May 28, 2012


This flaky little vampire film, released in 1978, looks at the vampire myth through modern eyes. Seventeen-year-old misfit Martin (John Amplas) goes to live with his elderly cousin (Lincoln Maazel) in a suburb of Pittsburgh. The cousin still holds to his Old World beliefs about family curses and evil omens, and believes that Martin is actually an 84-year-old vampire. Martin, meanwhile, insists that he's not, that all the lore about vampires is the stuff of movies. There's no real magic, Martin assures us. We're never sure who to believe.

We've already been predisposed to be afraid of Martin, for in the beginning of the movie, we witness the brutal slaying of a woman on a train. (It's worth noting that a train brings Martin to his next hunting ground, and in Dracula the train was a symbol of progress, but one that also linked the up-to-date-with-a-vengeance London to the steeped-in-superstition Transylvania. It's a fun, subtle commentary on what technological advances can bring in the way of horrors.) But unlike Dracula, Martin doesn't have fangs, so he uses a razor blade (after drugging his victim so she won't put up a fight).

Romero had made several unsuccessful films prior to Martin (including 1973's The Crazies), and Martin seems like a culmination of them all: he's taken the most interesting pieces of ideas he had been experimenting with before (alienation in suburbia, the difference between the mythology and the reality of the supernatural, and the breakdown of systems--economic, class, theological, familial, racial, etc.) and funneled them into this oddball shocker. It's compact though, and despite its flaws, it's quite striking. Romero is a master editor: his style is quick and throws a lot of business at you, but all of it feels meticulously organized; it's always cumulative, never haphazard.  

That Martin should come to live in such a dead city as Braddock (which is a borough of Pittsburgh) is apropos. The film documents on a small scale what must have been the sheer exhaustion of the country, and the collapse under the weight not only of failed economic policies, but the failed promises of industry. There's a looming sense of decay throughout Martin: it's a cultural decline that this film has captured, a sort of apocalyptic banality that swept the nation post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. If Night of the Living Dead tapped into the vein of that turbulent era of the 1960s, Martin is here to witness the drying up of it. It seems to be asking the question: are vampires a product of economics, or of superstition? All the old systems are still in place, but they have no power ultimately. Romero dances around with all these ideas and images, content to ask a lot of questions and offer no answers. (There are even black-and-white flashbacks of Martin being pursued by a mob with flaming torches and stakes, but are these memories of antiquity, or psychotic hallucinations?)

The acting in Martin is often over-the-top, but the movie is so surreal and subdued that it works for it. Maazel chews the scenery, and it may be his performance that inspired the goofy Van Helsing impression Mel Brooks did in Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Amplas is like a mixture of Jackie Earle Haley and Ed Wood: he's got a creepy boyishness mixed with a hammy stage persona, but it too works for the movie. Martin is always equal parts sinister and sympathetic.

With Christine Forrest (Romero's long-time wife), Tom Savini (the make-up artist, who went on to become a kind of cult figure in his industry), Elyane Nadeau, and, in a cameo, Romero himself, as an apathetic young priest. The weird music score is by Donald Rubinstein.

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