George Romero’s Martin is a very unusual film. Although technically in the horror genre, it’s actually a subtle, beautiful and incredibly moving mixture of character study and generic auto-critique. Too slow-moving for some horror fans, especially those who overlooked the penetrating intelligence behind Romero’s zombie movies and watched them for the splatter, and too gory for many arthouse audiences, it was a flop on release in 1977 but it has since gained a significant cult following. By now, especially given that Romero’s career has apparently gone into terminal decline, it seems like one of his best films and, along with Guillerme Del Toro’s Cronos, is probably the most ingenious vampire movie ever made.
The following review contains some spoilers for the story of Martin. If you feel this will affect your enjoyment please move down to the Disc section of the review.
Martin is a young man who claims to be 84 years old despite appearing about 18. He also claims to be a vampire and we see him drinking the blood of a single woman on a train. Maybe he is mentally ill or maybe he has some kind of physiological craving. What is certain is that his cousin Tata Cuda (Maazel) believes him to both a vampire and hopelessly evil. When Martin goes to live with Cuda in a ramshackle Pennsylvanian town, his cousin pledges that if he sees one incident of vampirism then the boy will be destroyed. But Martin’s cravings are hard to conquer and his attempt to find connection with another human being, when he falls in love with a housewife, is destined to end in disaster.
It’s customary, when writing about this film, to point out that the opening sequence – in which Martin drugs a woman on a train and then drinks her blood in a messily explicit manner – is exactly the kind of sadistic exploitation that the rest of the movie plays down. It’s certainly a bloody scene but it’s far from exploitative. For one thing, there is no sense that the women deserves the fate she meets and her response to the attack – struggling and calling Martin a “freak rapist asshole” – is eminently believable. Her terror is shown as a kind of panic rather than hysteria as she tries to reason with the boy and her confusion when he’s gentle and kind rather than a vicious rapist is superbly evoked. In any case, the scene isn’t remotely exploitative. It’s matter of fact and has a tone of scientific accuracy as we see the preparations Martin makes for drinking the blood. The nudity isn’t remotely erotic but totally functional. Ultimately, the scene is more poignant than horrific and it’s absolutely vital to the rest of the film, both in tone and content. Blood drinking has been eroticised out of all proportion in vampire films, from Murnau right through to Neil Jordan, but here it’s just messy, sordid and rather sad. It’s almost like a documentary examination of how hard it is to be a ‘vampire’ when you have to find your victims on an overnight train rather than luring them to your gothic Mittel-European castle.
Indeed, this is one of the major themes explored in the rest of the film. The gulf between the romanticised picture of the bloodsucker as presented in countless movies and Gothic romances – perhaps the way vampirism was in “the old country” - and the unpleasant realities of having to survive by mutilating a series of real people. Romero plays with this to brilliant effect in the scenes where we see contrasted Martin’s dreams of what he wants to be – the handsome, stylish Gothic stereotype in black and white – and the squalid way in which he gains sustenance. There’s a genuine flair for fantasy in these scenes, something which Romero hasn’t entirely matched since. In his later films, the fantastic tends to be either made concrete, through the use of excellent special effects, as in the “Dead” movies, or camped up, as in the wasted opportunity which was Creepshow.
There’s another interesting dialectic operating the film – the clash between Cuda, , and Martin. In a sense, it’s a clash of acting styles. Cuda is played in a flamboyant, rather theatrical fashion by Lincoln Maazel as a martinet who is really just a frightened and confused old man who clings to superstition as if it were some kind of bulwark against the squalor in which he is required to live. Martin, on the other hand, is played naturalistically by John Amplas in a restrained and nicely ambivalent fashion. Amplas and Maazel are about as different in acting style as you could imagine but this dovetails very nicely with the central character conflict. It also renders ironic another point which the film makes; that both Martin and Cuda are both outsiders existing in a world which has no place for them. Martin would like to be either in the middle of Eastern Europe or, even better, living in the 19th Century. He’s rendered alien by his shyness, his sexual inexperience and his basic inability to communicate with anyone else. When he establishes contact, whether with his female cousin or the bored housewife next door, it ends badly. Worse still, his attempt to be normal – by entering into a sexual relationship – is the thing which directly leads to his end. Cuda, however, is equally alien. He runs a grocery store in the decaying small town near Pittsburgh where he is treated suspiciously by the prattling women who give him their custom. Retreating into banal superstition, he uses Martin as the personification of everything which he hates. The fact that he is right about Martin’s vampirism – at least as a psychological and physiological condition – is beside the point. He calls Martin ‘nosferatu’ and treats him as a kind of leper. It’s as if he wants his belief in ‘magic’, as Martin calls it, to be fulfilled even if it means destroying the boy he’s meant to be looking after.
