People are the hardest thing: George Romero's MARTIN

People are the hardest thing: George Romero's MARTIN

      As an avid horror fan and self-proclaimed “movie buff”, I have been struggling in the past few weeks to find the appropriate words to express what George Romero’s body of work means to both the medium of film and to me personally. I'm not sure I've found them in this short write-up on my favorite Romero film, MARTIN, but I do hope you will join me in celebrating Romero's legacy. 

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

     From the sharp expressionist visuals of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920) to the Satan-positive message of The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2016), horror films are known for innovation and pushing boundaries—perhaps because the greatest among them elicit emotions in us that are much more complicated than simple fear. The greatest horror films take the pervasive, intangible darkness within humanity, and give it a physical form for us to confront. However, few people have impacted the medium in this way to the extent of George Romero.

     When we hear Romero’s name, we immediately associate it with zombies. After all, prior to Night of the Living Dead (1968), films like White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) and I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) existed, but defined zombies as people entranced by spells designed to bend them to the will of voodoo priests. Romero almost single-handedly changed the genre and in a post-Romero landscape, it is impossible to find zombie-themed media (and often horror in general!) that takes no inspiration from his work. We all know and love Romero’s zombies, but I’d like to talk a little bit about his lesser known boy next door, Martin the Blood-Lover.

     Martin (1978) is the story of a young man who moves to Pittsburgh to live with his uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) and cousin Christine (Christine Forrest). In true Romero form, the film opens immediately into terror. We are introduced to the titular protagonist when he overpowers a woman on a train, injecting her with something that puts her to sleep, and then cutting her wrist open with a razorblade and drinking her blood.  We will witness Martin (John Amplas) doing this again over the course of the film, his crimes known by his uncle Cuda, who bestows the moniker “Nosferatu” on him the second Martin arrives in his home.

     We quickly learn Cuda is very Catholic and highly superstitious, placing items like garlic and crucifixes around his home to dissuade Martin from attacking him or Christine. Martin quickly demonstrates he is unaffected by these objects, declaring, “Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.” And indeed, there is probably nothing magical about Martin, though the film never seeks to answer the question of whether or not he is actually a vampire, instead leaving that choice to the audience.

     Martin claims he is decades older than he appears to be, and suffers flashbacks from an older time—visions of drinking blood and being chased by angry mobs. He discloses to a radio station he is sexually frustrated and nervous around conscious women. Cuda insists Martin is just one of many vampires to have existed within their family, and that exorcism is the only way his soul can escape eternal damnation. In one instance, Martin tells Christine doctors can’t help him, perhaps because they don’t understand his social withdrawal and delusions.

     For centuries, the symptoms of psychiatric disorders were viewed as indicators of demonic possession. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus can be seen on more than one occasion casting “demons” out of people showing signs of epilepsy (Mark 9:14-29) or self-destructive behavior (Mark 5:1-20). Still today, the community at large does not understand mental illness or how to properly approach treatment of the same. In 1963, John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act into law, resulting in some positive changes for mental healthcare, but also some negative.[1] Deinstitutionalization was one of these effects, and the working-class backdrop of Martin provides the perfect storm of boredom and devout religiosity to comment on this issue.

     Throughout the film, everyone in contact with Martin fails him in some way. He is thrust into an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people and he is alone. His inability to reach out to anyone for help mixed with his longing to be treated like a normal person lead him to Ms. Santini (Elyane Nadeau), an unhappy housewife who takes a liking to Martin. Ms. Santini is the only person Martin feels comfortable around, but she too is suffering, and no one will listen to or help her.

     Taking cues directly from Night of the Living Dead, the savage ending of Martin is unforgettable. When Ms. Santini’s body is discovered in her bathtub, wrists cut, Cuda immediately determines Martin is responsible without ever considering the possibility a person who appears to live a happy, healthy life could be quietly battling the monster of their own mind. Martin walks through a town parade in a fairly positive mood, but after an abrupt cut, he wakes up to find himself restrained by Cuda, who drives a stake through his heart. We’re left watching credits roll over a scene of Cuda nonchalantly burying Martin in his garden as people call into the radio station Martin often spoke to, bloodthirsty voyeurs desperate to learn more about the exploits of the “Count”.

            What makes Martin such a triumphant work is that there are no heroes in it. We see this world and Martin’s experiences with the people in it through his perspective. We learn what his motivations are and maybe even sympathize with him on some level, but despite his mild, quiet demeanor, Martin’s actions are monstrous and unfettered. It is understandable that Cuda is afraid of Martin, but his fear is rooted in a primitive, destructive belief system. It is understandable that Christine does not want to be in this environment, but she abandons Martin entirely. No one in Martin is without sin, no one’s attitude can be applauded, and the inaction of many results in numerous preventable deaths. But Romero’s films are never about evil beings inexplicably terrorizing good people. As Martin evidences, they are about “good” people failing one another in terrible ways.

 

[1] "Community Mental Health Act." National Council. Accessed August 05, 2017. https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/about/national-mental-health-association/overview/community-mental-health-act/.

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