(USA - 1977)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elayne Nadeau, Tom Savini
Genre: Horror/Satire
Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Cinematography: Michael Gornick
Composer: Goblin
Runtime: 95 minutes

"Do you know I heard about this my entire life? Sometimes I even start thinking that I'm gonna believe all that bullshit!" - Christina

Did society make you into the person you are? Did society shape someone else into the person they are? I bet you answered no and yes. I'd answer the same way; it's only natural to ask these questions, but see yourself differently from others. The reason you became a Busy Bee Cleaning Services cleaner may have been your parents, and you may even be terrible at it, but the job, or any other aspects of your way of life, will define you more to one person than to another or especially to yourself; it may just pay the bills for now so you can work on being the artist you really want to be. For his incredibly ambiguous 1977 horror/satire, director George A. Romero explores societal influence on others. This isn't close to a common exploration of the idea though, to make his point Romero has chosen arguably the most famous set of traits, but also the most improbable.

Martin is a film about a 17-year-old boy that may well be an 84-year-old vampire. The age of Martin's physical body is very important, as it's the point in life when you are kind of in limbo between childhood and adulthood. You have to make a number of important decisions that may well shape the rest of your life, and you are confused as all hell. Even if you don't look for advice, people will give it to you anyway. Many of them will tell you how to live your life without taking the time to learn or consider the person you are, where your talent lies, and what could make you happy. They project their fantasies onto you as if they are one in the same.

Martin's (John Amplas) personality is what the people around him, predominantly his family, molded it into. He's shy, distant, introverted, and bewildered. Although his interior is destroyed, on the exterior Martin takes his persecution well, always keeping his cool and even smirking at the nonsensical nature of it all. Traditional old cousin Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) is most prominent in Martin's ruination during the film, but whether he's evil or divine we get the idea Cuda is nothing more than the latest in line. Cuda claims he's forced to take Martin in to avoid the devil's curse on his portion of the family. He goes around chanting "Nosferatu" at him. Just about the first thing we here Cuda say to Martin is, "Vampire, first I will save your soul then I will destroy you." Cuda soon threatens, "You may come and go, but you will not take people from the city. If I hear of it a single time I will destroy you without salvation!" Cuda is stern, strict, and incredibly controlling. Although Martin can go wherever he wants, Cuda rigs bells to Martin's door so he knows every time he's coming or going. Cuda expects Martin to live in the house with his granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest) without speaking to her, ordering him to ignore her not only when she's doing her house cleaning chores, but even when she talks to him.

"There isn't any magic! There isn't any magic! It's just a sickness!" Cuda goes around testing every vampire spotter and deterrent on Martin, but Martin asserts that none of them work because "it isn't magic, even I know that." If anything, what has killed the magic is not Martin, but the stale banal existence of everyone around him.

The fact that Martin is supposed to be slow, stupid, almost retarded is a key. Martin isn't dumb at all, he just doesn't fit in so people decide this and that is wrong with him. Meanwhile, the supposedly normal Cuda is incredibly antagonistic and so set in his ways that Martin eating garlic and clutching the cross doesn't dissuade him in the least.

My favorite scene has Cuda go looking for Martin after a failed late night exorcism attempt. Cuda expects to see Martin's latest bloodlust, but "in Martin's element" he becomes increasingly uneasy. Martin emerges behind a swing set in the misty park in full vampire gear, swinging his cape around in front of the fallen Cuda, who is basically holding a rosary and praying for his life. As Martin leans over Cuda, he reveals his fangs from behind his cape and starts laughing his ass off because they are nothing more than Halloween store specials. Still Cuda asserts Martin is the devil and clubs him in the back with his cane as he's walking away. Martin catches the 2nd cane shot, spits his plastic fangs out, smears his white face paint, and asserts to a bewildered Cuda that "It's just a costume."

I can't stress enough that whether Martin is actually a vampire is not the issue. He kills for blood by injecting his victim with a substance that puts them to sleep and slitting a vein from wrist up the arm with a razor blade. Whether this is due to the legendary vampire methodology and iconography being a myth or Martin believing he needs blood to live on and lacking the fangs, the result is ultimately the same.

