Before M. Night Shyamalan, George Romero was the filmmaker from Pennsylvania that you had to know. Braddock, Pennsylvania plays a large part in Martin, Romero’s low-budget film about a young man who believes he is a vampire and goes on a killing spree to satisfy his literal bloodlust. It is a town of many abandoned buildings, yet it also is a relatively small community where everyone is up in everyone’s business. The gossiping ladies that frequent Tateh Cuda’s (Lincoln Maazel) store could not care less that Cuda is a fervent Catholic and self-appointed Van Helsing to his cousin Martin (John Amplas), who is a good thirty years younger than Cuda, but of course vampires don’t age, if Martin is truly a vampire.
Clearly Braddock is a far cry from the Gothic castles of Transylvania or even in the French Quarter in New Orleans, but Martin is also a far cry from a vampire. Played with a nervous, wiry energy by Amplas, Martin is a desperate soul looking for connection but doesn’t really know how to. We see him attack a woman on a train in a clumsy, desperate struggle, which Martin only wins because he managed to inject her with a sedative. He apologizes constantly, beseeching her to not scream while the woman rightfully hurls abuses at him. When he finally cuts her arms with a razor and drinks her blood, we don’t see a satisfied look on his face. This is somewhat surprising considering how before the attack, we see him preparing with an attention akin to foreplay. There are multiple, lingering closeups of the needle and also the actual penetration. Yet no orgasmic climax.
It becomes clear that Martin’s vampirism, literal and figurative, is tied up with his anxiety about sex. Even though he goes so far as to strip his (almost) exclusively female victims, he himself says that he has been “much too shy to do the sexy stuff.” Martin’s neurosis extends to intimacy in general. He is close to no one for much of the film, and in fact, the only person he confides in is a radio DJ who broadcasts their calls on the radio. On the surface, this relationship makes no sense, but since the DJ clearly believes Martin is putting him on, it gives Martin license to be truthful, providing some, if not complete, catharsis.
There is a small glimmer of hope for Martin when he enters a relationship with a depressed widow named Abbie (Elayne Nadeau). He admits as much to the radio DJ that his blood lust is lessened after having sex with her. Yet Martin doesn’t trust himself enough to let his blood lust go unsatisfied for so long and he goes on a killing spree. Martin is such a victim of his own insecurities and neuroses that even when he does objectively horrible crimes, it can be difficult to absorb the enormity of his actions. Some critics have seen Martin and his story as an allegory for a closeted gay man struggling to come out of the closet (while conveniently forgetting his attraction to women). It is clear that whatever Martin is struggling goes far beyond any easily diagnosable problem.
Perhaps Martin’s problems come from something beyond his control. We see occasional scenes in black and white that seem to hint at Martin’s past life as an octogenarian vampire. These scenes are highly stylized and seem taken from old horror movies. Perhaps Martin is implanting himself in his memories of the old movies that he would watch to pass the time as a child, alone. A challenge to the fictionality of Martin’s vampirism is his “cousin” Cuda, who seems just as invested in the story that Martin is a vampire as Martin is, perhaps even more so. He allows Martin to live with him in Braddock, despite thinking he is a vampire. Maybe he wants to keep his enemies close as the proverb goes. Yet Cuda’s granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest), who lives with them, thinks Martin is just troubled and needs psychiatric help. Cuda is the only character coded as an immigrant, and strangely, his belief in Martin as a vampire gives him a tie to his homeland and an increasingly tenuous grasp on his heritage. It also hints at the idea that the madness that Martin experiences is perhaps genetic and that his vampirism may be an example of family trauma.
Martin sounds like a depressing movie, but it is also quirky and surprisingly funny. The radio DJ’s opportunistic dialogue with Martin provides a blunt, but funny counterpoint to Martin’s self-pity. The decidedly unromantic characters of the neighborhood, such as the ladies who frequent Cuda’s store, poke holes in Cuda’s self-importance and sense of great purpose, since he is after all a grocery store owner and not the Van Helsing he claims to be. Even Martin’s killings are funny in their patheticness. As a horror director, Romero has a well-deserved reputation for creating indelible images of terror that have profoundly influenced not just horror cinema but American culture as a whole. But Romero’s films often have a sharp, satirical edge to them such as Dawn of the Dead, which pokes fun at American consumerism. Here, Romero blends genres to make a movie that is strange not just in American mainstream cinema at this time, but even genre cinema, which was wildly creative at this time as well.
That being said, the character of Martin isn’t exactly in contrast to characters in 70’s American cinema. Antiheroes were all the rage during that time, especially ones that acted on their anger against authority with violence. Yet, Martin is unique because of how reluctant he is to even be an antihero. More than a vampire movie, Martin is essentially a serial killer movie. There are plenty of the traditional marks for a serial killer movie, such as the exploration of how trauma caused the killer to become the way he does and the obsession with the process of killing as much as the actual killing itself. But Romero and Amplas created such a striking character in such a low-budget movie (the lady who owned the house where much of the movie was filmed cooked dinner for the 15 person crew every night) that Martin still defies easy definition. It takes tropes from both horror and slasher movies and cooks them into a quirky, character drama with a deeply weird yet compelling protagonist. Quirky indie movies that dabble in horror can only attempt to be as memorable and striking as Martin still is after all these decades.