31 Days of Hell – We Make Our Own Monsters: George A. Romero’s Very Human Vampire, Martin

(Note – this article is more of a deep analysis than a typical review, and thus contains some minor thematic spoilers)

George A. Romero will forever be immortalized in film history and beloved by fans for the groundbreaking way that he combined sharp social commentary with boundary-pushing extreme horror in his Night/Dawn/Day of the Dead trilogy, and for how he revitalized the horror-anthology storytelling format with Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside.  But when asked in interviews to name his personal favorite from his body of work, his answer was not any of the above classics, but his comparatively more obscure 1978 horror/drama/thriller, Martin. A most unusual take on the concept of vampirism which can also be read as a non-supernatural tale of mental illness inherited through psychological abuse, Martin is arguably the film where Romero really came into his own as a filmmaker. Made after the conceptually interesting but undeniably flawed The Crazies, this was his most confident, self-assured, stylistically and thematically rich film yet, and it began his career-long collaborations with cinematographer Michael Gornick and special effects maestro Tom Savini (who also acts in the film). In that sense it was the artistic stepping-stone that prepared him and that same core group of collaborators to make his magnum opus Dawn of the Dead (released the same year), but it deserves to be better appreciated as a small masterpiece of indie horror in its own right.

Martin (John Amplas) is a deeply troubled young man. Most of the time he comes off as a normal, if awkward, quiet and sensitive introvert, but inwardly he is losing a battle against a dark compulsion that drives him to go out and commit brutal murders – and drink his victims’ blood in a sort of psychosexual ritual which may or may not be vampirism. His devoutly religious – to the point of being fanatical and cult-like – Romanian family believes he is a vampire, and they have raised him to believe the same thing about himself; but he has no supernatural powers, just a bloodlust that he hates but cannot control. Romero’s film walks a narrative tightrope between two possibilities: he could indeed be a vampire, as his strange Uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) insists, or he could simply be a mentally-ill young man whose family has effectively gas-lit and psychologically battered him into believing that he is a soulless monster to the point that he is actually becoming one. The film presents evidence for both theories, and sequences which could either be flashbacks or fantasies depending on which theory you believe, and asks the viewers to draw their own conclusions. The way in which Romero has crafted a story that can be read in two very different ways is fascinating and quite ambitious, and makes for a very compelling puzzle of a character study.  Either way, Martin is a character of deep inner conflict: a boy who clearly just wants to be normal, and gets no joy out of harming others, but feels compelled to by forces that he isn’t equipped to resist. Whether he is bound by the blood curse that Cuda believes in, or whether his upbringing of psychological abuse and religious fanaticism has pushed him over the edge into psychosis rather than pulling him back from it, his story is very much a tragic one. Romero generally refused to give a firm yes or no answer to questions of whether Martin is actually a vampire, but in a German TV documentary about his body of work, shot between Martin and Dawn of the Dead and included on the Arrow Video DVD of Martin, he says that that’s not the point; the story is about how either way, the monster that Martin is becoming is shaped by belief and how it impacts behavior, and that “we create our own monsters.”

Romero makes a bold storytelling choice in how he begins the film: we first meet Martin in a genuinely horrifying and hard-to-watch scene in which he kills and feeds on a young woman; a murder made all the more disturbing because of how sexual it is. It is a brutal, punch-in-the-gut of an opening sequence which causes us to begin the film seeing Martin as a monster who does irredeemably horrible things. But then gradually Romero peels back the layers of how he got that way; the factors that shaped someone who could have, under different circumstances, been a normal young man into a serial killer (or a vampire, or both). Against all odds, Romero makes Martin a sympathetic character, or at least an understandable one, with his central story arc being an internal struggle for his own humanity. The story deconstructs the idea that those who commit horrible deeds must at a basic level be monsters, and asks if they really had to be that way, if at some point they had the capacity to go down a different path, and what factors in their lives might have pushed them one way or another. In all of these ways, Martin very much has a companion film in 2017’s My Friend Dahmer, an even more disturbing (in large part because it is true) character study which similarly captures a troubled-but-sympathetic young man in a psychologically-destructive social environment just crossing the precipice into a darkness from which there is no coming back. It is hard to tell if My Friend Dahmer (or its source graphic novel) was actually influenced by Martin, but it is entirely possible; at the very least, the two films would make one potent double-feature.