Romero's best films deal with problems of human relations and the negative influence of popular culture and technology. Like many of Romero's films, Martin is set in a small dying Pennsylvania town (Romero's home base was Pittsburgh rather than Hollywood). Much of the film is about loneliness and isolation. Aside from Martin, who may as well stalk his next victim because there's nothing else to do, there are the bored older women that are happy to see some fresh young meat come live in their suburb. Mrs. Santini (Elayne Nadeau), a self-proclaimed "complaining old housewife," hires Martin to do odd jobs so she can make several pathetic attempts to seduce him. Although Martin hardly says anything to her, and when he does it's only to be polite because like everyone else he's afraid to say anything of substance, she likes him because he supposedly listens to her like her old alley cat. "That's why you're so nice to have around Martin; you don't have opinions."

With its silent protagonist, Martin is sparse on dialogue. However, it's the most atmospheric and visually oriented film I've seen from Romero. The influence of Dario Argento, who produced Romero's subsequent and greatest film Dawn of the Dead and teamed up when they each adapted an Edgar Allan Poe tale for the film Two Evil Eyes, is readily apparent. The unsteady handheld camera shots are particularly successful, especially when we see Martin's point of view. Romero and cinematographer Michael Gornick make us lose our sense of the setting during the interior shots. We stagger through cramped dark quarters hoping there's enough space that we won't be trapped. Take the first scene where Martin is just about to take his victim. He's standing right in front of the bathroom door and she opens it. It happens that there's a closet just to the left of the door, but the quiet, cautious, and alert boy has just enough room to crunch himself in between without being detected. A better example is the scene where Cuda shows Martin his room. In the overhead shots from the top of the staircase, it doesn't seem any different than a typical old winding staircase. However, when we look up the final portion of the staircase from Martin's point of view, it looks so cramped and narrow that you'd have to duck your head and crunch your shoulders in to fit.

Paradoxically, the scenes that involve people are about the loneliness of the long distance bloodsucker. Martin is incapable of fitting in anywhere, and this makes him detached. We see him walking with Cuda in wide-open spaces. However, they are so far away from each other that nobody could guess they were together, and even when they stop walking they leave 50 feet and look in different directions. Of course Martin and Cuda have a rivalry, but Martin runs away from physical contact with any conscious being.

The Italian progressive rock band Goblin, legendary among horrophiles for their brilliant soundtracks for Dario Argento including the most effective horror soundtrack ever for Suspiria, do a typically wonderful job. Unquestionably, Goblin are talented musicians. What makes them the best band that does soundtracks is they don't bring the Goblin sound like 99% of the groups do; they experiment in so many areas to ultimately achieve the most effective sound for the material they are handling. The band is so diverse in what they do that a term paper could be written on their score for Profondo rosso or Tenebrae or, well, you get the point. One thing that makes them great is their effectiveness in using seemingly simplistic rhythms. They show that the terror is not in the arrangement, but in the tone. The same note/string is often repeated several times during a scene, but it's the right note/string to evoke the mood and the right pace to create the tension and uneasiness. Although many times it's not even necessary, little alterations to melody can have an amazing heightening effect. In addition to the music, from time to time there's the haunting operatic female chant that they later used so well in Argento's Phenomena.

Probably the most effective scenes are the "flashbacks" because they are scored to really make you feel what it's like to have this maddening demented life, to have these voices and images in your head and have to keep repeating the same crimes "to go on living." Usually while Martin is preparing for his latest bloodlust, Romero cuts back and forth between the present and black and white visions from Martin's past. These haunting scenes depict the trials and tribulations of Martin's years as a vampire, with each new killing reminding him of a previous nightmare. At first we believe they are proof that Martin has been quenching his thirst for blood all these years. However, as the film progresses we wonder more and more whether these are fantasies, dreams, nightmares, delusions, or some combination? Are they how he envisions his murders or is reality mirroring fantasy?

