With Night of the Living Dead (1968), George A. Romero rejuvenated the horror genre by reinventing the now iconic figure of the zombie in popular culture. His 1978 film Martin – a realistic interpretation of the vampire mythology – was released right before the director would deliver his epic zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (1978), which would forever cement his reputation as the master of that sub-genre. This thought provoking and emotional spin on the legend of the vampire is creatively refreshing, and firmly stamps Romero’s auteur signature on the modern horror film.

Martin is a portrayal of a misunderstood, lonely young man, his fight with inner demons due to a vampiric lust, and conflicts with his family due to the dark history that surrounds them. Romero approaches the material of his own screenplay seriously, creating a bleak and disturbing dramatic tale that is handled with much pathos, and is touchingly humorous in places.

The film opens with Martin Mathias (John Amplas) boarding a sleeping car train to Braddock, Pittsburgh, spotting a young woman traveling alone whom he then follows to see where her compartment is. That night he prepares a syringe and, after he picks the lock of her private room door, we see before he enters the first of many black and white flashbacks, which Romero sprinkles throughout the course of the proceedings. These depict the romanticism of Martin’s vampiric seductions of beautiful women, and his confrontations with crucifix and torch bearing mobs in the 1900s. However, these flashbacks are never acknowledged and are thus left to interpretation, with the audience never knowing if they are memories of past events, or Martin’s visions concerning his addiction for human blood and his worries of being caught.

When Martin enters the room, during a struggle, he injects the attractive young woman with some kind of sedative and, when the frantic wrestling is over, he shows sympathy towards his victim by ensuring her that “I’m always very careful with the needles. It won’t hurt. It’s just to make you sleep”. When she is finally unconscious, he takes off his clothes, puts a razor to one side, lays her out on the bed, and strips her naked as well. He kisses her gently all over, and then lies next to her, raising her arm high. Martin takes the razor from the bedside and slits the woman’s wrist. As her blood drips all over his chest, he brings her arm to his mouth, feeding from her wound and kissing her. Cleaning up, he wipes away all evidence of his fingerprints and makes her murder look like suicide.

This opening sequence establishes Martin’s reluctant nature in his murderous acts. It shows he does not want to commit them, but is forced to out of a need to survive; he makes sure that his victim’s pain and suffering is as minimal as possible in order to fulfil his need to feed. Amplas’ character is a tragic figure that the audience can relate to on a personal level, drawing our sympathies, and is one of the most endearing and heart-warming performances ever in horror cinema; it is a truly convincing and fascinating turn by the lead.

Arriving at his destination, Martin is met by his patriarchal uncle, Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an elderly superstitious and religious Catholic grocery shop owner. He has reluctantly given Martin room and board, and he is his only living relative, as another who was taking care of Martin in Indianapolis has just died. Referring to Martin as Nosferatu, which emphasizes his European archaic views, Cuda warns Martin that if he murders anyone he will be killed himself. Cuda tries with strong belief to repel him with the use of a crucifix and garlic bulbs hung around the house, which Martin mocks with bitter distaste. He displays their ineffectual powers as a defence against him by eating the garlic and grabbing the crucifix from Cuda. Of course, sunlight has no effect on him either, and he can eat food like anyone else other than his intake of blood.

Also staying in Cuda’s house is Martin’s cousin Cristina, played by Christine Forrest (the future wife of Romero). She shows sympathy towards Martin and everything he has gone through, with their family’s belief in a curse of vampirism through their generations. Although, she does not know of his dark secret of partaking in the act of blood feeding and murder. Christina longs to get away from her drab existence in Braddock, and away from the gobbledygook of Cuda’s superstitions. Her boyfriend Arthur, played by SFX maestro Tom Savini in his debut collaboration with Romero, is a shipyard mechanic who dreams of leaving the dull town as well. As with the majority of the filmmaker’s body of work, Romero’s sharp observational skills inject some of the usual social commentary of the times; here it is a subtext of economic depression with a depiction of the struggling suburban town’s residents’ downtrodden lives in the time of stagflation.

During his stay, Martin finds an outlet to release his frustrations by seeking advice from a local radio DJ, who nicknames him “The Count”. Martin details to him his desires and yearnings to seduce beautiful women and feed off their blood. While feeding on criminals to satisfy his blood lust, he still focuses on attractive women, and this includes one of Romero’s greatest set-pieces, depicting the stalking and eventual murders of a cheating housewife and her lover. Executed with pitch perfect pacing, and featuring inspired shots and editing, this is supremely intense stuff.

While working in Cuda’s store, Martin delivers groceries to Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau). She is bored with her solitary household life and is sad and lonely, and is damaged in her own way. Desperate for communication with somebody, that somebody is Martin; she starts an affair with him that is a normal one without bloodletting, but it ends in tragedy, and ironically relates to the opening sequence.

Shot on a low budget of $800,000, filmed with 16mm cameras entirely on locations in Braddock, Martin is a dark and sad tale expertly told by its writer and director. A downbeat tone, Romero’s visuals have a documentary aesthetic throughout. With the stunning and haunting jazz score composed by Donald Rubinstein, which generates the morose atmosphere to supplement the themes of dreaded loneliness, Martin is a cinematic experience impossible to ignore.

It is a very different kettle of fish to the traditional vampire film, using the sub-genre’s clichés to parody them. This includes a scene that is a silent film homage, in which Martin plays a prank on Cuda. One night when Cuda is walking alone, Martin appears from the mist wearing a long black cape; he is caked in white make-up to make his skin look pale, and is sporting fake vampire fangs. He corners his great uncle in a children’s playground, and reveals to him his appearance to be just a costume, again mocking Cuda. All the while Rubinstein’s silent film style soundtrack is playing. Another mocking of Cuda’s beliefs comes in a scene between him and the local priest, Father Howard, played by Romero, who cares little for Cuda’s old ways, and is very much of the New Testament interpretation of Catholicism.

Martin is about vampirism, but Romero concentrates on the human psychological effects of what makes evil rather than using the supernatural elements that go hand in hand with the idea of the vampire. The film asks the question: is Martin a vampire? We know that crucifixes, garlic, and sunlight will not hurt him, he does not need an invitation to enter people’s homes, and there are no fangs in sight. There are the flashbacks to events long ago, and Martin believes he is 84 years old. I believe these to be Gothic romantic fantasies relating to how vampirism is usually depicted in popular culture, coupled with Martin’s fears of being caught. He is a disturbed young man corrupted by the superstitions of his family’s extreme beliefs, which have convinced him he is indeed a vampire. Martin has thus developed a sickness because of this, which manifests as the compulsion to feed on human blood; he honestly believes he needs to drink human blood in order to carry on living.

I interpret an underlying message about the harmful impact of psychological and emotional scarring our families can inflict upon us, with the potential of damaging our mental health in our later adult years. Romero leaves everything open ended in a startling conclusion, and it is left up to the audience to interpret it for themselves.

Martin is a masterpiece, a vampiric character study masterpiece that is without a doubt Romero’s greatest  work outside of his zombie cinema. It is a striking film made by one of the horror genre’s most important filmmakers. The late, great George A. Romero was a writer and director who was bold, brave, and immensely innovative. Criminally underrated, this is a must see for any horror aficionado, and for anyone who has a passionate interest in celluloid art. A truly astonishing piece of work.