Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Starring: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elyane Nadeau, Tom Savini, Sara Venable, Francine Middleton, Roger Caine, George A. Romero
Country: USA
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1976
BBFC Certificate: 18

George Romero fans, the long wait is finally over! It was some time in 2019 when Second Sight first announced they’d be releasing Martin on UHD and Blu-ray in the UK. The film had been hard to get hold of over here for a long time, so the announcement was big news. However, the release was plagued with setbacks, including being put on hold for a while after the infamous extended 3-hour (or thereabouts) cut was unearthed. Second Sight hoped they’d be able to get their hands on it but, sadly, the longer version is in the hands of a private collector who wants a lot of money for it and there are other rights issues surrounding the print, so it’s stuck in limbo at the moment.

Nevertheless, the release has arrived and Second Sight have put everything they’ve got into making sure it’s a cracking package. I must admit I’d never seen the film before but it’s been on my watchlist for a long time, so I quickly snapped up a screener when offered one to review.

Martin proved to be quite a turning point for Romero. After being swindled out of any profits from the success of Night of the Living Dead and then directing three financial failures in a row, the director was in dire straits and had pretty much given up making feature films. However, when Romero met Richard P Rubinstein, things changed. Rubinstein produced Romero’s next, key run of films, helping him get back on track and find the success and acclaim he now enjoys (to an extent – he got messed around by the big studios in later years).

Martin was the first commercially released film of their partnership (after the specially-commissioned The Amusement Park, which was largely unseen until recent years). The film was critically quite well received on its release and it went down well with audiences but the producers didn’t find a good distribution point so it never got the big release it deserved. As such, Martin never gained the popularity of Romero’s Dead trilogy but, those that have seen it generally like it a lot and hold it in similar esteem to the director’s more famous films.

Martin is a modern spin on the vampire myth, centring around the titular character (John Amplas), who we are introduced to on a train journey, where he sexually assaults and murders a young woman, drinking her blood during the process.

Martin, our vampire here, doesn’t have sharp fangs to sink into his victims though, he simply uses a razor blade. He can’t be shunned with garlic or crosses or killed by sunlight either. As Martin himself likes to tell us, “there’s no real magic”, he’s just an ordinary guy on the surface.

The character does claim to have lived for over 80 years though, despite looking like he’s in his early twenties. Also, when arriving at his elderly cousin Cuda’s (Lincoln Maazel) house, where he has been sent to live for a while, we learn that Martin is reportedly the latest in a long line of vampires. Cuda is not happy with his cousin’s activities but feels it’s his duty as a family member to give him shelter, though he attempts to keep him at bay through the classic methods (garlic, crucifixes etc) which, as mentioned, have no effect.

Martin tries to live a normal life, working at Cuda’s store and getting to know his cousin’s granddaughter, Christina (Christine Forrest), but he struggles to contain his bloodlust.

Martin is Romero’s favourite of his films. Having finally seen it myself, I’m not sure I find it quite as perfectly formed as his original Dead trilogy, with Martin’s low budget leading to some slightly ropey moments, but I still liked it a lot. Perhaps a rewatch or two would swing me around to having it higher on my list.

It certainly does a fantastic job of subverting vampire mythology. There are hints of comparisons to drug use (Martin is not only addicted to blood, but he uses a syringe of drugs to sedate his victims), which is the route I expected, but, in fact, there’s more of a social commentary on the life being sucked out of an old town. It looks, this way, at the clash between the classic/traditional and the modern. The old days are gone but some are clinging on as modernism invades.

This message is delivered through the location used to shoot the film, the suburban borough of Braddock, Pennsylvania. At the time, it was run down, suffering from the collapse of the steel industry in the US, which the area had relied on for many years. We watch Martin roam the town, looking for victims, but the place is, you might say, already dead.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the fact that it’s never quite clear if Martin is indeed a real vampire or if his ‘memories’ we see (black and white sequences set in the distant past) are a figment of his imagination and he’s merely a troubled young man. When asked, Romero has sided with the latter opinion but says that’s just how he feels, so it’s open to interpretation.

Martin was made on a very low budget, so often shot on the fly, giving it that gritty 70s feel that I love. Michael Gornick was the DOP and this was his first of five collaborations with Romero. He captures the locations beautifully, leading to some elegantly composed shots.

Matching this is Donald Rubinstein’s score, which is hauntingly beautiful and has a jazz slant that played very much to my tastes. Donald, who is Richard Rubinstein’s brother, was a young man at the time, with no prior experience in writing music for film, but this was quite the debut.

As mentioned earlier, Martin does have a few rough edges but largely these are superficial issues. I wasn’t a massive fan of some of the cast members though, it must be said. In particular, I thought Lincoln Maazel was a little too over the top, with a theatrical style to his delivery that sticks out like a sore thumb among the rest of the more naturalistic performances. This ‘grand old’ approach does fit his character and what he represents, so I can appreciate his intentions, but I found him a bit laughable in places.

John Amplas, on the other hand, is excellent. Romero reportedly saw him on stage and immediately wanted him as his Martin. Amplas does a remarkable job of making his character sympathetic, despite him ostensibly being a murderer and a rapist. The film sees him as a loner, desperate for understanding and companionship so, aided by the nuanced performance, you genuinely care for Martin.