Martin's situational impotence makes the scenes seem less like flashbacks. Martin sees the parallels between his bloodlust and the falseness in many human relationships, but can't deal with it. Thus, in order to avoid all the lies to get what he really wants he drugs his female pray to sleep so he can do "the sexy stuff." Perhaps the events we see in black and white really did happen though and all Martin has gone through has made him grow more compassionate and honest toward his victims instead of the usual increased callousness and desensitization? Maybe he's just such a different breed that he's afraid he couldn't possibly please a woman?

My second favorite scene has Martin thinking it's safe to take his next victim because her husband isn't home. He cleverly sneaks into the garage, prepares his needle in the downstairs bathroom, and makes his way up the spiral staircase to her bedroom without making a sound. One problem, when he bursts through her bedroom door he finds out she's having an affair. In a priceless line, he immediately asks, "Who are you?" Almost as good is the man, knowing he's out of place and having the guilt and fear to go with it, assumes Martin is some kind of relative and starts squirming and stumbling though "Look, let's not get excited about this now. Lets… No reason to get upset now about anything, okay?" After Martin stabs the guy with his needle and runs out of the room we get some vintage Romero. Forgetting that their scandal will be irrelevant if they don't survive, the couple gets into an argument over whom they can call to help them considering the woman's husband can't find out her lover was there.

As is typical with early Romero films, all of the actors are unknowns. The only names in the film are Romero, who plays the priest taking over the burnt down church that talks about the wine ("I don't suppose it's sacrilegious to say the wine at St. Vincent's is putrid") and Friedkin's classic to avoid coming out and telling Cuda he doesn't believe in demonic possession, and special effects and makeup expert Tom Savini as Christine's small town hating boyfriend. John Amplas, in his first role, does by far the best job with Lincoln Maazel also being effective, while pretty much everyone else is passable to amateur. The biggest problem with the film related to the budget is the audio dub is sometimes off.

The worst thing about the film is a few scenes don't seem to fit at all. By far the grossest miscalculation is a segment where the cops chase Martin for breaking into a store to get a change of clothes. He winds up in a warehouse that drug dealers are hiding out in and there's a shootout between the paranoid dealers and the cops. Simply put, it's the kind of irrelevant out of place nonsense I'd expect from a clown like Ron Howard that "fulfills the audiences expectations" rather than sticks to something remotely relevant to "his topic."

What makes the inclusion of the aforementioned scene ironic is that one of Romero's key themes is society's perception and stereotypes are all wrong. Martin is serial killer, but he doesn't fit the profile. He's so sensitive and concerned with his victim. He doesn't seem like a womanhunter; he seems more like a tender veterinarian that has the unfortunate task of putting someone's cute little pet to sleep.

The most humorous part of the film involves Martin's regular calls to an overnight talk show. At one point, Martin starts complaining about the inaccuracies of vampire movies, so the host starts getting "The Count" as he calls him to start dispelling all the crazy myths. Martin just gets into explaining that he gets shaky when he needs blood, but the host cuts him off saying, "Well, listen count my sponsor's getting shaky, so I gotta take a break." The host (cinematographer Michael Gornick), who has one of the cheesiest laughs I've ever heard, obviously doesn't take Martin seriously. However, Martin's calls get great response, so the host looks to suck every last drop out of Martin. He keeps agreeing with Martin or putting words in his mouth to make fun of him and keep him talking, figuring anyone so out there that he claims to be a vampire won't realize he's constantly being mocked. Even if you believe Martin has totally lost touch with reality, he's the only character that speaks with honesty. He's the only truly perceptive character, as Romero uses Martin as his mouthpiece on human condition, belief, logic, and emotion.


A lot of people don't like the ending of the film because the "hero" dies, but to me it's brilliant. Romero is arguably the master at killing his protagonist. He never does it to manipulate the audience, always to make a strong statement. Here it's bittersweet as well as incredibly ironic. What I love about the ending is various new sound bites from the radio show with everyone calling for "The Count" to call again are played as we see Martin's burial in the back yard. "The question of the year is what happened to the count?" Thus, the townspeople pass their time calling up with all their "theories." One older white guy writes a song to the count that starts off "black cape and shiny boots," so a brother calls up and argues "No, his cape is not black…No, he stands cool. Cool, and his cape has got patterns on it, like a paisley. And he wears a Big Apple cap."




* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *