Imagine George A. Romero going to a psychic early on in his career.
“There’s good news and bad news,” she might say, gazing into her crystal ball. “Which would you like first?”
“The good news,” the Dawn of the Dead director would reply.
“You will make many movies . . .”
“That’s great! What’s the bad news?”
“The only ones people will go see all have the words ‘of the Dead’ in the title.”
That didn’t happen of course, but the fact remains that zombie king Romero has had a rough time attracting audiences for his non-Living Dead efforts. Dig deep into the Romero bargain bin, though, and there are a number of films that deserve a second look. The Crazies is a spooky thriller about a manmade combat virus that causes death and permanent insanity in those infected while Knightriders is a wild romp that can best be described as The Legend of King Arthur meets Mad Max. Best of all is Martin, an arty 1977 movie about a young man who believes he is a vampire.
The eponymous creature of the night, Martin Matthias (played by Dawn of the Dead casting director John Amplas), is a shy suburban teenager with a blood lust, but none of the usual trappings of the Nosferatu. Instead of fangs he uses razorblades and needles to do the dirty work and he isn’t averse to garlic, sunlight or crucifixes. Despite no actual proof of his undead status, he is steadfast in his conviction.
Surprisingly he’s not alone in his belief. Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an elderly old-world cousin believes that vampirism is a family “shame” and makes it his calling to save Martin’s soul by trying to arrange an exorcism with the local priest. He also takes the boy in and gives him a job at his neighborhood grocery store, but Martin can only control his cravings for so long.
Martin actually has more in common with Taxi Driver than it does with Dracula. Romero’s films have always brimmed with social commentary, but his 70s work is especially ripe with societal resonance. In Martin he filters the post-Vietnam ills of drug addiction and urban decay through the lens of a vampire film, focusing on the reasons why Martin behaves the way he does and not the behavior itself. Compared to other horror films this one barely qualifies as a shocker. There are just three violent scenes and while they are bloody, the gore is used more as a measure of Martin’s ineptness — his sloppy killing skills — than to scare.
Often labeled as horror, it’s more accurate to call Martin a psychological drama as Romero spends the entire film flirting with the question of whether Martin is really a vampire, or just a drug addict with a vivid imagination. Eerie black and white flashbacks portray him as an undead creature, but the reality is a much different story. With these black and white sequences Romero muddies the water, never settling on a definitive answer, preferring to let the viewers decide for themselves whether there are supernatural forces at work, or if this is all the product of a diseased mind.
In Romero’s world the notion that Martin might not be a vampire is scarier than if he was a certified bloodsucker. Romero uses the troubled mid-’70s and its products — drug-addicted youths, decaying cities and stultifying suburban life — as a catalyst for the kind of fantasy world Martin creates just to cope with his life. This reality, Romero seems to imply, is far more terrifying than a fanged man in a cape could ever be.
“I didn’t try to come down on one side or the other,” Romero said. “I like the lady or the tiger kind of thing. I tried to keep it ambiguous, but in my mind, he was a disturbed kid.”
Martin is dense with the kind of social subtext that Romero favors in his films. His zombie movies have been thinly veiled comments on consumerism and the media, and Martin is no less layered. On the surface it seems to be a simple story, but dig a little deeper past the garish lighting and Romero reveals a mixed bag of metaphors regarding drug addiction, mental illness and the evil that humans do to one another. It’s purposefully ambiguous. The director is asking the viewer to look inside themselves to decide what answer to Martin’s status they are comfortable with. Is he a vampire or disturbed young man? Drug addicted or mentally ill? The answer you come up with — what you chose to believe — Romero implies, says as much about you are as it does about Martin.