When filmmaker George Romero died this past Sunday at the age of 77, John Carpenter posted a tweet praising him as no less than the “father of modern horror movies.” Coming from Carpenter, no stranger to changing the landscape of horror, that means a lot. The claim checks out, too. Romero’s been widely, and rightly, praised for the way his films wove social observation and political commentary into horror stories, but on a more basic level he helped drag horror movies into the modern world by ignoring gothic trappings, atomic giants, and familiar monsters and telling stories that unfolded in the humble, everyday, mostly working class surroundings of late 20th century America, most often his native Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas.
Take, for instance, the first scene of Romero’s breakthrough 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, which unfolds in a small Pennsylvania cemetery and opens with an argument between a brother and sister — Barbara and Johnny — about whether or not they were just wasting their time visiting their father’s grave. A lurching figure causes Johnny to tease Barbara with a Boris Karloff voice straight out of the familiar sort of horror movie Romero would soon lay to rest. (“They’re coming to get you Barbara!”) Their encounter with with what turns out to be a shambling, hungry corpse puts an end to that argument — zombies have a way of shutting down any conversation not about, you know, not getting killed by zombies, — but their exchange leading up to it speaks to a concern at the heart of a lot of Romero movies about the dissolution of tradition and the way only callousness, madness, and chaos seemed to be stepping in to take its place as the 1960s turned into the 1970s.
A midnight movie hit, Night of the Living Dead didn’t just invent the zombie genre, it changed what viewers thought horror movies could be — much like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes pushed science fiction in new directions the same year and Easy Rider changed the face of Hollywood in 1969 — not that it made life easier for Romero as a filmmaker. Romero wouldn’t have another hit until he made the Night of the Living Dead sequel Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978. Between those two he made the little-seen romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla and three smaller-scale horror films — Season of the Witch, The Crazies, and Martin — that continued his habit of drawing from the world around him for inspiration. And, with the last of these he made a film as powerful as any of his zombie movies.
Martin is a vampire movie — maybe. Set in the working class Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, it stars John Amplas as the titular Martin, who travels to Pennsylvania from Indianapolis in the film’s opening scene. On board, he spends the evening breaking into a private berth, drugging and raping the woman inside, then slitting her wrist and drinking her blood to serve his bloodsucking habit. He’s a vampire, or at least he believes he’s a vampire, never mind that crosses, garlic, and sunlight have no effect on him and he looks to the rest of the world like an awkward teenager suffering from a crushing discomfort around women.
Well, almost everyone. In Braddock, Martin takes up residence with his elderly cousin Mr. Cuda (Lincoln Maezel), a grocer whose Old World accent matches his deeply religious Old World ways. These include believing that Martin is a “nosferatu” born in the late 19th century of cursed to drink the blood of the living. Before showing him up to his room, Cuda lays out his agenda to Martin: “First I will save your soul. Then I will destroy you.” But first he puts him to work helping out around the store.
Romero leaves the film’s central question unanswered, but it’s also mostly beside the point. Martin‘s less about whether or not its central character is a monster due to a supernatural curse or a psychopathic personality than watching as someone tries to live out a vampire fantasy in a grubby, economically precarious world of mid-’70s America. Whether fantasizing or flashing back, his mind drifts into a foggy, black-and-white fantasy seemingly taken from an old vampire movie; in reality, he carries a kit filled with the syringes and razor blades he needs to make up for his lack of pointed teeth. By the end, he’s reduced to killing vagrants. He’s a modern vampire of the city, and it’s a pretty lousy existence.
Romero manages at once to blow up romantic fantasies of vampires and expose the nasty power fantasies beneath their surface. “I just want you to go to sleep,” he tells one victim as he waits for the drugs to kick in, following it up with “Don’t you understand it’s important to me?” Later, he becomes an anonymous celebrity thanks to his calls to an all-night talk show who treat his fantasies, expressions of sexual frustration, and complaints about the inaccuracies of vampire movies as jokes, even when one of those complaints gets at his central problem: “In real life you can’t get people to do what you want them to do.”
Martin is a fascinating, skillfully made film that doesn’t look away from the ugliness it depicts or the roughness of the world in which it takes place, and it captures much of what made Romero such a remarkable filmmaker. For inspiration he didn’t look to crumbling castles but to the changing world around him. Horror could be ghosts and goblins, sure, but it could also be chaos erupting from beneath the surface of civilization or the evil wedged into the fantasies of a grocery clerk. (It’s no surprise that Romero befriended and collaborated with Stephen King, another horror master who grounds his work in working class realism.)
Romero had trouble finding room for himself in the world he helped create, often going years between projects and seeing his own return visits to the zombie genre get overshadowed by the projects he inspired. (He was even on top to direct the first Resident Evil movie at one point.) Romero created something remarkable then sometimes struggled to escape its shadow. And while it’s tough to find an obituary without zombies in its opening line — which is appropriate — it’s worth remembering that for Romero zombies became a means to an end, a way to talk about some deeper horror that we didn’t want to face. His films kept coming back to the notion the monsters weren’t coming for us, they were here. They were us. With Martin he came closest to saying it out loud.