There’s little argument that George Romero is the king of the zombie film. His Night of the Living Dead and its sequels have completely revolutionized the horror genre while creating a whole sub-genre. His name is so synonymous with the zombie flick, that it’s easy to forget that he made other kinds of horror movies. Having more convention breaking ideas in his head, in 1977 he attempted to update the vampire movie with Martin.
Martin is not a typical suck-your-blood vampire movie. Played by Romero’s pal John Amplas (who would go on to play small roles in Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Creepshow), Martin seems like a typical shy teenage outcast, except for the fact that he claims to be 84 years old and drugs women in order to slit their wrists and drink their blood. Martin comes to live with his cousin Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) in suburban Pittsburgh, who not only knows Martin’s secret, but reveals that there have been others like him in the family. Cuda tells him that he intends to kill him, but not before he gains salvation for his soul. Also living with Cuda is his granddaughter Christina (Romero’s wife Christine Forrest), who becomes friends with Martin. Christina does not believe in Martin’s vampire heritage, instead opting to think that Martin has been driven insane by the constant insistences of his vampirism by his family. Plagued by strange flashback memories to his supposed past, Martin stalks victims by night and delivers groceries from Cuda’s store by day. When Christina skips town with her boyfriend Arthur (played by legendary makeup artist Tom Savini), Martin is left alone with Cuda and takes to calling a radio show as a form of therapy. Nicknamed The Count by the radio host, he speaks on-air about his hunting and his killing while debunking the myths about vampires that have been made popular by movies. The Count becomes an anonymous hit in the town, but Cuda still wants to save his soul and murder him. It’s left up to the audience to figure out whether the whole vampire thing is real or all in Martin’s head.
Romero attempts to completely deconstruct the typical vampire archetype with Martin. Martin does not have fangs or a European accent. He is uncomfortable and awkward around women. He does not shy away from crucifixes or cloves of garlic. He prefers to lap blood up from a wound that he slashes in his victim’s wrist instead of sucking it from the neck. These differences make Martin a less detectable vampire, and, therefore, a scarier vampire. In one scene, Cuda follows Martin to a park, where Martin confronts him in a classic vampire costume, complete with white face paint, fangs and a cape. Cuda is terrified until Martin spits out the fangs and rubs off his makeup, telling Cuda “it’s just a costume!” Cuda knows Martin is a killer, but also knows the rest of the world is oblivious to the danger that they are in.
Martin is not Romero’s finest bit of storytelling, and it’s not his greatest cinematic achievement. However, there are a couple of moments that can be considered two of Romero’s best pieces of filmmaking. In one scene, Martin has broken into a young woman’s home to seduce and slay her, but is surprised by her having a boyfriend with her. Martin injects the man with the sedative that was intended for the woman and quickly flees downstairs while the man chases him, stumbling as he goes. The woman makes it to a phone at the same time that Martin gets to another one, and he picks it up and dials at the same time, preventing her from calling for help. The man finds a third phone, and tries to call for help as well. Martin foils his attempts, too. The scene is both claustrophobic and tense, and the suspense is two-fold: wondering if Martin will be caught and wondering if the couple will be killed. In another scene, Martin is being chased by police. He has flashbacks (which Romero includes in black & white) to people with torches coming after him, illustrating the fact that he has been pursued and persecuted for all of his 84 years. The cuts are seamless but the color vs. black & white shows the viewer the difference between reality and Martin’s memories. These two scenes alone prove that Romero is more than just a blood and gore moviemaker; he is a master of suspense as well.
The music to Martin was done by Donald Rubinstein (producer Richard P. Rubenstein’s brother and composer of the themes to television’s “Tales from the Darkside” and “Monsters”). Rubenstein’s jazzy classical compositions come off as sounding a bit like an “After-School Special” at times, but when the film calls for scary mood music, the score delivers. Rubenstein has a great ear for mood and feeling, and he shows it off well on his soundtrack for Martin.
While considered one of George Romero’s personal favorite films, Martin did not find the same kind of success as Night of the Living Dead, and he returned to zombies the next year with Dawn of the Dead. Romero’s legacy would be built on his zombie films, but his Martin is a vampire film like none other.