US | 1978 | Directed by George Romero

Logline: A young man, believing he is a vampire, goes to live with his elderly cousin, where he attempts to reconcile with his inner demon.

Martin is George A. Romero’s only paean to vampirism. For the rest of his filmography zombies have pretty much ruled the undead roost. Romero’s fifth feature might be a low-budget affair, but it has a resonance that belies its inherent trappings. Though the performances, and the blood effects, are far from convincing, there’s a real sense of conviction that permeates the film. That Romero chooses to bathe vampirism in a realistic light makes Martin arguably the director’s darkest hour (and a half). 

Martin is a strange and schizophrenic creature, one part psychological thriller, one part dark character study, one part noir-horror, whilst straddling a twisted romance, and a theological and existential debate on the themes of loneliness and resignation. In a coffin, er, nutshell, Martin is a grim and tenebrous chamber piece that echoes eternally.

The titular character (John Amas), in his early 20s, is bound for Pittsburgh. On the overnight train he breaks into an attractive woman’s cabin and injects her with some kind of sleeping serum. She puts up a fight, but eventually is overwhelmed by the drug. Martin has sex with her whilst she is unconscious, then using a straight razor he slits her arm open and drinks her blood. It’s a confronting, nightmarish scene.

Martin leaves the woman’s body as though she’d committed suicide, and after disembarking at Pittsburgh he is met by the eccentric, aging Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who leads him across town to another train station where they travel to a satellite industrial town called Braddock. Cuda appears to know much about Martin’s background, and accuses him of being “Nosferatu”, but Martin insists they are simply cousins.

Martin meets Cuda’s granddaughter Christine (Christine Forrest), and her boyfriend Arthur (Tom Savini), but is warned by Cuda never to talk with her or to enter her room. Later Christine installs a phone in Martin’s bedroom. Martin calls a radio talkshow and enthralls the DJ and listeners with his vampire exploits. The DJ calls him “The Count”.

This is vampire portrait as emotionally cripple, a sociopath who deviously manipulates those around him in order to facilitate his addiction. It is inevitable Martin will be confronted by the demons that haunt him. Through stylized flashbacks the audience is privy to a younger Martin and a mysterious woman (Donna Siegel) from many decades earlier. Martin claims to be 84-years-old, but he’s really a very disturbed and borderline psychotic individual. There is one man who wants to end Martin’s diabolical lust for blood, once and for all.

Braddock may be a grim looking town, but Romero manages to shoot the city and capture a hard beauty. The flashback sequences, shot in high contrast black and white, are often stunning. In fact,  George Romero wanted to shot the entire film in monochrome, but the financiers refused him, and, apparently, there once existed a 2hr 45m version of the movie that featured much more of Martin’s adolescence. 

John Amplas certainly possesses an effectively steely glare, but his acting is better when he doesn’t talk. In fact, much of the movie works very well without dialogue, enhancing the movie’s ominous mood. Romero cameos as a priest in the film’s last quarter, Savini is the make-up effects designer who would go on to work on numerous other Romero movies, whilst then girlfriend Forrest would later become Romero’s wife.

Martin is an acquired taste, but strong stuff if you can get past its low-budget production values and mediocre acting. It’s a vampire flick for those who like the taste of copper a little more metallic; filmy and clingy like the sweat from a bad dream, and less the sweet taste that makes you lick your lips. Only Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction has achieved such a similarly affecting, naturalistic, devastating perspective.

"If he is our own child; if he is our primal conscience, looking back at us from the center of our souls, then Martin is a truly dangerous creature. For then he has us all figured out, while we haven't come close to understanding him." ---- George Romero, 1940-2017, Rest In Peace