MARTIN/1978/GEORGE A. ROMERO
1978/Director: George A. Romero/Writer: George A. Romero
Cast: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elyane Nadeau, Tom Savini, Sara Venable, Francine Middleton, Roger Caine, George A. Romero
I have to honestly admit that I have never been a big fan of the films made by Romero outside his zombie masterpieces, numbering five totally now. Some of the stuff I’ve watched such as Monkey Shine, Dark Half and his contribution to Two Evil Eyes just did not seem all that great. They were watchable movies but nothing I really felt like seeing again. I did like some of the Creepshow segments, but overall was not thrilled. Still Romero remains a great filmmaker, in my opinion based, on a handful of films including his aforementioned zombie epics. In the mid 70’s Romero Richard Rubenstein and his Laurel Films owned a lot of money that needed to paid back. Romero did not make any films for three years and did projects such as making sports documentaries until the debt owed by Laurel was settled. His last two films, in 1973, were both sort of odd little pieces I never had much liking for. One was Season of the Witch and the other, slightly better, The Crazies, about people basically becoming “zombies” after becoming exposed to toxic waste. It was not a bad film. Season of the Witch was rather chaotic in my opinion. The cinematography and sound were very poor and distracting. So by the time 1976 rolled around Romero was ready to do something new and exciting. He wanted to begin Dawn of the Dead but needed more money to make sure the film was the rotting epic he envisioned.
He sat down and wrote Martin in a short period of time and given a few flaws here and there (due in part to the low budget) created what is considered his finest work. I would have to say that I agree with this in most respects. I have seen Martin so many times I do not really even have to rewatch the film to do this review. When I write about a film I seldom go too deep beneath the surface. I like to read those types of reviews but I am not that type of film writer, but in the case of Martin it almost becomes impossible not to get pulled into what Romero might be – or might not be – saying about a variety of issues in modern life. He touches on issues dealing with the “true believer” (to coin the phrase used by Eric Hoffer) syndrome, religious fanaticism, isolation, sexual perversion, emotional despair, hypocrisy, suicide, serial murder, and forgiveness and comfort. It is just not common to find all themes and more addressed so well in a horror film.
Martin is played by John Amplas in his first role and it is a perfect performance and the only one he is really remembered for. He had a small role in Romero’s Day of the Dead. Martin leaves his home in the old country (in Europe we assume) and arrives in the desolate and slowly dying town of Braddock Pennsylvania to live with his older cousin Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazael). Martin’s boyish and forlorning demeanor belay a dark secret: his is a methodic stalker and murderer. The opening segment of the film show Martin cleverly picking the lock of a cabin door on the train then attacking a woman with a syringe of sedating medication. The medication does not take effect immediately there is a long struggle before she is soon overcome by its effects. Martin rapes the woman (or at least lays with her naked body) before slicing her wrists with a razor blade and covering himself in her blood as well as drinking some of it. He is shrewd and makes her death look like a suicide.
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He is a deeply disturbed young man who either believes he is a vampire or has been driven to believe it by superstitious relatives back in the old country. The belief that Martin is a “nosferatu” is firmly held by Cuda, who has sworn to save his soul, if possible, be destroying him. The film becomes on one level a sort of satire of classic vampire films, with Martin as the Prince of Darkness and Cuda as the vampire hunter. While Cuda firmly believes that Martin is a vampire and protects himself and the household with crucifixes and strings of garlic we are never 100% sure to what depth Martin believes himself to be a real vampire. In one scene he claims he is “real old… 84”. He is either haunted by flashbacks or entertains himself with vampire fantasies. When I first saw the film I thought the scenes (shot in black and white, or actually “retained” in black and white since Romero wanted the movie to be black and white) were flashbacks to the old country and how his superstitious relatives destroyed a love affair of his by persecuting him as a nosferatu. Later I began to think that perhaps the scenes were Martin’s imaginings. His way of dealing with the fact that his relatives all believe his the last of three vampires in the family, as well as a way of dealing with his own serial killer impulses.
