The name George Romero is synonymous with the zombie sub-genre. His first feature, Night of the Living Dead, was absolutely groundbreaking. It changed the game in a lot of ways. His sequel Dawn of the Dead was also a massive hit, one of the first zombie epics. The influence of both films can still be felt today. They were gory, smart, politically referential and totally scary. They reimagined the zombie into a monster that people had not really seen before. Yes, there was actually a time when people went to see a zombie movie and had no idea what to expect.
It might surprise people, then, to be reminded that one of the director’s best features was a vampire film. Martin was made in the ten-year hiatus between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. It’s an totally different type of horror than those two features. Romero’s zombie efforts are very political and therefore topical, Martin deals with more humanistic themes. It is a quieter, more intimate picture. But that only makes it more disturbing, not less.
Martin is a film about a young man who thinks he is a vampire. He comes from a very superstitious Romanian family. His uncle represents that more than anything else, coming off as a loony Van Helsing type. Uncle Cuda firmly believes that Martin is a vampire and even though he invites the boy into his home, he hangs garlic around the house to ward him off. Only Cuda’s daughter is sane enough to see the harm that this is doing to the boy, but is helpless to stop what’s happening.
The film deals heavily with themes of identity, and in that it feels incredibly modern. Martin is not comfortable in his own skin. Some part of him, deep down, is probably aware that he’s not a vampire. But it’s what he believes and he has been told the same all his life, so he tries to be the best vampire he can be. He’s clumsy. He doesn’t have fangs or supernatural powers, so he has to take his blood by drugging the victim and using a hypodermic needle. It’s incredibly disturbing, but that only makes it all the more effective.
John Amplas’ performance, above all else, is what really makes this film work. His sensitivity and insecurity completely sell the character. This is a monster in a constant state of fear. He’s afraid of his uncle, afraid of the world in general and afraid of himself. More than anything, it’s the character that makes this picture relevant.
Romero’s zombie features are very much made for their time period, but Martin is not. Obviously I’m not saying those movies aren’t phenomenal, but there’s something about them and the themes they explore that make them historical. If it weren’t for the wardrobe and ’70s-style camerawork, Martin would feel as if it were made today.
Unlike Night of the Living Dead, this is told through the monster’s perspective. But that monster is human. He does terrible things, but he is also the protagonist. Whether or not he is the antagonist is part of the reason why the movie still resonates. Is Martin the true monster of the piece, or is it his uncle? Or society? Like life, there are no easy answers. In this it is similar to the zombie trilogy because nothing is clear-cut and there is a wealth of gray area.
Romero is not telling us whether or not we should side with Martin, whether we should feel sorry for him or cheer for his inevitable end, like we do for Dracula. No, the director smartly believes that we can come to our own conclusions about the character and the horrific events that unfold throughout the story. It’s a relevant movie because it just feels so effortless and honest in its portrayal of a deeply troubled human being. Even after so many years and so many features in the genre, Romero considers Martin to be his best work and it’s easy to see why.