On the anniversary of its release, we celebrate the legacy of George A. Romero’s unsung non-zombie classic “Martin” from 1978.
In 1976, George Romero took a break from zombie movies to make Martin, a psychological horror movie that explores vampirism. Romero’s writing and direction create an original, thought-provoking, and ambiguous vampire tale that leaves viewers wondering if the titular character is a vampire or mentally ill.
Martin Mathias (John Amplas) is a young man who travels from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh to live with his eccentric elderly cousin Cuda ( Lincoln Maazel). Cuda greets Martin with hostility and believes he is a vampire. Cuda ineffectively tries to repel Martin with religious imagery and exorcism. However, Cuda’s granddaughter, Christina (Christine Forrest), treats Martin like a human being and tries to reason with Cuda.
While Martin does prey on women and drinks their blood, a number of details leave the character’s true nature up to interpretation.
Martin has no supernatural abilities; he doesn’t even have fangs. He subdues his victims with a sedative and cuts them open with razor blades. Throughout the movie, flashback shots in black and white show Martin stalking people during a different time period.
Romero originally conceived Martin as a more traditional vampire movie. The titular character was older in the original story, which was supposed to be filmed in black and white.
According to Romero, the idea for the movie came about in a casual way. He initially saw it as a humorous concept— a vampire struggling to fit into society today, unable to attract much attention or cause fear. 1
As Romero worked on this concept, the story took another direction.
“The family bread has pretty much been used up. About forty years ago, he finally sold off the castle. He’s now living in a place like New York, and when he comes out at night, he’s forced to do things like run numbers and deal dope just to survive, aside from his drinking habits!” Romero said. 2
To further develop his vampire tale, Romero researched true murder cases.
One was a series of vampiric murders in which the killer drank the blood of his victims from ceremonial goblets. He researched vampire lore and came across the story of a group of thieves who lived in a seaside cave in Scotland during the 14th century. After breeding within their own clan for 35 years, they began to preserve and consume the remains of their victims.
“I wound up with so many thoughts and so many directions to go that got really confused and sort of became Martin,” he says. “I didn’t know whether I wanted my character to be a vampire or just think he was a vampire.” 3
Romero’s work is often interpreted as multi-layered, often conveying a powerful message about society.
‘‘I’ve never meant to preach anything. Those things have been, in my mind anyway, sort of self-given facts that we have all been talking about for years. There aren’t any real new thoughts, certainly no solutions, and not even any new questions in my films, with the exception of maybe Martin, which is much more personal,” Romero said. 4
Martin’s internal struggle showcases the power of societal conditioning and its impact on an individual’s psyche.
As he navigates his coming-of-age journey, Martin is torn between accepting his family’s old beliefs of vampirism and questioning their validity.
Although, according to Cuda, vampirism runs in the family, Christina holds the belief that mental illness does. It is possible that Martin’s own struggles with mental illness make him more susceptible to his family’s superstitions, ultimately leading him to believe that he must stalk women and drink their blood. His actions suggest that he has been conditioned to believe that he is a vampire and that the only way to satisfy his “thirst” is to harm others.
However, Martin’s method of killing suggests that he may also have his own moral boundaries, as he prefers to let his victims sleep in order to minimize their pain.
It’s clear that the underlying theme of Martin’s story is that society and its beliefs have the power to turn individuals into monsters, and Martin is a prime example of this.
The movie was released in 1976 during a period defined by social awareness and consciousness. Much like the present day, this era was marked by widespread protest, the demand for equality, and a rejection of traditional values and institutions.
The characters of Cuda and his granddaughter embody these opposing beliefs, with Martin serving as a bridge between them.
Though Martin presents as a modern young man, he still identifies with traditional vampire lore, even telling Christina that he’s 84 years old. Cuda, however, remains rooted in his beliefs and continues to view Martin as a creature of the night, despite his protestations to the contrary.
Style-wise, the film is simple and straightforward.
The backdrop of the film is far removed from a grand and elegant castle in the Carpathians.
Romero shot the film in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburg. Martin’s family is not aristocratic but working class. Cuda owns a grocery and butcher shop, and Martin is employed as a delivery person. He’s not elegant or sophisticated. He’s a socially awkward outsider who’s been convinced he’s a demon-possessed vampire. Martin doesn’t draw admiration or incite lust but is treated with disdain and pity.
As far as effects, there is a painful close-up of realistic razor cuts, but that’s it. Since Martin doesn’t present as a typical vampire of fiction and folklore, there are no elaborate effects.
Lincoln Maazal and John Amplas both deliver exceptional performances in their respective roles. With little dialogue, Amplas succeeds in evoking sympathy for his character — even though the film opens with him assaulting a woman.
Lincoln Maazal, as Cuda, succeeds in creating more sympathy for Martin. He holds nothing back as he spews outright hatred and disdain for his cousin.
John Amplas, an actor from Pittsburgh, played the role of Philemon in a play about a Christian disciple who faced persecution from the Romans. Amplas had been involved in theater from a young age and impressed Romero with his natural talent. Romero believed Amplas possessed qualities that were perfect for the character of Martin, a role initially intended for an older character.
The character ultimately evolved into a shy, alienated young man who commits murders and drinks the blood of his victims, making him a vampire. However, it is unclear whether Martin is a supernatural being or a tragic victim of too many horror movies and an Old World family that is steeped in the occult. 5
Romero included family members and friends in the cast and crew.
Christine Forrest, who plays Martin’s only ally in the family, Christina, was Romero’s girlfriend and later wife. Her boyfriend, Arthur, is played by makeup and special effects artist Tom Savini. Romero himself appears in the film as a young priest.
Romero tailored the roles of many characters to specific actors he had in mind, just as he did with Martin for John Amplas and Christina for Christine Forrest.
Lincoln Maazel, the father of renowned conductor Loren Maazel, had already acted in a 1975 short film called The Amusement Park, a stylized drama on old age that Romero had directed. Elyane Nadeau, who played Mrs. Santini, was introduced to Romero by Ben Barenholtz, the distributor of Martin, and at the time, shared a New York office with Richard Rubinstein.
Chris Romero said, “From an actor’s perspective, Martin was terrific because it was thrilling and a little nerve-wracking since we had to complete most scenes in only one or two takes.” 6
Martin is the ultimate social misfit — unwanted at home and out of place in society. Told he is a vampire possessed by a demonic force by his family, Martin grows to question their belief.
Romero constructs a narrative that leaves the viewer to question if Martin is a mythological being or a mentally ill young man whose crimes are inspired by the superstitions his family believes are reality.
George Romero’s Martin is an original vampire story with timeless themes still relevant today.