Martin has the face of an adolescent. He claims to be 84 years old. Martin spends his nights stalking beautiful women and feeding on their life blood. He gets dating advice from a radio disc jockey. Is he an immortal bloodsucker or a sexually naïve, 19-year-old kid who’s seen one too many Dracula movies?
Forever associated with the birth of the modern zombie, writer/director George A. Romero is celebrated by genre enthusiasts for his ability to use movie monsters to deconstruct the human condition. The “zombies” in The Crazies are people reacting to a man-made bioweapon; the “witch” in Season of the Witch is an oppressed house-wife looking for something to pass the time while her abusive husband is away. Our vampire in Martin (John Amplas) is a boy struggling with the pressures of growing up. As Martin laments to the DJ, “Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.”
We first meet Martin on a train traveling from Indianapolis to Cousin Cuda’s (Lincoln Maazel) in Pittsburgh. He sets his gaze on an attractive New Yorker and picks the lock to her cabin. As he throws open the door, the color bleeds from the screen, romantic chords take over the soundtrack, the woman rises up on her bed, white lingerie hanging loosely from her shoulders, her hands extended in a loving manner.
The sound of a toilet flushing brings an abrupt end to the fantasy. The magic fades. Back in the real world, the railway sleeper compartment is empty. The bathroom door swings open, the woman emerges, her hair wrapped in a towel, her face coated in a goopy mask: a far cry from the enchanting beauty of Martin’s dream. The woman’s eyes widen. Before she can respond, Martin pounces, sticking her with a syringe full of narcotics. They bang against the wall, bounce clumsily off the bed and slump awkwardly to the floor. The romantic fodder associated with Martin’s fictional brethren is absent from his personal encounter. “Freak, rapist, asshole!”
Martin uses a razor to open the woman’s wrist. Mild crimson gushes from the exposed wound. Martin presses his lips to the mangled flesh and drinks in the woman’s life source. She stares at him through fading eyes. Martin’s blood-soaked lips peck at the woman’s greying skin. Finally, her head lolls to the side like a doll and she is gone. Martin settles in a pool of the woman’s cold blood, hugging her body as if it might hug back.
After a moment Martin sets to work tidying himself and the room. He deposits bloody towels in a trash bag and positions a bottle of pills next to the bed. Romero’s crawling camera captures the action with an eerie sense of verisimilitude. There is a normalcy to Martin’s behavior that is unsettling. He acts without remorse or the promise of catharsis.
Most horror pictures adopt the perspective of potential victims. We come to identify with them and substitutionally endure the terrors they encounter. Martin forces us to consort with the killer. Our instinct is to repel Martin and the violent crimes he commits however our proximity to the sociopath causes us to sympathize with him. The unpolished look of the film lends an immediacy to the proceedings that elicits our participation and thus our empathy.
Martin’s motivation is not entirely clear, however reasons for his loss of moral responsibility are suggested. His parents are gone, his cousin chastises him for his life choices, the women around him are occupied by their own dispiriting lives. The only person who listens to him is the radio DJ and he does so at Martin’s expense. Martin leans on fantasy to escape the reality of his life. Vampirism is his means of garnering attention. He requires nothing more than for someone to take an interest in him.
While making deliveries for Cuda’s butcher shop, Martin meets many local women whose moods ricochete between low and lower. Among them is a woman called Mrs. Santini. Mrs. Santini sees Martin as an innocent kid. “Boy, I wish what you had was catching.” “In the movies it’s catching,” Martin responds. Mrs. Santini later commits suicide. It’s intriguing to think whether Mrs. Santini and Martin could have leaned on one another to repair their respective lives; whether they could have shown each other there is magic in reality.
In the end Martin is blamed for Mrs. Santini’s death. He is executed in a manner befitting his Hollywood progenitors. He dies as he lived: as a vampire.
The brutal drama of Martin’s murders is set against the grimy streets of Pittsburgh and the dreary neighborhoods that surround them. In the daylight, hoodlums torment fatigued housewives outside stone supermarkets and sell drugs out the back of abandoned warehouses. At nightfall, people blend into the blackness, their movements silhouetted against the neon signs of strip clubs and adult bookstores. The picture vacillates between bleak and bleaker. Its cynical tone and gritty visual style seem to owe something to Hollywood’s classic noir period.
The film’s overriding motif – the gap between fantasy and reality – is reflected in the visuals. Martin’s fantasies are imbued with gothic romance. They stand in stark contrast to the dull surroundings of his reality. Romero utilizes dark humor to perpetuate the theme. Martin bickers with Cuda and his DJ friend about vampire lore and the truth behind the Hollywood tales. “And that’s another thing about those movies. Vampires always have ladies. Sometimes lots of ladies. Well, that’s wrong too!” Martin wears a cape and plastic fangs to scare his uncle, takes a bite out of a garlic clove and brushes off a plastic crucifix but maintains he is an immortal being of eighty-four.
Romero also uses Martin’s credulity to take a stab at organized religion. Just as Martin devotes himself to gothic folklore, so to does Cuda pay adoring reverence to an invisible god. “First I will save your soul, then I will destroy you.” Cuda partakes in an ineffective exorcism and even stabs Martin through the heart in the name of his god. To Martin, religion is a ruse used by people who want to hide their true selves.
Romero himself plays a young priest who’s uncertain about demonic possession. “I don’t know what to believe about that.” He later refers to the movie, The Exorcist: “I don’t suppose you saw the film? I thought it was great.” Like Martin, his belief system has been marred by Hollywood.
I was a young teen the first time I was exposed to Martin. Like its central character, I was still naïve to the ways of the world. My mind was slightly blown by the movie’s narrative. I was convinced Martin may actually be a vampire. Looking at it now, twenty-five years later, it is obvious Martin is a (relatively) normal, confused kid. He’s just got a bit more to distract than most kids his age. He distrusts those around him. His parents have abandoned him, his uncle has been scourged by religion. Sex is something shameful to Martin. He seems obsessed with it yet you get the impression he’d quicker turn in a classmate with a dirty magazine than join him in looking at it.
Dawn of the Dead is one of the most celebrated horror flicks of all time, and deservedly so. If it’s Romero’s best, than Martin is a close second. Like the acclaimed zombie opus, Martin is a perfect blending of horror and grue with social commentary. Both pictures are intelligent and original and both are aided by believable characters struggling against improbable forces, but Martin is especially sentimental. Now a cult classic, Martin is a flick that should be seen by all fans of horror cinema.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Martin was released May 10, 1978. It marked the first in a series of collaborations between Romero and special effects guru Tom Savini. Together they would incite and terrify audiences with a pair of gruesomely compelling zombie flicks (Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), a kick-ass nod to King Arthur with motorcycles replacing horses dubbed Knightriders and the infectious comic-book inspired anthology, Creepshow. John Amplas starred in a number of subsequent low-budget horror flicks but none of them recaptured the magic of Martin. The movie has yet to receive a quality blu ray in the states. A DVD is available from Lions Gate containing an audio commentary track by Romero, Savini and producer Richard Rubinstein.