Mike’s Review: Martin (1978)

★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★

Vampires have been around for a long time (read: possibly forever?) and their story has been told in a weirdly limitless number of ways.  Sexy vampires.  Gory vampires. Child vampires. Deaf vampires. Suffice it to say, the votes are in and humanity LOVES its vampires!

Directed by George Romero

Given the infinite number of ways that this horror trope has been chopped , or bitten up, it’s always amazing when there’s a new, or in this case decades old, take on Dracula and his legions of undead pals.  It should come as no surprise that one of the most inventive bites at this apple would come from one of the most foundationally inventive horror directors of all time, THE George Romero.

Known almost entirely for his epic work in the shambling sub-genre inhabited by zombies, Romero took on a fascinating choice in 1978, and looking back decades after the fact, a directorial choice that’s never quite been replicated. His 1978 vampire/not-vampire film, Martin, follows the eponymously titled character on a coming of age tale replete with homicidal awakening, sexual ambivalence, religious repression, and classist disgust. 

Martin (John Amplas) is a very confused young man with little to say for himself — save for the fact that he needs human blood and lots of it.  Eschewing the normal vampiric ways with the fangs and hypnosis and such, Martin opts for more conventional 20th century tools involving hypodermic needles and razor blades.  He’s interested in his victims in a vaguely sexual way, but he’s not reckless and he’s ultimately concerned about their welfare. In other words, Martin’s definitely enamored with the idea of being a vampire, but it’s also got a logistically complicated downside. 

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Martin trying out vampirism.

Martin is in the process of making his way from the religious bigotry of the midwest for the far more religiously and culturally repressed Pittsburgh ghettos.  He eventually makes his way to his decidedly older cousin Cuda’s house for a little Nosferatu deprogramming.  Naturally deprogramming programs are always extra-successful, so why not mix it and try it on a full blown vampire.  A little garlic, a couple church sessions, and a crucifix or two…what could possibly go wrong? Cuda does every thing he can to integrate him in to the Pittsburgh ghetto and away from his Dracula-having ways. 

Throughout, Romero toys with black and white flashbacks and contemporary scenes that almost play out like a dreamy alternate reality depicting the horrifying logistical horrors that vampires really face.  The scenes manufacture a psychotic melange of Martin’s worst dreams, his inability to shake his blood-related needs, and the fantastical nature of being a vampire.  Interestingly, Romero wanted the entire film to be shot exclusively on black and white, but a nip here and a tuck there, and the producer won out.  Romero’s original version of Martin was also two hours and 45 minutes.  Allegedly, neither the black and white version and the nearly three hour version don’t exist. 

In another slice of prescient Romero film-making he also playfully comments on the coming storm that is radio call-in shows and the internet.  Martin reaches out to a local self-help radio program to try and get to the bottom of his interest/repulsion with women. Much to the glee of the radio station Martin discloses his ghoulish penchant for blood and is immediately dubbed, “the Count.” It’s this psychological push/pull that Romero deftly unpacks.  Martin desperately wants help, but either receives the wrong kind, or receives it from the wrong people. Reflecting on the script in 2011, Romero indicated “…Martin is designed to that all those supernatural monsters that are part of our literary tradition are, in essence, expurgations of ourselves. They are beasts we’ve created in order to exorcise the monster from within us…I tried to show in Martin that you can’t just slice off this evil part of ourselves and throw it away. It’s a permanent part of us, and we’d better try and understand it.”

Many historians now haggle over his socio-political impacts brought to bear by his hyper-metaphorical take on zombies, few have really spent the time to unpack the brilliantly layered nuance contained in Martin. While significant numbers of oft farsighted topics are contemplated in Martin, all are treated with ghastly respect and reverence. 

Martin is rated R.

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