What is interesting in this film is how likable Martin ultimately is despite his serious issues of “social maladjustment”. The truth is he kills a small handful of innocent people (and we assume he has killed before because his method is so polished) and drinks there blood. While the old man is a small minded fool, Martin takes some sporadic delete in tormenting the old man in return, In one scene he terrorizes the Cuda in a foggy playground wearing plastic vampire fangs and a black and red cape. One can’t help but sympathize with Martin and excuse his behavior because the old man is a religious nut who at one point brings in an exorcist to drive the demons out of Martin.
The film is the first time Romero worked with effects master Tom Savini. The gore is minimal except for one classic Saviniesque scene where martin runs a stick into a man’s throat and twists it around a bit. The man was the unintended victim. Martin had stalked a woman at her house for a while and showed up with needles and razors to do what what he does and finds the man there engaged in some hanky panky with the bored housewife. He also becomes involved in an affair with a woman who he does some odd jobs for. At first terrified of her loneliness driven, sexual advances he runs away. Soon the relationships seems to give Martin a new sense of connection. It is not to be of course in this dark and depressing film, as he finds here dead in the bathtub, ironically with slit wrists for which his blamed and punished for by Cuda.
Some satire of the vampire genre is given in the form of a call in radio talk show that Martin calls regularly and becomes known as the “Count” by the host and callers. There have been ample vampire satires that use comedy as the method of parody, but not too many I can think of so bleak that still is able to poke a little fun at a genre that has become easy to get a tad bored with a t times. I love vampire films and have seen my share. But I have become sort of burned out on the super sexy vampire with a tinge of royalty in his blood or manner much in the vain of Anne Rice’s narrations.
Martin does not sleep in a coffin. He has no super human powers. He can slap a man across the room. He cannot change into a bat or wolf. Except in his fantasies he has no royal lineage. He looks like the awkward boy next door you never notice or pat attention to. Yet he is in fact a dangerous and crafty lad who loves killing and blood (or is driven to kill whether he loves it or not) and yet the viewer at no time really comes to hate him. He eats garlic bulbs and uses syringes and drugs to hypnotize his victims, and razors instead of fangs to get to their blood supply. However, in a rare successful, twist the monster, killer becomes the hero at the same time. Somehow we can identify with Martin more than most of the characters in the film. This has been done on other films as well of course, but few have done it as well as in Martin.
I will make one criticism about a sequence that seems all out of the place. It is the one where Martins is out trolling in an anxious state then stumbles upon a drug deal or something, then a shoot out occurs with the police in a department store. Martin winds up later in an ally and kills a wino. I just felt that the scene was distracting and made no sense and it would have been better to just have him kill off another drugged up housewife or something, and keep the pace of the film as it was, without shootouts and stereotyped homeboy drug dealers. That scene would have worked better in Blacula.
The atmosphere of the city and the unemployed citizens is not ignored. We are not in a romantic village beneath the Carpathian Mountains with a looming but beautiful castle casting its shadow at sunset over the local church. We are in the middle of unemployed middleclass factory workers and average looking housewives desperate for attention. The movie is ultimately depressing and sad, relentless in its alienation of poor Martin, up to the final scenes where he has a stake driven through his heart and is buried in the back yard and forgotten about. I have read that the original version Romero wanted to release was 2 ½ hours long, but it was trimmed way down to its current 91 minutes. There are no copies of that version in existence I understand but what a gem that would be. I hate director’s cut films usually, or “reduxs” but I would love to see what was removed from this fine movie. Romero’s next film would be Dawn of the Dead and Martin sort of was forgotten about, though Romero has said it remains his favorite of his films. Amplas never really did anything comparable to this role again. He was the scientist in Day of the Dead with glasses and goatee. With Martin he did a exquisite job of creating a character so absolutely lost and melancholy that the grim world of zombies seem bright in comparison. We know that the dead will never really the earth, but in some ways we know that there are Martins (though maybe not killers) all over the place. The movie is unnerving for me because I can identify a little too much with poor Martin. If I were a twisted, serial killer it would be like the introverted and guilt ridden Martin, and not like the remorseless master mind Kevin Spacey in Se7en. A really great movie I can not recommended highly enough as cliche as that may sound.