In keeping with the narrative conceit of stripping down the vampire mythos to a disturbing realist reinterpretation, Romero and cinematographer Michael Gornick shoot Martin with grim, gritty authenticity, capturing the blue-collar decay of their native Pittsburgh with striking, almost documentary-like handheld camerawork. It is an impressive-looking film; clearly a low-budget indie, but one that uses its natural settings with great effectiveness. Romero’s approach is not all grim, however: the film has a definite streak of dark humor, at the core of which is the exasperated conflict between Martin, who tries to rebel against his upbringing of vampire mythology even as he is consumed by it, and his fanatical, scenery-chewing, more than a little bit ridiculous Uncle Cuda. While it is not always clear how much Cuda is supposed to be a comic character and how much Lincoln Maazel’s manic delivery and Colonel-Sanders-ish appearance makes him that way, his characterization of a camp Van Helsing filtered through the stereotype of a grumpy old man is thoroughly entertaining. The comic relief is much more clearly obvious in George Romero’s own small role as a wine-loving hippie-ish priest who just can’t bring himself to take Cuda’s concerns about vampires the least bit seriously. Just as campy (though again, perhaps not intentionally so) is the audio motif across the film’s black-and-white flashbacks, in which a young woman’s voice repeatedly calls out Martin’s name, frequently enough that viewers will almost certainly feel the temptation to join in. This mix of camp with the film’s genuinely dark horror makes it quite a bit of fun, rather than just being disturbing, and undoubtedly increases its rewatch value. It also is likely what inspired new wave duo Soft Cell (who likewise enjoyed mixing camp and darkness) to write a song of the same name, retelling the events of the film over synth-heavy riffs on its soundtrack and samples of that woman’s voice repeatedly calling “Maaaartin” – a profoundly unlikely confluence of cult film and cult music which provides a very amusing footnote to this underappreciated entry in Romero’s filmography.

Unfortunately, it is not very easy to actually see Martin right now. Like Dawn of the Dead, it has been out of print for quite some time, and is in some sort of licensing predicament which means that it is likely to stay that way for a while. But while Dawn of the Dead has already received a plethora of very good DVD and blu-ray special editions, some of which were ubiquitous enough while in-print that they are still fairly easy to find without having to spend a ton of money, Martin has only ever received much more limited DVD distribution, and has never been on blu-ray at all. One of Arrow Video’s earliest limited edition box sets was an excellent two-disc DVD of Martin, which boasted a pretty good transfer, very good extras (including the half-hour German TV documentary about Romero referenced above), and two cuts of the film, housed in their usual swanky packaging with a booklet essay by Romero, a poster, and a bunch of lobby cards. The other cut of the film in that set is the re-edited Italian version, which features an alternate score by Goblin; it is a significantly worse cut of the film, and the soundtrack is cool on its own but very much out of place in Romero’s film, but it is definitely of interest to fans. If you can find that set (and if you have a player that can handle European PAL format DVDs) it is the one and only time that Martin has really gotten the sort of special edition that it deserves. But tracking it down will require some good luck: it has become one of Arrow’s rarest and most collectible limited editions, not as insanely expensive as their Dawn of the Dead box set, but harder to actually find, as fewer copies were made. Its US DVDs are a bit less rare, but both leave a lot to be desired: the older Anchor Bay disc is basically a glorified laserdisc port, and the later Lionsgate DVD features the same pretty-good transfer as the Arrow disc, but only some of the extras, and none of the love and care in the packaging. As with Dawn, one can only hope that the licensing rights can be worked out eventually, and maybe Arrow can give their early box sets of both films a long-overdue upgrade.

Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead are iconic not just because they handle the zombie concept exceptionally well, but because they are ultimately stories about the darker aspects of human nature, and about facing and combating them. The same is true of Martin and then some: it may ostensibly be a vampire movie, or it may not be (depending on your perspective), but whether it is or not its “monster” is ultimately very human, and the things that make him monstrous have a lot less to do with the lore that Cuda believes in, and a lot more to do with the psychological ramifications of those beliefs, in how the family treats Martin and in how Martin has internalized them himself. Vampire stories often take the form of an exploration of the vampire’s tortured soul, but Martin has got to be one of the most unique interpretations of that formula, as an interview with a vampire becomes indistinguishable from a portrait of a young man struggling against his own internal darkness. It may not have the epic scale of Dawn of the Dead or the comic-book ghoulishness of Creepshow, but it is very evident why the potent and unique Martin was George Romero’s personal favorite among his films, and it deserves to be remembered as an important part of his legacy.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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