FANTASIA OBSCURA: The George A. Romero Film That He, Himself, Was Most Proud Of

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, the old ways are stubborn and refuse to make way for the new…

Martin (1978)

Distributed by: Laurel Distribution

Directed by: George A. Romero

George A. Romero, the man behind the modern… vampire?

Yes, we’re all familiar with his work with zombies. His epitaphs since his death on July 17th all turned first and foremost to his classic Night of the Living Dead, and rightfully so. Most writer/directors would be happy to have at least that on their CV, thankful that no matter what else they came up with, that there was this to point to.

Romero, however, had a lot more than that just that film he could proudly claim.

Martin opens with a train picking up passengers in Indianapolis, heading east. A woman on the train (Francine Middleton, in her last role) turns in for the night in her sleeper cabin, while a man in the dining car, Martin (John Amplas), bides his time. Ultimately, he chooses his moment, then picks the lock to her cabin and assaults her with a hypodermic needle, injecting her with a narcotic.

He then proceeds to sexually assault her, then slits her arm with a razor blade to drink her blood. While this crime unfolds, the opening credits flash on the screen with the cast and crew; we don’t have the option of turning away, which sets the tone for the movie, announcing an unflinching look at someone who drinks blood as he kills.

One such word used to describe such blood drinkers is Nosferatu, which is what Martin is called by his grand-uncle Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel, in his only theatrical appearance). He’s there to meet him at the train station in Pittsburgh to take him to the suburb Braddock in an arrangement that’s made clear as he berates his charge: With his guardians in Indiana dead, Martin is now his responsibility.

He has to live by Cuda’s rules, which includes no feasting on the folks of the town, staying in the bedroom he placed in the widow’s walk at the top of the house, and no talking to his cousin Christine (Christine Forrest) who lives under his roof as well.

It’s not a great arrangement for anyone. Before Martin gets a chance to get comfortable, Cuda confronts him with hanging bulbs of garlic and a crucifix. Cuda comes across as far scarier than our vampire, while an unaffected Martin in frustration tells him he’s wasting his time.

Adding to the discomfort is the palpable tension between Cuda and Christine’s boyfriend, Arthur (Tom Savini, who was also doing makeup effects for the first time in his career for the film). He insists to everyone that there’s nothing left in Braddock and that he has to move elsewhere and, by implication, take Christine with him.

Soon, Martin starts working for Cuda in his butcher shop, running deliveries to customers’ homes. One of these is to the bored housewife Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau, in her only role), who tries to seduce Martin but is unsuccessful at first due to Martin’s awkwardness.

We watch Martin roll on through the film, a clash of neuroses, socially awkward as he tries to function despite his need to drink blood. About the only real vampiric power he seems to possess as we understand such things is his age, which he claims is 86, and when he tells Christine, she just assumes that he’s been driven mad by Cuda’s superstitious ranting.

Everything else Martin does, his mad breaking and entering skills and his ability to unload about his condition on the air to radio call-in host Barry (Michael Gornick, here in his debut as both voice talent and cinematographer) without getting caught by the police, could just as easily be chalked up to luck as it could to the Dark Arts.

One ability that has often been associated with vampires (especially in the classic Nosferatu) is the close association with decay and the wasting from disease. Here, that seems reversed, as Martin is seen trying to make his way through a community that’s dying on its own.

The suburb of Braddock, where the film is proudly set, was losing 35% of its population from 1970 to 1980, the decade in which the film was shot; we see evidence of this in copious amounts of scattered rubbish, abandoned homes, and burned out buildings in nearly every shot.

The effects of the abandonment of the Rust Belt, just beginning as the film was lensed, can be seen first-hand here, an artifact of the beginning of our moving away from an industrial economy. (The community would lose a further 50% of its population between the time the film was released and the census of 2010.)

We’re not entirely too sure ourselves as we look on if Martin’s of the undead or just on the spectrum. He has visions, shot in black and white, that may be him in the old country living the lush romantic life of a Romance-era vampire… or they may be his delusions.

It’s Romero’s ability to get into the head of what is potentially an unreliable POV character that keeps us guessing and is part of the genius of the film; the fact that Amplas gives us a performance that could suggest both interpretations simultaneously aids in posing questions we cannot answer even after the film finishes.

Speaking of performances, as noted above, much of the crew behind the film had roles as actors on screen as well. Romero himself was no exception; he plays Father Howard, the priest at St. Vincent’s, Cuda’s church which burned down before the story started. He holds mass in a dilapidated room with folding chairs while the church is waiting to rebuild, while his character when asked later about old Catholic rites to banish demons shows he doesn’t take direct calls for His intervention very seriously.

Romero’s Father Frank embodies the themes of the film, the way old traditions endure even when at odds with the world around it, and how such things as our darkest drives can flourish because we cannot grasp or even conceptualize them.

And it’s this that makes Martin such a potent film in its own right, that it gives us something horrific that doesn’t need the dark to thrive. It shows us that such horrors can exist alongside us, how they exist, even live in our homes, and we would not, cannot, see it.

Speaking of thriving, while Martin did not lead to a series of vampire properties inspired by it the way Night of the Living Dead spawned the wait for the Zombiepocalypse, it was a fruitful film in its own right. Romero and his crew, particularly Savini and Gornick, would keep working together behind the lens for years afterwards.

And the releasing company that came into being to get the film into theaters, Laurel, would go on to bring about the film Creepshow and its sequel, and the TV series Tales from the Darkside and the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand.

Romero would claim in later interviews that of all his films, Martin was his favorite. It certainly deserves our extensive consideration as we remember Romero. This film, which was closest to his heart, would certainly serve as the best testament to where he came from and what he stood for, as we come to appreciate Romero’s legacy in full.

NEXT TIME: We meet a heroine that would say yes if you asked her to join the “parsec high club” ifyouknowwhatImean…

About James Ryan 113 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…