Directed by George A. Romero
The United States of America
There’s something strange about that new boy in town. Nobody can quite put their finger on it...but something about that young man just seems...off. Armed with a bag full of narcotics, razors, and needles, he can be seen milling around town and loitering. Every now and then he stops to stare at people, young women, in particular. But he always shoves off whenever someone approaches him. It can’t help that he’s living with Tada Cuda, a local Lithuanian Catholic who seems to forget that he isn’t living in the 14th century. The old man seems convinced that Demons exist and are plaguing his home of Braddock, Pennsylvania. He can always be heard by neighbors yelling at the young man, even at strange hours of the night. But that’s just Tada Cuda. No...it’s that new young man who seems out of place. His name, we learn, is Martin Mathias. And he is a vampire.
At least...he thinks he is a vampire. He can walk under sunlight, eat normal food, and even go to Mass. But every few nights, he hits the town with his bag of goodies to feed. Mercifully, he sedates his victims with his tools before fatally slashing them and drinking their blood. The opening scene depicts Martin’s surgical precision in locating a target, preparing his needles, sneaking into her room, and moving in for the kill. But as I said, there’s something...off...about this young man. Before feeding, he strips naked and removes her clothes as well. He slices her arm open, suckles at the cut, and then kisses her lips. He even cuddles up to her naked form, almost crying at their macabre and bloody consummation. Then, he cleans up the blood, wipes away all of the evidence of his intrusion, and positions her body so that it looks like a suicide, not a murder. If Martin is a vampire, then he hates himself for being one.
This inner turmoil is the heart of George A. Romero’s Martin. After reinventing the horror genre with the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), he directed this introspective character study. The film is undeniably a lost gem from the career of the man most remembered for turning the stomachs of millions with his graphic zombie movies. In fact, knowing that Romero directed this film can be downright disorienting. It doesn’t feel like many of his other works. While most of his films are intense assaults on the senses of the audience, Martin takes its patient time, fully exploring and developing its characters. It creates doubt and inspires skepticism. Is Martin really a vampire? Is he nothing more than a disturbed serial killer? If he isn’t a vampire, why does he think of himself as one?
While the film doesn’t give any definitive answers, it does leave important clues. While feeding, he is barraged with black and white visions of vampiric seductions of virginal beauties. In another, Martin, dressed in clothes from the 19th century, is chased and assaulted by a group of puritans and townsfolk. Are these memories of past encounters that haunt him during his bloody work? Or could they possibly be fantasies spurred on by his animal-like thirst? Could it be both? Whatever they are, they haunt Martin in his darkest moments.
But most curious of all is Martin’s steadfast denial of magic and the supernatural. This becomes evident during his interactions with Tada Cuda who is convinced that he is an Old World vampire. He never refers to Martin by name, instead calling him “Nosferatu.” He sets up garlic bulbs and crucifixes around the house to repel him. Martin angrily rips the garlic off the wall in one scene, runs into Tada Cuda’s room, takes a bite, and screams that there is no such thing as magic. His cousin Christina seems fascinated by Martin and tries to uncover his secrets. He bitterly rebukes her time and again with, “There’s no real magic...ever.” What causes his repulsion of the supernatural? Perhaps his parents were like Tada Cuda and raised him in an environment of hatred and suspicion. That would explain why he hates the supernatural. In addition, it also explains why he would hate his identity as a vampire.
But let’s pretend for a moment that Martin isn’t a vampire. Why does he identify himself as one? Perhaps he is desperate for the intimacy and physical contact that his annual feedings bring. Martin reveals to a local housewife who seduces him that he is a virgin. So maybe his feedings answer some forbidden or misguided lust. The Japanese film Ichi the Killer (2001) features a character who was raised to believe that sexual arousal was really a form of homicidal lust that could only be quenched by killing people. Could something similar have happened to Martin? Might he be confusing his own sexual frustration with a supposed need to kill and drink blood? In one scene, he breaks into a house at night intending to feed on a young housewife. He discovers her having an affair with a young man. Enraged, he knocks the woman out with narcotics and proceeds to brutally murder the young man and drink his blood. Why did he kill the young man? He could have just knocked him out, too. Was he jealous of what the man had in his relationship with the housewife? Was it an act borne of confused sexual jealousy?
Or perhaps it is a cry for attention. Martin develops a habit of calling up a local radio station and recounting his exploits as a vampire. He becomes a big hit, even being affectionately dubbed “The Count” by the DJ. Even though the attention is superficial (and exploitative) he seems to thrive off it. Indeed, the radio seems to be the only time that he can confess his inner feelings and describe the forces that torture him. The radio becomes a companion and confessor, as he recalls his feedings and crimes to thousands over the air waves. The radio fills a void in Martin’s life that should have been filled by friends and family, yet has been cruelly denied him.
Martin is a powerful, albeit curious film that proves that George A. Romero could direct films with genuine substance. You might have noticed that I have asked quite a few questions during this review. That is because the film itself gives rise to so many, yet answers so few. Is Martin a vampire? Does it matter? He is clearly a disturbed young man. Did his environment give rise to his need to drink blood, or vice versa? Regardless, Martin is a penetrating look into the tortured mind of a tortured young man.