, cousin Christina removes the religious artefacts in their house, traps set to expose Martin, as she thinks Cuda is getting lost in his stupid superstition - it seems as if Martin is finally finding his place in the world. But, and no movie is complete with out it’s but, in one ironic final twist concerning Martin’s affair with Abbie leads Coda to take drastic measures and the ultimate test is posed.
Where many Vampire movies often have a dilemma being that the vampire and vampire hunter often are both as appealing to the audience, it’s fascinating to watch Romero’s Martin, and notice that the classic roles of Vampire - protagonist, Hunter – antagonist get flipped around and set at very separate sides of the spectrum. In the classic Universal Dracula from 1931 you forcefully root for Dracula [Bela Lugosi] at the same time as you root for lead protagonist, Professor Van Helsing [Edward Van Sloan]. It’s the same complex relationship you find in the Hammer films from the seventies, Count Dracula as portrayed by the charismatic Christopher Lee vs. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. Even later in 1992 when Francis Ford Coppola updated the legend, you couldn’t help but being drawn to the eroticized, and empathized Dracula as played by Gary Oldman at the same time that you somewhere want Van Helsing [Anthony Hopkins] to put an end to the terrors of the Count.
Martin flips this relationship head over heels, and the longer we spend with Martin, the more it becomes apparent that he’s the real protagonist fighting his own desires and complexity against his cousin Tada Cuda who is the only person really convinced that Martin is a vampire. Cuda’s harsh ways soon manipulate us into favouring Martin and viewing Cuda as the bad guy. That’s also why the ending is so down beat, if we didn’t empathize with Martin we would be rooting for Cuda.
But a vampire or not? It’s a bold choice that Romero makes when he at no point in the film actually states if Martin is or isn’t a child of the night. Is Martin a vampire or is it all a psychological delusion of his? Romero never once gives us a solid answer, although the movie is riddled with clues to the truth, it’s an open question. One could consider that Martin’s elder cousin Cuda is so terribly much older than Martin – is it because Martin is a vampire stuck in the age he was when he was turned? Or perhaps those flashbacks that Martin has of a woman – obviously a taunting lover – who flees his grasp as she runs through gothic surroundings in a skimpy nightdress. The blood drinking – is he a vampire, or just a psychological mess…? Is the late night radio name that Martin takes, The Count, only an on air pseudonym, or is he really a descendant of the count…? It’s all up to the audience to make that decision and I like that Romero leaves this decision to me and doesn’t rub it in my face. Which also brings one to wonder about Cuda’s psychological state, and the actions he takes in the movie… who is the real monster?
Watching it now it’s easy to see how this movie is unique in its approach to the serial killer as a humane creature. Characters are filled with depth and complex layers, emotions are important to the narrative, and vampire mythology is cast aside in favor of a new updated mythos, which keeps us in the dark concerning Martin’s being. Romero makes a great job of laying out the rules that relate to this urban vampire tale and clearly marks the spots where classic Vampire mythology is reinvented and (at the time) brought up to date for the plot almost mocking the old in favor of the new. There's a metaphor for Romero in there too if you can see it. the new mocking the old. Most of the good old vampire weak spots are tried out in the quest to prove if Martin is a vampire or not.
The fusion between Romero’s script and Amplas terrific portrayal of the antagonized protagonist Martin is a wonderful experience, and you truly feel for this character. Much like Let the Right One In 2008, Martin mainly works because of the horror traits and themes being brought into the real world, and classsic drama. There are no hissing vampire women lurking in he back room of the club, there’s no transformation into a bat and flapping around the location, there are no special plasma drinks for vampires that have come out of the closet. Its just Martin against the world, a normal world that see him as a monstrosity.
As on most of Romero’s movies from this time period, he has his regular crew with him on the production, - Michael Gornick, Tony Buba, Tom Savini, and I feel that Donald Rubenstein’s score for Martin is among one of the better ever put to a Romero film.
So put the Romero Zombie flicks to one side, and check out Martin now. It is a masterpiece of Modern Horror.
Dolby Digital Mono, English Dialogue
Not a lot; a theatrical trailer, and a somewhat interesting audio commentary with George A. Romero, Tom Savini and John Amplas.