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George Romero turns his hand to vampires...
on 30 August 2003
Having revolutionised the horror genre with Night of the Living Dead in 1969, it was perhaps inevitable both that Romero would turn to a vampire film and that it would be unlike any other. Although less well-known, Martin remains his greatest achievement...
Martin [John Amplas] is a troubled young man with a craving for blood. He moves to live with his old cousin Cuda [Lincoln Maazel], who feels compelled to house him due to the "family shame". Cuda believes Martin to be an 84-year-old vampire, not the first in their family, while his daughter Christina [Christine Forrest] sees Martin as mentally ill and requiring care.
Romero strikes an existential note through the film, never explaining Martin's condition. The opening sequence shows him break into a woman's train compartment, syringe of sedative clutched in his mouth like surrogate fangs, slicing her wrist with razor blades. This is clearly no supernatural vampire of the old myths, but neither is Martin insane for his murders are meticulously calculated. Cuda addresses Martin as "Nosferatu" and takes on a Van Helsing-esque role as protector, his house filled with garlic and crucifixes, seeming unable to grasp the fact that these have no effect on Martin. "You see? You see!? It isn't magic. Even I know that." explains Martin, biting into a clove of garlic.
Christina (actress Christine Forrest would later become Romero's wife) offers the alternative view that Martin simply requires mental help, and indeed feels that Cuda's actions simply fuel Martin's dillusions, worsening the problem. Martin himself just describes a his condition as a mundane sickness. The shocking portrayals of Martin's attacks heavily contrast the meek and brilliantly underplayed performance from Amplas, leading us to feel such sympathy that we want him to escape. It appears Martin is beginning to change as he separates his sexual desires from blood-drinking through the advances of a lonely housewife. He finds a form of therapy through a talk-show he calls, where he is dubbed "The Count", trying to explain what vampirism is like. The radio delay reverberates around him like a metaphor for his inability to escape his dreams of the past. Ultimately, the urge to feed takes over once more.
The decaying backdrop of an often empty Pittsburgh is a world away from the gothic castles of previous films, although subtle touches of swirling smoke create the same dark atmosphere despite the fact it is the middle of the day as Martin steps off the train. The suggestion of Martin's roots come through black-and-white "memories" of cliche B-movie vampirism, which are brilliantly contrasted with modern-day reality, causing us to wonder whether they are true memories or whether in fact Martin is a product of society's fantasies and the mythic pressures of his family like Cuda. His very contrast with the booming Cuda, "First I will save your soul, then I will destroy you!", shows precisely why he is unable to adjust.
Another interesting element Romero adds is that Martin's attacks, while carefully prepared and despite his cleverness and agility, never run smoothly, always filled with complications and struggles, one escalating into a gun battle between police and drug dealers, an excellently surreal, if somewhat out of place, action sequence. This is very much Romero revelling in the surreality of the subject matter, making an extended cameo appearance as a priest who is far more concerned with social issues than Cuda's idea of vampirism. Special effects master Tom Savini also appears in the film.
Deeply ingrained in Martin is a sense of teenage alienation, the inability of society to deal with such problems and general suburban discontent. Martin remains a lonely figure throughout, from the moment during his first attack when he fumbles to wrap the girl's limp arms around him. Above all the film thrives on ambiguity in the way it is able to portray Martin's character from many angles since it never plans to reveal whether his nature really is as a vampire or simply a deeply troubled human being.