Horror’s most socially conscious auteur, George A. Romero, died last summer at age 77. Though legendary for his action-packed zombie trilogy, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1979), and Day of the Dead (1985), Romero claimed his personal favorite of his own films to be the lesser known, more expressive Martin, a modern-day vampire film shot in 1976 and released in 1978. Martin was a personal favorite for me too, and deeply personal for the film’s cult following. “Too disturbing, bleak, and personal to have been a financial hit, even at midnight showings,” according to Michael Weldon’s once-quintessential Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. On video in the ’80s, however, we could invite the film’s title character directly into our personal spaces, into our homes, as lore demands one do with vampires: invite them in.
Martin is horror yet it is not. To the initial disappointment of many gore-prone horror fans, it’s also kitchen sink realism and coming-of-age character study. Martin himself is a vampire yet he is not, updating and undermining vampire mythology. Viewers of the film must deliberate if dark-eyed, fresh-faced Martin is really an unworldly 84-year-old or just a disturbed 19-year-old, if his vampirism is supernatural or psychosexual and to what degrees, and if he merits compassion let alone devotion.
The ambiguity is key. Confirmation that Martin is a real vampire would reduce him to a biological impulse and abstract him into myth, allowing viewers to forgive his crimes. Instead, Romero characterizes Martin as maybe just a mixed-up teen turned blood junkie, having absorbed vampire mythology through his old-world family (vampirism is believed to be a family curse) and old Hollywood movies. No distantly lit archetype, Martin is an individual outsider in close-up with whom viewers may identify, if not pardon.
Martin is incapable of intimacy yet Martin is such an intimate experience. That sense of intimacy in Martin, and with Martin, is variously kindled. The production itself was intimate, with a small, family-vibe crew and cast of earnest friends working for the honor over the pay. Romero was newly in love with wife-to-be Christine Forrest when he wrote the script, tailoring for her the role of Martin’s cousin — just as he wrote Martin and Martin’s uncle for admired local actors John Amplas and Lincoln Maazel. First-time director of photography Michael Gornick had the advantage of turf intimacy; as a native to the post-industrial Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, his cinematic gaze borders on verite, tender and knowing. Lastly, the primary set, the house where Martin comes to live with his uncle and cousin, belonged to soundman Tony Buba’s grandmother who, altogether unacquainted with acting, felt bad for Martin the whole time.
This memory of the filming (from the Lions Gate DVD commentary) seems plausible because John Amplas’s portrayal is so naturalistic. Amplas has said in interviews how he related to Martin’s being different and isolated and “having an obsession, an addiction that he himself did not fully understand.” As shy, watchful Martin, Amplas communicates much with his eyes, often in close-up, which draws us in, aligning Martin’s gaze with ours and, perhaps, our marginalization with his. For those perennially returning to Martin, as I do when melancholy, the sense of intimacy one feels with Martin is heightened by the otherwise unjust fact that Amplas never became known for anything else. Therefore, Martin has seemed to me, and fans like me, to be mine alone. John Amplas is to Martin, one could argue, as Bud Cort is to Harold in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971). Over the years it’s become obligatory for fans and critics, and Romero himself in interviews, to swear that any other actor playing Martin is unimaginable.
So there are various reasons why Romero’s underground classic feels intimate and personal for many fans. Furthermore, viewers can deepen and illuminate their relationship to Martin, both onscreen and off, via the film’s novelization by Susanna Sparrow ( Martin, A Novel, Stein and Day, 1977), Donald Rubinstein’s experimental jazz soundtrack, Martin (Level Green, 2000) Soft Cell’s ten-minute pop song inspired by the film (The Art of Falling Apart, spectrum, 2007) and Jez Winship’s recent book-length analysis, Martin (Midnight Movie Monographs, Electric Dreamhouse, 2016).
The film’s plot sensitively twists on Martin’s doomed attempt to achieve intimacy, so no wonder we who struggle with intimacy for our own reasons lean toward him despite the reddest flags. Martin is attempting to achieve intimacy, yes, but with someone not, as per usual, unconscious and bleeding to death. Romero draws empathy for alienated Martin, victim of a toxic family, without letting us forget Martin is also a predator — a “freak rapist asshole”, as a young woman calls him while fighting for her life. She is what viewers first see when the film begins, and we see her at the train station as Martin sees her, a predator’s target.
