Martin: George Romero’s Teen Vampire Movie is One of His Best

We look back at George Romero’s take on the teen vampire phenomenon, the nearly forgotten Martin.

Sure does seem there’s a lotta them teen vampires hanging around these days. I thought that crew on Buffy would’ve been more than enough to hold us, but they just kept coming. In recent years we’ve had to deal with the lot on Vampire DiariesTrue Blood, the Twilight movies, Vampire Academy, and lord knows else.

Turn around too slow, you’ll bump into another one. Damn kids and their vampirism, always cutting across my lawn like that. Ain’t bad enough there, they’re always so well dressed and good looking and angst-ridden, too. Sic my dog Deke here on ‘em one of these days, he’ll show ‘em what angst-ridden really means.

Hell, I even had an editor once who made me change the title of a novel because she said people would mistake it for some more of that teen vampire crap. Of course if they had mistaken it for more teen vampire crap I probably would’ve sold a lot more copies, but she didn’t see the logic and marketing genius in this.

Anyway, long before any of these new-fangled pimply-faced bloodsuckers started hanging around, almost forty years back now, there was Martin.

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Martin was not hip. He was not popular. He wasn’t good looking and he didn’t dress in all the latest cool designer teen vampire fashions. He wasn’t slim and his hair was nothing to write home about. He wasn’t followed around by a soundtrack consisting of moody, sensitive hits from all the hottest young bands of the day. Poor kid didn’t even have fangs.

Sure did have a lotta angst, though, gotta give him that. He was a quiet, pathologically shy and possibly deranged schlubby geek who had trouble talking to girls. In short, he was a Goth kid who didn’t know he was a Goth kid and didn’t want to be a Goth kid anyway.  Part of his problem might well be that there’s some question whether or not he really was a vampire. Maybe if he’d played it up a little more, that whole “vampire” thing, he might’ve had a little more luck.  But I’ll leave that hanging there.

Between The Crazies and Dawn of the Dead, George Romero, the undisputed Pope of Zombie Pictures made this sad, gritty, melancholy little character study disguised as a vampire film. Now who wants to hear that, right? Who the hell wants a goddamn character study about some mopey loser from George Romero? Still, love the zombie films as I do (those first three, anyway), I gotta admit this quiet human drama that may or may not be about a schlubby teen vampire is the best, most intelligent, and thoughtful film he ever made.

The plot is simple. After his mother commits suicide, Martin (John Amplas, in his screen debut) is dumped on a train and sent to live with his great uncle in a small, rusty industrial town outside Pittsburgh. The first quiet whisper that something might be a little bit off here comes when Martin injects a woman on the train with a sedative, assaults her, then cuts her wrists before quietly returning to his seat. Weird thing is, he does it all so gently and with so much care you almost have sympathy for him.

Once Martin’s train arrives and we meet his great uncle Cuda, a shopkeeper from “The Old Country” who still clings tightly to Old Country ways, then you definitely have sympathy for him. 

See, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel, father of conductor Loren Maazel, in his last film) isn’t exactly the warm and welcoming sort. Thanks to long-held fears of a family curse, he’s convinced Martin is a vampire and makes no bones about it. He fills the house with garlic and crucifixes, and lays out a strict set of rules. Martin is not to speak unless spoken to, he’s not to feed on anyone in the town, and he’s forbidden from talking to his cousin Christina (Romero’s future wife Christine Forrest).

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Then almost as an afterthought Cuda informs Martin he has every intention of destroying him, thus ridding the family of one more vampire. With all that taken care of, the next day Martin goes to work as a delivery boy at Cuda’s store.

Through a series of stylized flashbacks we learn this is how Martin has been treated by his family his entire life, even though he didn’t seem to have any of the traditional vampiric attributes. Well, if everyone tells you you’re an asshole every day for years on end, the time might come when you actually start believing it yourself. Same with vampirism, I guess.

I’ll tell you, though, life ain’t easy when you’re a clumsy, awkward, geeky vampire with no special powers, and things don’t go particularly well in the new town. In many ways it’s reminiscent of The Boy With Green Hair in that it’s a case history of a complete outsider. Even though Martin does manage to make a friend or two, it’s not long before things start to get a little bloody.

The film went through myriad changes beginning long before it was even cast. In Romero’s original script, Martin was an older (and real) vampire trying to get along in the modern world, but that changed after he decided to cast Amplas in the lead. He wanted to shoot the film in black and white, but the producers had other ideas. As things stand, only the flashbacks remain in black and white, which is probably for the best.

Initially, there was also an awful lot of narration throughout the film, but in the end it was decided Amplas’ performance, even though he speaks very little onscreen, was strong enough to carry the story. Finally and sadly, Martin originally ran close to three hours, but after it was edited, that first long director’s cut was lost, apparently forever.

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Still, though, it remains Romero’s most textured film, much of it due to the fact that it was shot on 16mm on location in and around Braddock, PA, while the rest of the town went about its usual daily business. He cast a lot of locals (along with the usual array of friends, family, and friends of family), and grabbed shots of local color as they made themselves apparent, from parades to burned-out churches to screaming drunks.  

Funny thing is, as down to earth and human and non-supernatural as most of the film is, it’s also Romero’s most self-consciously artistic and stylized (prior to Creepshow anyway). Here he takes a few mighty leaps away from the documentary style that marked both NOTLD and The Crazies to play around with camera angles and edits and color and those dreamy flashbacks and, oh boy, maybe the best shock cut ending ever. 

What really holds everything together and sells the picture, though, are the performances, especially from Amplas and Maazel. As crazy as both their characters may or may not be, they play it low-key and solid enough, with enough simple, believable realism, that both eventually become sympathetic. Even the non-professionals here are great, and Romero himself is surprisingly good in an extended cameo as a new young priest in town, offering his kudos in a direct reference to The Exorcist moments before the film cuts to  a satire of an exorcism.

As for the question of whether Martin really is a vampire or just another fucked up kid with a lousy childhood and a taste for blood, Romero goes to great lengths to fog the issue, offering evidence for both conclusions. At times Martin vehemently insists he’s not a vampire, but later when he starts phoning a local late-night call in show, he insists he is. Sometimes he messes with Cuda’s head just to pull the rug out, then turns around and tells his cousin Christina he’s 84 years old. Even the flashbacks tell different stories, and it’s never made clear if we’re seeing Martin’s memories, or Cuda’s, or fantasies, or just recollections of old films. So it’s up to you.

There’s a lot in Martin that hearkens back to earlier films (I’m thinking specifically of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and the great Dwight Frye in 1933’s The Vampire Bat), but in contemporary terms it remains both a completely unique and important addition to the teen vampire genre, and one that’s sadly never given enough credit. Nope, you sure don’t see kids like Martin around anymore. Not in the movies or TV you don’t.  Boy, I’ll tell you though, them damn kids today!

Rating:

4.5 out of 5