Cult classic horror director George A Romero’s project, immediately before making his masterpiece ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) was his 1977 feature ‘Martin’. It was filmed in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1976 and starred John Amplas in the title role as a troubled young man who believes himself to be a vampire. A restored print is now being released for home consumption.
We are introduced to the lead character as he travels on an overnight train. Breaking into a woman’s carriage, he drugs, rapes and murders her, slitting her wrists so that he can feed on her blood as she dies. It’s quite the dramatic and horrific introduction. With director Romero teaming up with special effects maestro Tom Savini, ‘Martin’ is not a film for the faint-hearted. It is disturbing from its opening sequences and remains gory and often profoundly uncomfortable and shocking until the final reel. Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, a product of the same decade, is a comparable film in terms of its unsettling tone and viscerally distressing content.
Once Martin arrives in the small town of Braddock, he goes to live with his elderly cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who is a God-fearing Christian and utterly convinced that his young relative is ‘Nosferatu’. He warns Martin not to kill anybody in the town. Martin passes his time by embarking on an affair with a bored housewife whilst taking trips from the suburbs to the city so that he can more easily find victims.
Fans of George A Romero’s work will love ‘Martin’. The great director himself once said that it was his favourite film from his canon. Keen-eyed viewers will spot Romero paying the cool Father Howard, who visits Cuda’s house to dispense priestly wisdom. Members of Romero’s company are present too. The enigmatic Cuda is played by Lincoln Maazel, who was such a commanding lead in Romero’s shorter feature ‘The Amusement Park’ a year earlier. Visual effects wizard Tom Savini (later the leader of the bikers in ‘Dawn of the Dead’) plays the supporting role of Cuda’s friend Arthur. Christine Forrest, who plays Cuda’s granddaughter Christina and too often takes Martin’s side in arguments, was married to Romero and is in the opening television studio sequences of ‘Dawn of the Dead’.
What is strongly in favour of ‘Martin’ is that it is a highly original take on well-trodden vampire mythology. Martin insists that there’s no such thing as magic, and is dismissive of Cuda’s old-fashioned attempts to control his blood-sucking urges through the use of garlic bulbs and crucifixes. If anything, the domestic arguments between younger and older generations, the staple of daytime soap operas, make the film almost too mundane in parts. This only serves to accentuate the most compelling sequences in which Martin targets his victims. This is especially true when he breaks into a middle-class home and finds more than he bargained for. The two lead performances are excellent. John Amplas (who would work with Romero again several times) is all too credible as a juvenile delinquent. At times his youthful face looks innocent, but he is just as adept at appearing demonic. It’s a clever, nuanced performance.
Both Amplas and director Romero allow viewers to make up their own minds about whether or not the film has a supernatural element to it. Black and white sequences depict Martin looking the same age being pursued by angry mobs in the past, and he claims to be over eighty years of age. He even taunts Cuda by dressing up as a vampire in a patently fake costume – Romero’s witty way of toying with his audience and poking fun at convention. But is Martin merely a fantasist? Or is Cuda right that there is an evil curse in the family? Lincoln Maazel is terrific as Martin’s nemesis. It would be easy to overplay such a part, but Maazel ensures that the religious head of the household is sincere and believable. Romero proves once again that he is a director with a keen visual flair, not least for the stunning details of everyday life in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, utilising everything at his disposal from a victory parade to a rusting iron footbridge.
On the downside, the pacing of ‘Martin’ is ponderous in parts. Sometimes, this is clearly deliberate. The relentless grappling and fumbling before Martin murders his victims is incredibly effective at making us squirm. But domestic scenes within Cuda’s home sometimes feel overblown and overwritten, testing the credibility of the narrative. This is made up for with a pulsating and dramatic final act, and clever reversals of expectation keep on coming even as the credits roll. ‘Martin’ is testament to how an impactful, thought-provoking, provocative and thoroughly entertaining film can be made on a shoestring budget so long as there is sufficient intelligence, an ambitious script and enough filmmaking talent behind it. George A Romero was an exceptionally gifted visual storyteller, and ‘Martin’, almost half a century after it was made, still commands our attention.
The restoration work which has been conducted on a 35mm print and overseen by director of photography Michael Gornick allows Romero fans to see ‘Martin’ in the best imaginable resolution. Due to the original quality of the film stock, this doesn’t mean it’s pin sharp, but it looks great in high definition and the contrast of the colours is fantastic, capturing for posterity the hazy summer of 1976. One or two sequences, such as in Cuda’s butcher’s shop, reveal a temporary drop in picture quality connected to the original print. The audio track is usually good too, except for a few sequences where there is a slight echo – the side-effect of variable sound levels when shooting entirely on location.
Although the welcome restoration of a classic movie is a selling point in itself, there are plenty of terrific extra features to delight devotees. There is an archive commentary with director George A Romero (who died in 2017), star John Amplas and visual effects artist/supporting actor Tom Savini, as well as director of photography Michael Gornick and composer Donald Rubinstein. There are new commentaries featuring Travis Crawford and Kat Ellinger. The excellent new documentary ‘Taste the Blood of Martin’, which runs to over an hour in duration, returns star Amplas and director of photography Gornick and others to the original Pittsburgh locations. As they find the places where they shot the film all those years earlier, they give their reminiscences. Composer Donald Rubinstein is separately interviewed about providing the haunting choral score that still provokes a fearful response in audiences today.
If you’ve never seen ‘Martin’ before, then this super restoration is the perfect place to start. The film is also being released on Blu-ray and in limited edition Blu-ray and 4K UHD box sets with slipcase and artwork. It’s rewarding to see the work of George A Romero outside of his career-defining zombie features finally getting the recognition it deserves. ‘Martin’ is among his greatest achievements.
Cast: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elyane Nadeau, Tom Savini Director: George A Romero Writer: George A Romero Certificate: 18 Duration: 95 mins Released by: Second Sight Films Release date: 27th March 2023 Buy ‘Martin’