The approach to vampirism in the film is, as I’ve said, that it’s a kind of mental illness which results from chronic social isolation. Martin’s bloodlust is at its strongest when he’s feeling most alienated and it’s significant that it abates when he begins a sexual relationship. But, the film asks in its most interesting moments, what is going to replace the bloodlust ? Martin still seems incapable of any positive emotions and he certainly doesn’t seem to feel love. Just a kind of satiated emptiness, the kind of thing which totally meaningless sex can provide you with. Yet Romero is also fascinated by myth and magic, giving Cuda a lengthy scene in which he explains the curse on the family and why he will take in Martin in order to protect his family name. It’s strongly indicated that Martin has a very ambiguous attitude to his ‘curse’. On the one hand, he denies the existence of magic but on the other hand he accepts that he’s an 84 year old vampire. He wants magic to exist, for him to be the handsome vampire with a victim who accepts him as a lover, but experience has taught him that the only way to satisfy his lust is by slitting a victims wrists and sucking their blood. In the phone conversations with a sympathetic radio talkshow host, Martin emphasises that he wants to be ‘normal’, equating normal with sexually satisfied, but he also places himself in the role of the ‘other’ by talking about everyone else as ‘them’, those people who want to destroy him.
The strength of the film depends on its realisation of a completely believable environment. Romero and his regular cinematographer Michael Gornick shot the film is a depressed area of Pittsburgh and the stifling sense of despair and insularity is potent. The vital sense of a hopelessly repressive family environment and the opening up of possibilities only for them to be cruelly shut down again is given visual strength by the locations. Martin seems out of place here but Cuda seems even more out of place, striding through the rubbish filled streets in his immaculate white suit like some Southern gentleman who has been dropped from a plane in the wrong part of America.
It’s only fair to point out that one or two scenes don’t quite work. The invasion of a middle class household by Martin, only to find that the woman he hoped to feed from is cheating on her husband, is clunky and unconvincing with a certain hysteria that doesn’t quite match up with the rest of the film. Romero reportedly likes this scene best which may be because it’s showy but it doesn’t chime with the overall tone of the film. The scenes between Martin and Christina are a little too prosaic as well, spelling out ideas too explicitly, and Romero doesn’t help matters by making them so stagy.
But Martin is generally so successful in evoking a world in which classical Gothic archetypes simply don’t work anymore that it’s easy to forgive occasional flaws. This is the film in which Romero really signals the absolute control of his material that flourished in Dawn of the Dead. His customary political agenda isn’t emphasised here although one could certainly see Cuda as a representative of the forces of reaction determined to get rid of the ‘other’ – i.e. Martin - in their midst. But ultimately, Martin is a modern day tragedy with enough emotional force to break even the most cynical heart. Martin, as much a classic 1970s antihero as Travis Bickle, Harry Caul or Harry Callahan, is ultimately raised to the status of a tragic hero because he discovers that nothing he can do matters one bit because his fate is out of his hands. Neither part of the world or able to retreat into fantasy, he is, like those other characters, a lost soul, wandering in a wilderness which is cold, hopeless and horribly sad.
Arrow Films have not exactly distinguished themselves in the past but their edition of Martin has quite a lot to recommend it.
The film is presented in fullscreen. This is at the express request of George Romero. The film was shot in 1.33:1, like Night of the Living Dead and was matted for cinema showing. It’s not a bad transfer at all and is very good in some respects. The deliberately grainy appearance of the film comes across well and the muted colours are nicely defined. However, the image looks rather soft throughout and certainly lacks fine detail. There is also a lot of artifacting on display which is most noticeable during the numerous dark interior scenes during the climax. The film was shot on reverse stock to give it a faded, almost sepia-like hue but this is not well transferred on this DVD.
The only soundtrack is a nicely rendered transfer of the original mono recording. It’s absolutely fine and the lovely music score by Donald Rubenstein comes across very strongly.
The extra features are limited but interesting. We get the much sought-after original trailer, which is excellent, along with an equally rare TV spot. There are also two radio spots. There is a reasonably extensive gallery containing posters and stills. Particularly valuable for Romero fans are some liner notes written in 1977 which appear on a booklet inside the case. Best of all is a short German TV documentary about Romero filmed on the set of Dawn of the Dead. This is a rare chance to see this film and it’s a must for fans of the director as he muses about filmmaking and the relation of his work to contemporary social issues. This is in the original German with subtitles.
There are, regrettably, no English subtitles on the film itself. There are 12 chapter stops. The menus are animated with a rather irksome blood-spattered effect.
Martin is a great movie and one of Romero’s finest achievements. Complex, penetrating and intelligent, it takes the vampire film and tears asunder all our assumptions about the genre. This Arrow DVD is far from perfect but it’s very nicely presented and certainly the best version of the film which is currently. It’s a shame they couldn’t offer us the commentary track from the long out of print Anchor Bay edition but, for the time being, this will do very nicely.