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February 4, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #5 - George A. Romero's Martin

A couple of hours ago, I had a much different plan for what would be Midnight Movie of the Week #5. It was then that I was informed that February 4th happens to be the birthday of George A. Romero, one of the most important filmmakers in horror history. Shunning originality, I shifted my focus to the story the horror fan world revolves around today - celebrating the man who made zombies happen.

That said, I picked his vampire film Martin as my focus because, quite frankly, the (Living) Dead movies are the first thing everyone thinks of when it comes to Romero. Sure, some point out his first big studio gig Creepshow or his soon-to-be-remade The Crazies (which I'll be seeing for the first time soon!), but his series of zombie flicks make up more than a third of his feature filmography, and the original trilogy are considered among the most influential horror films of all time (though I still don't get Day of the Dead's appeal). But it's Romero's vampire drama that is most often ranked next to his first two Dead films in critical circles, and rightfully so.

At first glance, Martin (played by John Amplas) seems to be little more than a pale and shy fellow. But, our second glance of Martin shows him attempting to drug and rape a single woman on a train - and the third glance we get is of him slitting her wrist to drink her blood. It's an extremely difficult opening scene to watch, and sets the tone for some entirely brutal moments throughout the rest of the film. But it also gets an idea in the viewer's head, and Martin's cousin Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel in a meaty role) soon utters the words we were starting to consider. Nosferatu. Vampire.

Arriving in Romero's hometown of Pittsburgh to live with Cuda, Martin struggles through adjusting to everyday life as a delivery boy for his older cousin and a new friend to his younger cousin Christina (played by Romero's wife, Christine Forrest). In his free time he calls all-night radio shows to talk about his vampire life as The Count, and hunts for food among the lonely housewives he delivers supplies to.

Martin is certainly not Hollywood's version of the vampire, despite his thirst for blood. He even shows a bit of disdain toward the cinematic perception of vampires in his radio call-ins. Sunlight, garlic, and crosses all seem to be useless in dealing with him, and his biggest weakness seems to be his social ineptitude. Cuda faces off with him as an aggressor, and the steps he takes to try and expose Martin's curse make it clear that he too has seen the classic visions of the vampire. Not much Cuda does (including calling in a priest played by Romero himself) has an effect on Martin, but but Martin has his own problems - primarily that thirst. As he continues to experience the people in his community and mature as a young man, he finds taking a victim exceedingly difficult, and his thirst grows stronger by the day.

While the ideas are different than Romero's most famous films, the methodical style of Romero's work is at the forefront of the film.The film is a slow-moving character study that spends most of its time letting us experience Martin's everyday doubts and fears about his condition. Martin's vampirism is also highlighted through some fantastic black-and-white scenes that interchange with the present day setting, showing us his desire to have his curse resemble the Victorian images that movies bring to our minds. Adding in the fact that Amplas' performance gives Martin a shockingly human touch, it's clear to see that the film couldn't survive without the blurred balance between human and monster its lead character exudes.

As Martin winds to its abrupt (yet satisfying) finale, a lot of questions are raised and not necessarily answered. But the journey the viewer takes with Martin is so engaging that we're left wanting to wonder about those questions, and a sequence that runs through the end credits hammers the lasting intrigue of the character home. Martin exists as an individual who deals with the full range of human emotion, even if he may be undead, and it's easy to see why Romero recalls this fondly as his favorite film that he's made. Though I may not agree with him (I mean, Night and Dawn are pretty darn hard to beat!), I'm not gonna argue against him on his birthday. Happy Birthday, George, and thanks for Martin - this week's Midnight Movie of the Week.

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