Juxtaposition of Martin as outsider and victim versus Martin as intruder and predator generates the film’s dominant tension while resisting a simple cause-effect relationship. The train murder initiating the film gives way to Martin’s arrival the next morning in rusty Pennsylvania where he is met by Tata Cuda, a harsh patriarch from “The Old Country”. Tata Cuda believes Martin has inherited a bloodline curse of vampirism and, for sake of family name, must be strictly contained if not “destroyed”. Coming to Tata Cuda because his previous keeper, another family member, has died, Martin endures the gamut: braided garlic nailed to bedroom doors, his reflection tested in mirrors, crucifix-brandishing, an exorcism, and always the potential wooden stake. “There is no real magic,” Martin counters, dispelling vampire mythology almost pleadingly. He refers to his condition instead as a “sickness” but, still, Martin believes, indeed he tells his cousin Christina, that he is 84-years-old. A modern thinker, Christina wants him to see a psychiatrist.
Similar yet quite distinct is the juxtaposition of Martin as romantic underdog and Martin as sex criminal. In the moment before breaking into the woman’s compartment on the train, despite holding in his mouth a readied hypodermic of sodium pentothal, Martin imagines that he will enter to find the woman with her arms outstretched for him, her nightgown white. Instead she is in the tiny bathroom — a toilet flushes — and she comes out wearing a green robe and face cream. Though a cold, methodical stalker, Martin is not unbothered by his victim’s distress once caught, begging her to be quiet, to just go to sleep, promising desperately that she will feel no pain, and then simulating a bloody form of intimacy with her un-embracing dead weight. When at last he begins to explore mutual intimacy with someone, a depressed housewife named Abby Santini to whom he delivers groceries for Tata Cuda’s store, Martin is himself fated to be a victim — of circumstance.
Even if interpersonally stunted Martin could better communicate with his new lover, he could never fully confide in her. This may be why he begins anonymously calling a late night radio talk show, a sort of confessional anticipating TV talk shows a decade later. Jez Winship calls this dynamic an “illusion of intimacy”. So far as the show’s host is concerned, Martin is a ratings-boosting kook and given reign to talk vampirism, myth versus reality, and to confess his addiction cycle/kill history. As well he reveals just how naïve he is about sex by referring to it as “the sexy stuff” he is too shy to do with someone awake. He longs to “do it” with somebody “without the blood” and then “be together and talk all night”. Romero replicates the sound delay that occurs when talking on the radio via phone and so Martin’s soft words are doubled, self-echoing but distorted — and pausing for commercial breaks.
Such access to Martin’s private thoughts, set in his bedroom, recurs in the last third of the film, upping the film’s intimacy level while also triggering concern that Martin should be exposed. Will his flashback-like nightmares of a torch-carrying mob come true? Romero in interviews referred to these black-and-white sequences alternately as flashbacks or fantasies; like the radio confessions, they also permit viewers access to what Martin is thinking and feeling. We come to believe, want to believe, that Martin’s character arcs toward mental and sexual health, however imperfectly; feasibly this is the lynchpin factor allowing for fan devotion that is not necessarily apologism.
In the film’s penultimate scene, Martin follows the local school’s marching band along with other parade watchers, cinematographer Michael Gornick following with a handheld camera. Jez Winship notes this is the first time in the dying town that we see any other youth. Martin walks hands-in-pockets among them, which is easy to read as integration into society–even if his poignant meandering could never conform to a marching band.
The novelizations of Romero’s screenplays for Martin and Dawn of the Dead are credited to George A. Romero and Susanna Sparrow. The two could have written the novels together with equal input, Romero could have written them with Sparrow’s assistance or, as Jez Winship implies, Sparrow could have written them based on Romero’s scripts. I don’t know which, alas, because searches for Sparrow run dry; even the 2011 reissue of Dawn of the Dead (St. Martin’s Press) offers author’s bio for Romero only. Also curious is the Martin novel’s 1977 copyright (published by Stein and Day Books) when the film was shot in 1976 and not released until 1978. Copies of the book currently tend to go for $50 up to over $200. My $25 used copy quickly fell apart but I cherish it.
