Not content with revolutionizing one horror staple: almost a decade on from 'Night of the Living Dead', George Romero tackles the vampire myth in his own, idiosyncratic way. The beaming red blood splattered across his movies often disguises a sharp, socio-political sensibility and a keen eye for compositional style, and 'Martin' is a personal favourite of the director.
Ferociously and admirably independent, Romero shunned any attempts at breaking into Hollywood, choosing to film in his native Pittsburgh; the drab industrial surroundings of which give 'Martin' a great deal of its gritty atmosphere. After the commercial failure of 'The Crazies' and 'Season of the Witch' (both 1973), the production of 'Martin' was almost shut down. Romero dug his heels in for the sake of his backers. His integrity was rewarded as 'Dawn of The Dead' hit big the same year, and served to pay off his debtors.
The story concerns the titular teen - who suspects himself to be a vampire - moving to Pittsburgh to stay with his uncle. The uncle turns, Tateh Cuda, is a suspicious, strict Catholic with whom he regularly clashes.
John Amplas' Martin is a fascinating creation, a shy, credibly troubled teen imbued with a good deal of pathos. So impressed was Romero with an Amplas stage performance he re-wrote his entire character (Martin was initially much older) to fit him in to the production. Lincoln Maazel as his uncle provides a good foil, generally treating Martin like an olde worlde vampire in the time-honoured tradition (including pestering him with garlic) and taunting him with the legend "Nosferatu!"
'Martin' also sparks several comparisons of the protagonist's vampiric state to drug addiction, long before the notion became an overbaked horror cliché. His frantic use of hypodermic needles before claiming his victims and his hapless stumbling upon a drug dealer's lair serve to embellish this thought. Indeed, as the Police conduct a brutal, heavy-handed raid on said drug den, Romero suggests that the (possibly) supernatural horror of Martin's actions is nothing compared to the everyday horrors of reality.
Whereas 'Night of the Living Dead' was concerned with issues of society (with hints of race) and 'Dawn of the Dead' expands this to target the effect of modern consumerism, 'Martin' tackles existentialism and the outsider (as Martin struggles to integrate into his new surroundings) and thinks outside of the box on matters of faith. In inviting sympathy with the modern atheist (Martin) over the aging, traditionalist zealot (Cuda), Romero turns the usual horror configurations upside down. A scene where Martin breaks up his uncle's anti-vampire paraphernalia, laughs him down and bluntly states "There is no magic" is bracing and evocative of this argument.
Romero also nods to the history of the cinema vampire in interludes depicting Martin (in historical attire) chased by an angry, torch-waving mob. These scenes are displayed in black and white and apparently, the original cut was entirely monochrome and nearly three hours long. Romero leaves it to the viewer to decide whether these visions are flashbacks, or mere fantasies from Martin's subconscious.
The grim and realistic special effects are from regular Romero cohort and former Vietnam combat photographer Tom Savini, who also has a supporting role.
Unglamourized and unsettling - and really rather thoughtful - I'd love to see what the awkward Martin would make of today's asinine 'Twilight' teen vampires. Romero's film also highlights the difficulties inherent in putting on a pair of Converse while in an immense hurry.