If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, or just zombies in general, you may be aware of how indebted the concept is to Writer-Director George A. Romero. Romero cemented his legacy with the deconstruction and re-invention of pop-culture zombie tropes beginning with Night of the Living Dead (1968), and subsequently in his ‘Dead’’ series of films.
Comparatively overlooked is the similar treatment Romero effectively applied to the vampire subgenre with his incredibly personal 1978 horror film Martin. Martin showcases Romero in top form as he takes an expressionistic, intimate look at the instability of human nature and its dire consequences; from the perspective of one of the undead.
Martin focuses on the title character (John Amplas) who is, by all appearances, a shy, dumb young man. Turns out Martin is an 84 year old Nosferatu; resourceful and world-weary after years of adapting to survive. Romero makes it clear from the beginning that Martin is no Dracula, being deliberately immediate and up front in portraying Martin’s depraved qualities.
Martin is moving from Indianapolis to Braddock, PA to live under the watch of his elderly cousin Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), a devout man who believes vampirism is “the family curse.” Martin laughs off the magic of crucifixes and garlic, believing himself instead to have a disease. Cuda sets in place a series of rules, and from here the film deals with Martin’s attempts to co-exist with the living, while also satisfying his natural urges.
What might surprise viewers is just how intelligent this film is. Romero asks the audience to take all their cinematic preconceived notions pertaining to Vampire lore and toss them out the window. This forces the viewer to actively participate in understanding Martin as an individual, not just another bloodsucker.
Martin, as a character, is complex and conflicted. Initially, he tries to keep to himself, but people (women especially) have a habit of earnestly trying to reach out to Martin despite his resistance. He yearns for human contact and human relationships, however at the same time he is wholly aware of how damaging it can ultimately be to become emotionally invested in others. As much as Martin can observe and try to predict what others will do, he understands “in real life, you can’t get people to do what you want.”
Style and Structure
The film is marked by strong performances from Maazel and especially Amplas, who (through the films frequent use of close ups) is given the opportunity to effectively communicate silently, simply with his eyes. Stylistically, the film comes across as an homage to classic German Expressionists works, particularly F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Locations and individual shots are full of sharp angles and lines which accentuate distance and height.
Structurally, Martin is very similar to Night of the Living Dead. Both films begin with a shocking attack, giving way to a systematic deconstruction and reinvention of classically defined tropes. Martin also takes advantage of shocking subject matters to highlight stinging social commentary on poverty, religion, and even ageism. Most of the action in the film is realistically marked by coincidence and circumstance begot from human error.
While Martin is a terrific low-budget film, it isn’t totally devoid of flaws. Some of the acting is stilted, and the editing is slightly choppy (The original cut of the film was 165 minutes, so it appears some exposition might have been removed and other scenes cut short).
Many reviews of Martin state it’s up to the viewer to decide if Martin really is a vampire, or if he and Cuda are just insane. However, I think it’s easy to get lost in that train of thought, and I believe that argument distracts from the originality of Martin as an entirely unique meditation on the vampire formula.
After viewing this film for the first time recently, I must say I am baffled as to how such a raw, intimate spin on vampire conventions has slipped through the cracks. The DVD is out of print in the U.S., it is not available through streaming services, and no Blu Ray release has been planned. It’s hard to say if Romero’s zombie legacy casts too great a shadow for Martin to see the light. It’s easy to pigeonhole Romero for his cinematic contributions to what is now a pop-culture phenomenon.
However, to see Martin is to realize Romero’s true value as a creative, intelligent auteur, one that can craft a smart, engaging horror film within the trappings of genre without beholding to banal tropes and conventions.
Martin proves to be a clever rebuke of formulas that modern audiences familiar with the vampires of Twilight may be looking for.