Unlike the Dawn of the Dead novel, Martin accomplishes more than play-by-play of action-driven apocalypse. Martin was already literary as an in-depth screenplay, showing “a personal curiosity” and “astute psychological underpinnings”, according to the score’s composer Donald Rubinstein (in our February 2018 personal communiqués). Romero preferred a lot to work with on the page, it seems, as in the editing room. The novel differs significantly, at any rate, to such a degree that it suggests a perspective on Martin other than Romero’s own.
The film opens at a train station, as described above, with a shot of Martin’s intended victim, postponing for only a moment our first good look at Martin himself. The novel protracts and fragments our introduction to Martin, creating a mysterious haze through which we see him. Right off he is merely an “inert form” in a narrow bed, a “slight body” and “childlike voice”. His gender is not established until four paragraphs in, as he recounts the train-compartment murder to what we don’t find out until later is a call-in to a radio talk show.
Then we are on that train, with a slip back in time and a shift in point of view, spending over five pages assessing Martin through the eyes of a character sharing Martin’s compartment, a character not in the movie at all. Joe feels both fatherly to and wary of this “kid” who eats a candy bar yet looks like a cobra about to strike, who might be either mentally handicapped or addicted to drugs, at times “ferocious and belligerent in his glaring.” Martin’s name is finally confirmed on page six, when Joe sees it handwritten on the cover of his book of crosswords.
Point-of-view shifting occurs again later on, by the way, briefly shifting to Martin’s lover Abby Santini, whose boozy despair he cannot understand, to the radio talk show host who’d assumed Martin not “for real” but then wonders otherwise, and to a homeless man who is attacked by withdrawal-panicked Martin. Viewer-identification with Martin is never disrupted like this when watching the film.
After Joe, the opening chapter returns us to Martin’s radio confessional of the train murder and the narration graduates from hearing him speak his thoughts to accessing his unspoken thoughts. These variations on the film’s point of view and structure are rather brilliant, really, creating an initial distance from Martin, a third-party view of him as mysterious, as contradictory, and raising questions that when answered will allow readers to feel possibly closer to Martin than in the film. True but troubling the closeness, irredeemably, is the novel’s portrayal of Martin’s sexuality and his sex crimes.
The novelization makes obvious how Martin, though naïvely, gauges the “sexiness” of his female victims, something we mostly assume in the film; it also characterizes Martin as a psychotic young man, angry at his female victims. The train victim upon first sight is described in a way the film does not convey, with honey-gold hair, wearing a “man-tailored suit” as in the film yet her “gentle curves” made it seem to Martin “like a prom dress”. Entering her compartment that night, seeing her face slathered with cream, Martin’s disappointment turns to resentment and rage. After drugging her, he wipes off her face cream, spots a makeup bag and “feebly” paints her face, making her look not pretty as intended but grotesque like a “drunken hooker”. His rape and murder of her is far more brutal than the film’s delusional pathos, leading not to his making her death seem a suicide but shoving her body out the compartment window as the train crosses a trellis.
Comparably magnified is the violence Martin inflicts on his next victim, a Pittsburgh housewife whose husband is often away on business. The novel again emphasizes how Martin sees his prey as a fairytale cliché of femininity only to have his fantasy “punctured” (using Winship’s word). The scenario is far more lurid than in the film, stripped down to crude compulsivity. Martin is stripped himself, naked when he bursts in on the woman, hypodermic ready. Finding her with a lover, not just talking together on the bed but mid-coitus, Martin’s own naked body is described as shaking with anger. He manages to inject the man, in keeping with the film, but then wails on him with punches “unformed” yet effective in their frenzy.
Martin is characterized as a “mad dog” lunatic rather than the deft, fast-thinking cat playing cat-and-mouse around the house in the film. Onscreen he pleads with the woman, frustrated not with her but with the man who shouldn’t have been there. On the page he loses all control, beating her until her face is a “mangled mess” and then beating her some more. Blended into this vile dramatization is Martin thinking to himself or mumbling aloud certain lines that in the film achieve greater empathy by being confessed over his bedroom phone to the radio talk show.
The train scene with Joe may well have been included in the original, overlong script, or in the legendarily lost full-length cut of Martin, and not invented for the novel. Other changes, however, counter directorial choices that are evident in the released cut, suggesting a parallel notion of Martin that may be Sparrow’s own, that may be darker and more willing to make readers uncomfortable with his crimes against women because she herself is a woman. Putting aside such speculation, it may be true enough anyway that the very length of a novel risks bringing us too close to a character like Martin, inevitably skewing his onscreen ambiguity if not one way then another.
