No filmmaker’s name is more synonymous with zombies than that of the late, great George A. Romero. His cycle of Dead films, which documented the undead over several decades, helped to define the oft-maligned creature as a key vessel for contemporary concerns in the horror genre. Through the zombie, Romero seemed able to explore all manner of ideas, from racism to consumerism to the emergence of “new media.”
While Romero made many other horror films, he seldom strayed away from his beloved slow-walking flesh-eaters. Even knowing that, it’s something of a surprise that he only made one vampire film during his long and fruitful career. To his credit, it might be his magnum opus.
Released in 1978, Martin struggled to gain a foothold with critics and audiences who couldn’t see Romero as more than the zombie guy. While it had its fans, it felt too odd for its time, a languid tale of abuse that rejected most of the trappings of the subgenre it inhabited. If the Dead films were intense and fun, Martin was uncomfortable, downbeat, even cruel. Its eponymous villain is a strange young man (played by Romero regular John Amplas) who says he is an 84-year-old vampire. From the offset, this version of events is suspect, as we see Martin drug a woman on a train, slice her arm with a razorblade, then drink from her before letting her bleed to death. Perhaps he is a new kind of vampire. Or maybe he’s just another serial killer who hates women.
Filmmakers tend to swing between the two sensual extremes of vampires, making them either soulless monsters or swooning hunks. By 1977, the predominant image of the vampire on-screen was Christopher Lee’s Dracula, the Hammer Horror villain who deliberately toyed with that seductive image and left slews of topless women in his wake as a result. Martin borrows from that tradition, with its lead imagining himself as a figure of intense allure. His delusions position him as the hero of monochromatic rewrites of reality, full of billowing curtains and damsels of consensual attraction. It’s a stark contrast from his actual modus, methodical and clinical and undeniably without approval from his victims. There is no magnetism in his awkward silence. There are hints that these visions are flashbacks to Martin’s past, which suggest a narrative where he’s the anti-hero of this tale, or even its misunderstood hero. Yet these slivers of ambiguity feel almost immediately refuted by the rest of the film.
While vampire films frequently deal with sex, it’s rare to see them so thoroughly acknowledge and explore the thematic connection between vampirism and rape. That implication has always been present in modern vampire fiction, whether it’s Dracula preying upon the naïve women of upper English society or the forced infection of the condition in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction. Romero makes the dynamic unavoidable, particularly when Martin’s florid fantasy is shown next to his predatory truth. It’s a moment that makes you rethink every other vampire film you’ve seen, forcing you to reconsider just how many of those “seduction” scenes really showed otherwise. Take away the capes and castles and stick your killer in the middle of 1970s Pittsburgh, and what changes?
In Pittsburgh, which seems especially desolate through Romero’s lens, Martin is reluctantly taken in by his elderly cousin. Cuda is a Lithuanian Catholic who treats Martin like the vampire he believes himself to be, convinced that he is the fulfilment of a decades’ long family curse. His attempts to repel Martin with garlic and crucifixes fail, leaving Martin to bitterly proclaim, “There’s no real magic… ever.” Yet he retains these tools, stuck in the old ways and unable to change. Cuda’s orphaned granddaughter, Christina, is more modern and sympathetic, believing Martin should receive professional help for mental illness. He has an affair with a clinically depressed housewife who later dies by suicide. This is a place where nobody is satisfied, where the world has failed them all and left them to rot in a crumbling town with no options. The lifelessness of this former steel city, one where buildings are left abandoned and whole generations are without jobs, makes Martin feel right at home. Where better to be lonely than a place where everyone else is?
There’s a lot of wriggle room in the vampire genre as to what actually gets to be called a vampire movie. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, for example, doesn’t feature any of the monsters but borrows so heavily from those tropes and style that it feels like a natural part of the canon. Martin is a tad more straightforward by comparison. The ways it challenges what audiences knew about vampires at the time still carries intense creative weight, enduring because vampires themselves never truly go out of style. The rot that Martin embodies spreads, not through blood infection but with the disintegrating state of a nation in flux that desperately clings to the past. Romero’s best zombie films embodied an eternal truth about humanity;it’s no wonder his sole vampire movie did so as well. Some ideas will live forever, for better or worse.
“Martin” is streaming on Tubi.