The ‘feeding’ scenes are brilliantly executed too, very intense and well constructed (Romero edited most of his earlier films and he has a keen sense of montage cutting). Martin saw Romero collaborate with Tom Savini for the first time and the special effects make-up artist’s work here is largely very effective. The razor blade slashes are particularly grisly, despite the not-quite-believable blood colouring. I wasn’t a fan of the final gore sequence though. Without wanting to spoil what happens, you can clearly see how the effect was faked, spoiling an otherwise shocking scene.

So, on finally settling down to watch Martin, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a thoughtful, relatively low-key, naturalistic spin on the vampire myth. It’s maybe not as polished as some of the films Romero would make following this, due to the low budget, but the director makes the best of what he has to create a haunting tale of loneliness, isolation and addiction.

Film:

Martin is out on March 27th on Limited Edition UHD & Blu-Ray in the UK, as well as standard edition UHD and Blu-ray releases, all courtesy of Second Sight Films. I watched the Blu-ray disc and the transfer has been nicely handled. The film was shot very cheaply on leftover 16mm ‘reversal film’ from ‘The Winners’, a TV show Romero and Richard P. Rubinstein were shooting. As such, you shouldn’t expect a super-sharp, crisp and detailed image. However, the thick grain structure is nicely handled and the film has a wonderfully natural look in general. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of what it looks like.

For audio, you get three options – mono, stereo and 5.1. I watched it in mono and it sounded good. There is a little hiss here and there but this is likely as originally presented.

Special features

– A new Second Sight 4K restoration supervised and approved by Director of Photography Michael Gornick
– 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs both including bonus features
– UHD presented in HDR10+
– Audio commentary by George A Romero, John Amplas and Tom Savini
– Audio commentary by George A Romero, Richard P Rubinstein, Tom Savini, Michael Gornick and Donald Rubinstein
– A new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger
– A new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
– Taste the Blood of Martin: A new feature-length documentary including location tour
– Scoring the Shadows: A new interview with composer Donald Rubinstein
– ‘J Roy – New And Used Furniture’: a short film by Tony Buba
– Making Martin: A Recounting
– Trailer, TV, and radio spots

Limited Edition Contents:

– Rigid slipcase with original classic artwork
– Soft cover book with new essays by Daniel Bird, Miranda Corcoran, Travis Crawford, Heather Drain, Kat Ellinger, Andrew Graves, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Elena Lazic, Stephen Thrower, Jon Towlson, Simon Ward and Tony Williams
– Original Soundtrack CD by Donald Rubinstein
– 5 collectors’ character art cards illustrated by Adam Stothard

The Romero, Tom Savini and John Amplas track is a lot of fun. It sees the trio goof around, enjoying a rewatch of the film, often talking about the bit players on screen or the locations used. The film was made on a shoestring budget so I appreciated hearing about how everything was cobbled together. The other crew track works in a similar way though it’s slightly more serious and gets more technical in places.

The Travis Crawford commentary is excellent. He provides a thorough history of Romero’s work around the time of making Martin and the crucial involvement of key collaborators. He later delves into the story of the production of Martin itself. He also goes into detail about the differences between the film and its script, which was written more like a novel than a screenplay. It makes for fascinating listening.

In her commentary, Kat Ellinger describes why she thinks Martin is such an important film. She discusses its place in the gothic genre too. As such, the track takes a different route to Crawford’s, making for a pair of unique critic/historian commentaries, rather than having them tread on each other’s toes.

In the new feature-length (nearly 70 minutes) documentary, ‘Taste the Blood of Martin’, those involved speak fondly of their time making Martin. It takes a detailed and enjoyable look at how the film was put together, using a group of the main players revisiting the locations as a skeleton for the piece. Everyone speaks kindly of Romero and the friendly, family-like atmosphere on set. Reportedly, after Knightriders, once Romero started working for studios with unions and such, the production process became less loose, warm and friendly.

The shorter archive documentary, ‘Making Martin: A Recounting’, works as a brief summary of the facts and stories present in the commentaries and feature-length doc. As such, it’s less vital but handy for those without the patience to trawl through the full set of extras.

The interview with Donald Rubinstein, who composed the wonderful score, is a welcome addition too. He talks about his inspirations, the beginnings of his career and his working relationship with Romero.

I also enjoyed the short documentary ‘J Roy – New And Used Furniture’, which was made by Tony Buba (sound engineer on Martin). It offers a pleasing time capsule of an area in decay and is buoyed by the personality of J Roy, an overly enthusiastic local figure around whom the film focuses.

I didn’t get a copy of the book or other limited edition physical extras to comment on those, I’m afraid. I loved the soundtrack of the film so much that I went out and bought the CD though, so it’s wonderful to see it included here on the LE release.

So, the long wait was worth it. Second Sight, as usual, have pulled out all the stops to bring us the definitive release of Romero’s unsung classic. It’s a shame the extended cut of the film hasn’t managed to get through the legal issues it faces over rights, but Second Sight’s release has everything else you’d possibly want. Get it bought!

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