A key influence on a film viewer’s impression of story and character, which the novel cannot help but lack is, of course, the soundtrack. Donald Rubinstein’s experimental soundtrack for Martin — a baroque fusion of jazz, string quartet, and electronic piano — was named one of the “Top 100 Coolest Soundtracks of All Time” by Mojo music magazine. Copyrighted in 1977, it’s been released on vinyl in 1979 by Varèse Sarabande Records, on CD in 1999 by Level Green, on limited blood-red vinyl in 2015 by Ship to Shore PhonoCo., and it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime. I vividly remember finding a used copy of it at my college town record store, gasping comically only to be mesmerized by Martin’s dark and staring eyes on the cover, his mouth smeared with blood.
Rubinstein wrote poetry at a young age and his turn to music studies was intensely personal, enough for him to say it was a “calling” of the highest order. Is it coincidence that Martin‘s main title, the first track on his first-ever soundtrack, is called “The Calling”? Martin’s calling seems ambiguous, however, requiem-like with wordlessly beckoning vocals by soprano Betty Silberman. In later tracks, scoring the “flashbacks”, a female voice calls Martin’s name repeatedly. Is his calling a call back to vampirism or away from it, toward a healthy, mutual intimacy, if also a tragic fate? I was able to ask Donald Rubinstein about this and he answered that “The Calling” refers to “an almost iconic part of any seeker’s ‘journey.’ One is called, from both without and within. Here,” he said, meaning as the main title plays, “it comes from the train’s late night howl.” The title Martin is superimposed over the headlight of the train Martin rides to his new life in Braddock.
Though Rubinstein does not claim to relate to Martin as a character, he told me he “did relate to the sadness surrounding him, and the confused sense of injustice which blanketed the film.” Rubinstein stresses how much his output is owed to the nuanced script and to an in-sync dynamic between composer and director, “an immediate, deeply felt creative connection” that Rubinstein also calls “creative camaraderie”. Rubinstein took full advantage of the freedom Romero allowed him, creating a psychological soundscape in turn wistful-gloomy and anxiously discordant. He told the horror movie website BloodyDisgusting, “I adapted my own personal hybrid of jazz, contemporary classical (including synths), and folk music because it was my language. It was how I spoke.”
To convey Rubinstein’s style, Jez Winship throughout his analysis of the film relies on comparisons to: Hitchcock composer Bernard Herman, Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires, impressionistic pianist Bill Evans, free jazz saxophonist Ornette Colman, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and other ’70s-era “jazz fusioneers”. This is in addition to mentions of scurrying piano motifs, minimalist phrases, glassy chordal structures, pastoral flute, “old country” violin, friction drums, cymbal sounds, church bells, and nocturnal stridulation. Rubinstein also credits ARP strings and the phase shifter attached to his electric piano.
At a less-is-more 36 minutes, Rubinstein’s soundtrack for Martin is packed with innovation and psychological ticks. Dealt like a Rorschach test for the ear, the 22 tracks often feel like sound poems to me, as experienced apart from the movie, at any rate, when the scenes they correspond to fade into a mental backdrop. The music creeps or frets about one’s personal space, neurotically scoring one’s life, a mood-piece as introspective as it is prismatic. I asked Rubinstein if, when meeting fans like myself, do they tend to speak of the soundtrack in personal terms? “Yes, they have done so,” he said, expressing gratitude and speaking of it as “a creative and emotional bond.” A bond on par with fan response to the film itself, evidence of just how deeply idiosyncratic, how rightly fused, are Romero’s film and Rubinstein’s music.
Martin in Romero’s film is heterosexually focused yet he can come across as sexually ambiguous, partly due to shyness and naïvete, partly due to his sotto voce and feline embodiment. The novelization refers to his punches as “like a weak woman’s” (thankfully not, mind you, “weak like a woman’s”) while otherwise amplifying Martin’s heterosexual frustration. It is Martin’s queerness, however, that is amplified by Soft Cell’s ten-minute homage “Martin” from 1983.
