[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
“All aboard!” cries a voice at the opening of Martin and, as in The Crazies, George Romero’s fast cutting draws us in and pushes us forward on this crazy train ride. In Martin Romero uses closeup detail—more of objects than of people—to create a pattern of images, seemingly disparate but forming (as in Nicolas Roeg’s films) a unified impression of a single mythic event. This jarring joining-together of apparently incidental details creates a disorienting, genuinely threatening atmosphere, even while Romero’s modern vampire tale unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek. Martin demonstrates once again that Romero is a comic-book film stylist of the first order, with a riveting command of color and a knack for the comic juxtaposition of Old World Gothic horror with 20th-century American plasticity. The first thing we see teenaged Martin Matthias (John Amplas) do is murder a woman and drink her blood; yet Romero manages to get us on the boy’s side and keep us there throughout his battle with an elderly relation intent on destroying the nosferatu that has come to live in his house. In the train murder Romero puts us off guard with his emphasis on Martin’s clinical procedure: a hypodermic syringe of sedative, to keep the victim calm; a sterile razor blade, not teeth, to open the veins; the sexual aspect of a process we at first take to be rape heightened by the boy’s nudity, which is more utilitarian than sensual, a safeguard against bloodstained clothes.
The question remains open whether Martin actually is a vampire who uses modern methods, or a self-deluded psychopath; and the question is really moot, for the conceit of the film is to propose the 19th-century vampire as the 20th-century psycho. Martin’s function, among other things, is to dispel the old myths. “It isn’t magic,” he says, defying his old relative Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) by biting into garlic and touching a crucifix. “Things only seem to be magic. There’s no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.” Just how empty the world is of magic is exemplified in the remarkable sequence in which Martin stakes out a proposed victim, watches her bid her husband farewell (he’s leaving on a business trip), then enters her house late at night only to find her in bed with a lover. How much the scenario has changed since the lone, diaphanous-robed victims of the 19th century! “You’re not supposed to be here!” Martin stammers, his whole plan thrown off. And, after confining his activities to the rich side of town, Martin suddenly sets upon a pair of skid row winos, clubbing them and drinking their blood; we are invited to ask, “How low can a guy get?” It is as if Martin himself has sunk to the gutter.
But if the vampire is the 20th-century psycho, he finds his psychiatrist in a radio talkshow host, who first appears in voiceover dialogue with Martin, saying things that sound like a shrink’s simultaneously encouraging and condescending comments. Martin tells him what it’s really like to be a vampire and the talkshow guy, never aware he’s got hold of the real thing, just encourages this kook and watches the ratings rise. Among the things Martin tells his radio listeners is that those who pursue vampires are crazy. Cuda is really crazier than Martin, just as the crowd of torch-carrying peasants in Martin’s Universal Studios-inspired 19th-century flashback/fantasy is crazy. Those peasants are compared in montage with 20th-century policemen, with their whirling lights and piercing flashlights—both groups seen as furies too quick to condemn and destroy. The indiscriminate gunfire of the policemen who corner a knot of drug-stealers in a warehouse where, coincidentally, Martin has stopped to change clothes after his bloody episode with the winos, underscores the essential craziness of what passes for law and order in 20th-century civilization (and, incidentally, points the way toward the opening sequence of Dawn of the Dead). Martin alone escapes the bloody shootout, a sane vampire in a world gone mad. The vampire has been a figure of inversion and chaos in more than 200 years of mythic literature; but there are rules and regulations to vampire behavior, as Martin patiently explains to the talkshow host (“First of all, it doesn’t happen every night. Those movies are crazy.”). And, as always in the world of George Romero, the forces of order are no better—and far less orderly—than those of chaos.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Screenplay, direction, and editing: George A. Romero. Cinematography: Michael Gornick. Music: Donald Rubinstein.
The players: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elyane Nadeau, Tom Savini, Sarah Venable, Fran Middleton, Al Levitsky, George A. Romero.