Format: Internet video on The Nook.
When I think of George Romero, I think of zombies. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. After all, the various Dead movies are where Romero made his name, even if all of them haven’t really lived up to the promise of the first trilogy, and the first two especially. He did other things, though, including Martin in the mid-‘70s. In fact, Martin was produced before Dawn of the Dead, so this comes from a time before Romero was pigeonholed into being the zombie guy.
Martin is interesting for a number of reasons beyond being a non-zombie Romero film. This is his take on the vampire story, and it’s very different from the typical vampire tale. Martin (John Amplas), our title character, is evidently completely human, but believes himself to be a vampire. Martin thinks he is 87 years old despite looking 19. He’s fascinated with blood, and has figured out the best way to get the blood he believes he needs. His method is to knock his victims out with a syringe and then use a razor blade to drain the blood from his victims. While all of this is happening, in Martin’s mind the world is reduced to black-and-white, and the reality of a struggling victim is transformed into a Gothic romance.
We learn a great deal of this from the opening sequence. Martin is traveling from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh by train. Martin’s immediate family has died and he is going to live with his uncle Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who is very much steeped in the old ways, believing that Martin is an actual vampire. On the train, Martin sedates a woman traveling alone with a syringe and uses his razor blades to drink her blood. Once he reaches Cuda’s house, he is given a list of rules to follow, including avoiding his cousin Christina (Christine Forrest). Martin clearly demonstrates that the old ways of fighting off a vampire—garlic, crucifixes—don’t work, but this doesn’t stop Cuda from believing that Martin is the real thing.
Martin adjusts to his new environment as well as he can. He works at Cuda’s butcher shop making deliveries, which brings him into contact with a number of local housewives. However, Cuda has told him that he will destroy him if he suspects that Martin is killing local people. Martin does invade the home of one woman who is having an affair. He kills and feeds off her lover and knocks her out and rapes her, evidently not worried that he’s been seen by her. It is through his delivery job that he meets Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau), a lonely housewife who is interested in Martin. Eventually, the two begin an affair. For Martin, this is the first time he’s been able to have a sexual relationship with someone who is willing.
Martin also spends his evenings calling in to a local radio station about his nighttime activities. He soon becomes a popular addition to the show, going under the name “the Count.” On the show, he discusses his bloodlust, how he does what he does and what drives him. His relationship with Mrs. Santini cures his sexual desires, more or less, but not his bloodlust, and this becomes something it talks about frequently.
Martin is an odd film in a lot of respects. It’s clearly a horror film and clearly a vampire film even though we don’t have a real vampire in the story. Martin’s belief that he is a vampire is enough to give us the feeling of a vampire stalking a city. Romero clearly wanted to produce something here that is happening both in the real world and happening in Martin’s head. The question we’re left to answer is where the reality ends and Martin’s fantasy life begins, something we’re helped with by the switches between monochrome and color photography.
Here’s the thing—Romero is really at his best when he’s working in the zombie subgenre. It’s where he cut his teeth and where his best work clearly lays. Martin is less a departure from this than it is a confirmation of this, since it comes before the bulk of his zombie work. This is an engaging film in a lot of respects. The story is interesting and unique, and that goes a long way in my book. But it’s also not always well acted. There are some wooden scenes here as well as some that are done very nicely. Martin is uneven, and that might be its biggest problem.
Still, it’s hard not to like it at least a little bit. Martin himself is oddly sympathetic in the way that some movie psychos can be. He’s another in the line of characters like Mark from Peeping Tom and Norman Bates from Psycho. As disturbed as Martin might be, the idea of this loner weirdo is strangely appealing.
Why to watch Martin: A more real-world take on the vampire myth.
Why not to watch: Romero is always at his best with zombies.