Directly inspired by Romero’s film, the song is postpunk synthpop with an agitated beat, goth-dark and gritty. Though producer Mike Thorne deemed it “a monstrously over-the-top extravaganza”, it’s a product of personal obsession for Soft Cell vocalist and lyricist Marc Almond. Simon Reynolds, in his book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, says the 1983 album The Art of Falling Apart, which originally included “Martin” on an accompanying bonus EP, “deepened Almond’s obsession with beautiful losers into a harrowed empathy for the broken and discarded of this world.”
Among the company “Martin” keeps on The Art of Falling Apart are a similarly alienated teen whose father watches him like a snake, a fantasy-prone housewife addicted to pills, a sexual glutton taking “a bite of a night gone wrong”, and a stripper faking sexual response. Polari magazine featured the single “Numbers” as an LGBT Song of the Day in 2012, considering it “easily the sleaziest” of Soft Cell’s hits. It is based on a darkly sexual book of the same title by queer Mexican-American novelist John Rechy, a title indicating serial cruising. Almond, who was partying hard at the time, and coping with drug addiction, depicts being an addict and a fantasist while sticking to a kitchen-sink level of realism — indeed, the addicted housewife song is titled “Kitchen Sink Drama”. So no wonder “Martin” fits so organically into this mix.
The stage had already been set for “Martin” with Soft Cell’s massive debut hit. Marc Almond and electronic musician David Ball formed Soft Cell in the late ’70s, channeling David Bowie, T-Rex, Throbbing Gristle, and Siouxsie and the Banshees into underground techno. Almost incidentally they recorded a cover of an old soul song, “Tainted Love”, which took the zeitgeist by its throat, becoming the best-selling single of 1981 in the UK and, in the US, spending a Guinness World Record-breaking 43 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.
Tainted love is a play on tainted blood, of course, and it isn’t flippant to relate “Tainted Love”, which was not only a mainstream hit but also a gay club anthem, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic then in its earliest years. In 1985, the industrial-electronic group Coil — founded by Psychic TV members, also life partners, John Balance and Peter Christopherson — released a dirge-like, klaxon-buzzing arrangement of “Tainted Love”. The cryptic music video dramatizes a young man’s hospitalization and features a Marc Almond cameo, at the end announcing that profits from record sales go to an AIDS awareness program — then a groundbreaking gesture. “Tainted Love”, in all its intended and unintended significance, thematically anticipates “Martin” about a love-seeking young man who’s been told his whole life that his own blood is tainted — his bloodline is cursed, as Tata Cuda would say. In the film Cuda even discourages Christina from having children lest one be born a nosferatu like Martin, the family shame.
Linkages between vampire and queer have been made before, by legendary critic Robin Wood, for one, who asserts that openly homosexual director F.W. Murnau implicitly identifies the vampire with repressed homosexuality in his 1927 classic Nosferatu. Jack Halberstam, in the horror theory tome Skin Shows (Duke University Press, 1995), writes: “Vampiric sexuality blends power and femininity within the same body and then marks that body as distinctly alien.” On a broader note, Harry M. Benshoff in Monsters in the Closet (Oxford University Press, 1997) claims “the sad young slightly effeminate man… is a staple of horror films” and in the ’70s-’80s he commonly figures as an alienated teen loner. “Martin is a boy with problems,” Soft Cell’s song begins: “far too pale and far too frail to be a normal boy.” Monster and queer defy category but tend to be analogous over synonymous. Being seen as monster — by family, community, society — can prompt self-comparison to and empathy for monsters. Susan Stryker’s 1994 essay, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” unpacks, and radically owns, a transsexual-monster analogy.
So there are reasons why fans in general take Martin personally, but also there are reasons why LGBTQ fans might identify with its title character. At 18 I wrote a homoerotic love poem for Martin — squinting at the sun, wearing his plastic fangs ironically, fingering a rosary of garlic cloves, alienated like I was then ashamed. Queer viewer-identification, unforeseen by Romero, is nonetheless reinforced by a pattern of unsettled gender norms and troubled heterosexuality. The train victim when spotted at the station, establishing Martin’s attraction to women, bends gender in her skirt-suit with waistcoat and wide tie. Independent-minded Christina knows her relationship with her boyfriend is doomed, and not because Tata Cuda warns him against children with her. Abby Santini’s marriage is a façade, and not because she is unable to bear children; she knows her husband cheats and, lonely, she does too. The cheating housewife whose home Martin invades offers a parallel glimpse at marital dissatisfaction. If Romero’s film undercuts the heteronormative it is due largely to being so hetero-pessimistic.
Soft Cell’s “Martin” leaves the sex of his victims unspecified, honoring Martin as an antihero who “tries hard to resist” his bloodlust and “deep inside is good”. The song reaches a fevered overdub and, for the last four of its ten minutes, a tense pounding synth backs Martin’s repeated name: called beckoningly as on the soundtrack, sung low and plaintive, screeched into falsetto, and increasingly mixed with the command “Kill-kill-kill!” Marc Almond reflected on the early ’80s to The Independent in 2002, saying that because Soft Cell explored underworlds and taboo themes of sexual perversion, addiction, and violence, “[E]very weird and fantastic freak gathered towards us — we drew everybody in.” So through Soft Cell, it is fair to say, some of the era’s fantastic freaks came to know Martin.
Over the years, Romero’s Martin has been admired more than analyzed. An image of a feeding Martin graces the cover of the 1979 anthology The American Nightmare, but Donald Lippe’s essay “The Horror of Martin, pp 87-90) is only three pages. The introduction to American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (University of Illinois Press, 1987) a mid-’80s classic on the horror genre, cites Martin and Dawn of the Dead “among the most noteworthy recent examinations of the role and representation of violence in American culture” — but that is the anthology’s only mention of Martin. Paul R. Gagne’s Martin chapter in the Romero overview The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh ( Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987) is thoroughgoing about production yet not analytical. At last Jez Winship, an English writer and librarian, dives deep into Martin with his 110-page book of the same title, the second in PS Publishing’s enticing series of Midnight Movie Monographs.
Like myself and so many longtime Martin fans, Jez Winship takes Martin personally. Upfront he claims it to be an oft-revisited film that defined his adolescence and young adulthood. He examines the film academically yet his precision can be poetic too, an intimate attention to detail that’s surely a consequence of obsession. Winship braves a complex reading of the film, most productively taking on: the significance of the books Martin is reading, e.g. B.F. Skinner; the film’s demythologization of vampirism; the film’s “deromanticization” of modernity, as evidenced by the scrapyard-like town, a pattern of unstable relationships, etc.; and the film’s critique of “family fundamentalism”. Winship sums up Martin by echoing Robin Wood’s theory of the repressed in horror. Martin’s ordinary sexual desires have been not only repressed, as happens, but also warped by his family’s extreme beliefs — “amalgamated” with vampiric desire and “redirected down pathological avenues”.
I’ve considered onscreen Martin in terms of his most obvious duality: he is outsider, victim, romantic underdog, and he is also intruder, predator, sex criminal. Getting to the heart of Martin, Winship formulates this duality another way: Martin is a potential danger to women yet women are his potential allies. The danger is obvious but how is alliance possible? Most basically, Martin prefers female company because it is not male. Winship comments how it is family males who have governed Martin since his mother’s suicide, corrupting his identity and self-esteem; it’s understandable he’d feel less apprehensive in female company. Also most basically, women are drawn to Martin because he is male but docile (simple-minded? childlike?) and merits (if not begs) petting. He reminds Abby of a cat she once had. What clarifies alliance from shared company is sharing an oppressor too, as Martin and Christina do under Tata Cuda’s rule, or as Martin and Abby do in orthodox Braddock.
Winship reliably notices setting in Martin and its influence on theme, especially true when it comes to gendered spaces. He draws attention to a kitchen scene with Christina, early on, in which Martin insists on doing the dishes, designating it his chore. This is more than Martin settling in, or appeasing taskmaster Tata Cuda. “The kitchen becomes the room in the house where Martin feels most comfortable, a ‘female zone’ partly sheltered from Tata Cuda’s patriarchal control,” writes Winship. Abby Santini’s home, in the frequent absence of her husband, feels like a “female zone” too, as is her car, with tampons in the glovebox, as Winship smartly observes. The domestic scenes with valiant Christina (so unaffectedly played by Christine Forrest) and yearning but cynical Abby Santini (Elyane Nadeau brings a muted intelligence to Abby’s sadness) are so authentic, constituting yet another way Martin feels intimate and personal.
Feminist scholars from Virginia Woolf to Simone de Beauvoir and beyond have studied the female zone, also called the “women’s sphere”, in a society built on separate social spheres for men and women — still true today in many ways. The women’s sphere is subjugated to the men’s but also, in a limited capacity, independent from it, as Winship says of the kitchen in Tata Cuda’s house. Gynocentrists glorify the women’s sphere, with Helene Cixous calling it “the realm of the gift”, otherwise described as flowing with milk, honey, menstrual blood. Cultural critic bell hooks puts it more simply in her essay “ Straightening Our Hair“, honoring “a deeper intimacy in the kitchen” without men. Winship even points to Rubinstein’s score and how “the fact that Martin’s musical leitmotifs are feminine suggests that he is more comfortable in the female world. He has no place in the male hierarchies.”
Feminism undoubtedly influenced Romero. Much is owed, in my opinion, to Martin’s predecessor Jack’s Wife aka, Season of the Witch from 1972. A similar horror-drama hybrid, character-driven and gratifyingly talky, it follows an unhappy suburban housewife experimenting with ritual witchcraft. Barry Keith Grant writes of the film in his article on Romero and feminism “Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead” (The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, University of Texas Press, 1996). Wannabe witch Joan (Jan White in her only significant role) is not the “agent of horror”, Grant insists; the film instead codes her domineering husband as monster. “The film thus demythifies witchcraft as supernatural, its ideological project perfectly summed up by the image of Joan buying her witchcraft paraphernalia in a trendy shop and paying for it with a credit card.” Witchcraft, therefore, “is just another oppressive ideology (superstition) that prevents this woman from being herself.” I am compelled to pronounce that Jack’s Wife, narratively and thematically, could be Martin’s mother.
Martin the film, unlike the novel, seems never to prompt our worry for Christina and Abby as potential victims, though violent compulsions and paranoia are always brewing within Martin. He finds allies in Christina, who defends him to Tata Cuda, an important step toward her own freedom, and in Abby who takes him in like a stray, introducing him to sexual intimacy. Winship contends that even Martin’s “sickness” can be seen as “a warped way of finding the close loving embrace that was denied him as a child” after his mother died. Viewers may have faith in his alliances but are not allowed to forget that Martin is never simply an accepted male interloper in a traditionally female space; he is always otherwise an invader of female privacy, a deadly foe with his needle and razorblade.
Jez Winship’s Martin monograph, a handsome volume featuring illustrative film stills, is an impressive example of fan devotion and scholarship compelling each other. The only fault may be the restrictive commitment to scene-by-scene linearity, reading at times like a novelization but with production notes, interpretive analysis, and sociohistorical info incorporated along the way. Redundancy for plot-familiar fans is balanced by Winship’s intimate engagement with the details, which fans will appreciate, and his supple interpretive reach.
A tragic embodiment of sexual outsider, sexual predator, and sexual novice, Martin drugged then dragged vampirism into the postindustrial ’70s. Romero’s personal favorite film of his own films, personal to so many fans, psychologically re-vamped the vampire archetype with kitchen-sink realism and second wave feminism. Martin‘s onscreen vampire counterparts in the ’70s and early ’80s ranged from classic (House of Dark Shadows, Count Yorga) to comic (Love at First Bite) to trashy (Andy Warhol’s Dracula) to stylish (Daughters of Darkness, Thirst) to psychological (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, The Hunger) to racialized (Blacula, Ganja and Hess) and to made-for-TV (Salem’s Lot). Martin stands off to himself, however, as a cult cinema vampire. Romero’s indie opus anticipated if not inspired more recent fare like The Addiction and The Habit (1995), Let the Right One In (2008) and Let Me In (2010), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), and above all The Transfiguration (2016).
Of the latter, which premiered at Cannes, Kim Newman writes in her Empire review: “Martin is an inescapable reference. The Transfiguration resurrects many plot elements and stylistic touches from Romero’s film, while focusing not on an alienated white youth in Pittsburgh but a black mid-teen from housing projects on the fringes of New York.” Michael O’Shea’s film by the end becomes a morality play in a way that Romero’s does not, but both work dramatically with — and through — realism. According to IndieWire, O’Shea is drawn to the “new neo-realist movement” in indie film, e.g. Kelly Reichardt and the Safdie Brothers.
I hope Martin continues to inspire parallels and homages, or any thoughtful contributions to the vampire subgenre. Just as much I hope there will be no outright remake, as rumored. Chances are it will be resented by fans. Let our cult cinema vampire remain so profoundly singular.