George Romero found himself in similar straits. He was nearly a million dollars in debt thanks to the failure of every film after Night of the Living Dead. He’d taken to working on sports documentaries like his Pittsburgh-centric series The Winners and even directed The Juice is Loose, the story of football hero OJ Simpson — albeit years before his reversal in fortune — and Magic at the Roxy, a TV magic special. He confided in producer Richard P. Rubinstein that he was nearly out of cash. While the producer counseled Romero and explained that bankruptcy was an option, Romero didn’t want to screw over the people who helped him make his films. This action gave Rubinstein plenty of respect for the director and led to their partnership. While this, their first film together, didn’t pay back those investors, Dawn of the Dead would.
Deciding on Braddock — one of the hardest hit mill towns — and utilizing family and friends, Romero started to film what he would later call his favorite film.
In the film’s first script, Martin is an older man who is definitely a vampire, struggling to live (unlike?) in the modern world. But after seeing John Amplas in a Pittsburgh Playhouse production of Philemon, Romero rewrote the film to make Martin younger and more innocent.
Martin’s family has all died in Indianapolis, so he’s on his way to Pittsburgh — but not before shooting a woman up full of drugs and drinking her blood. He’s met at the train station by his uncle, Tateh Cuda, and taken to his new home: Braddock, PA. Even today, Braddock is one of the most run-down sections of Pittsburgh — the decay evident in the movie got a lot worse before John Fetterman was elected and numerous civic campaigns have brought new business in. That said — it’s still a great setting for a horror film.
Cuda and his niece Christine share a home and have allowed Martin to stay. The old man gives Martin several rules, including one that if ever kills anyone in Braddock, he’ll stake him through the heart. He keeps crucifixes and garlic all over the house, continually telling Martin that first, he’ll save his soul, and then, he kills him. Martin yells at Cuda, showing him that he can touch the crucifixes and eat the garlic and bitterly exclaims, “There’s no real magic…ever.”
This is in direct contrast to Martin’s fantasies, shot in black and white (there’s supposedly a 2 hour and 45 minute cut of this film that’s only in black and white) like a romantic vampire movie, where women willingly give up their throats to him. The truth — he barely defeats the women in battle, needs drugs to sedate them and with no fangs, he must use a razor blade to kill them.
Despite Cuda’s continual threat’s of death, he hires Martin to work in his butcher shop as a delivery man. This allows him to meet several women, including Mrs. Santini, who tries to seduce him. Unlike his dreams of control over these women, he can’t even control his own feelings and runs away.
Pittsburgh has always been a talk radio town — local powerhouse KDKA boasts a 50,000 watt antenna that can be heard throughout most of the continental US in the evening — and Martin takes advantage of this, calling a local DJ (Michael Gornick, director of Creepshow 2) to try and figure out life. He becomes known as “The Count” and is one more lonely voice seeking comfort until the sun comes up — again, in marked contrast to the way vampires traditionally fear daytime. The DJ segments hit close to home — I was a long-time listener (1989-2005) of Bob Logue’s Undercover Club and Pittsburgh has a long history — as stated above — of radio shows like Party Line. We’re slow to give up on technology, so AM radio still remains strong here.
Martin tries to keep his thirst under control, but finally sneaks out to the big city — Pittsburgh is very much a bridge and tunnel town where folks stay within one of the ninety small neighborhoods that make up the overall town — and attacks a woman he’d seen at Cuda’s market. But she isn’t alone — she already has an extramarital lover over — and Martin barely overcomes them both before he drugs and rapes the woman. Martin gives in to another hunger after this — a yearning for sex based on love — that he finds with Mrs. Santini.
Meanwhile, Christine, Martin’s sole advocate in the home, finally gives up on living with the ultra religious Cuda and leaves, despite her unfulfilling relationship with her boyfriend (played by an incredibly young Tom Savini). She is slapped across the face by Cuda and shocks him by not registering the blow, instead telling that his time is over and that she doesn’t care what he or the church says.
Martin loses control once he realizes that Christine won’t come back, so he goes into the city and attacks two homeless men, but is almost killed in a battle between the police and drug dealers. He returns to Mrs. Santini’s house to try and escape with her, but she has already killed herself.
In a quick, shocking scene, Cuda dispatches Martin — who he blames for Mrs. Santini’s death — with a stake. During the credits, Cuda buries him as radio callers ask what happened to The Count. The answer? He’s freshly buried, with a crucifix over his grave.
Martin is not only Romero’s most personal films, it’s also one of his most technically polished. The scenes where the talk radio dialogue plays against Martin’s actions allow for exposition without sacrificing pace. And the black and white versus color sequences — particularly the exorcism scene — play out as a grisly counter to the expected Wizard of Oz dichotomy.
Most strikingly, Martin presents a sympathetic hero versus a snarling monster. The true vampires in the film are the city of Pittsburgh itself, losing the vital blood of young men that once were pumped through its mills and mines and now would go elsewhere, abandoning the city for jobs and lives elsewhere. It would not be until the early 2000s that the city would rise, more phoenix than vampire, and become the tech and gourmet destination that it is today. To go from the Braddock of 1978 to a five-time most livable city in the country has been quite the journey.
The second — and perhaps main — monster of the tale is Tateh Cuda. Whereas we have been traditionally taught to see Dracula as the villain and Van Helsing as the hero, this is a man who will not break from the ways of old, the days when the word of men and church stood above all. He is not to be defied — and when he is and his manhood is decimated by Christine’s departure and final words — all he can do is reassert said manhood in the most phallic way possible: a wooden stake through the heart of the other child he has lost. More than Martin — who questions if he truly is a vampire or not and if he can escape the family cruse — Cuda is trapped in his ways and will never leave them.
When faced with the change of guard at his church, Cuda cannot understand why so many are abandoning not only their faith but the city itself. When faced with the retirement of a priest he has known his whole life, he yells at Father Howard (Romero, in a small role) “Retired? Huh! Father Carelli is younger than I am. He asked to leave. He left like the rest of them. He thinks this town is finished!” Then, he learns that Carelli left only because cancer has taken him. Father Howard stands in contrast to the pre-Vatican 2 Catholic faith, a new style priest who laughs at The Exorcist without realizing that to someone like Cuda, those rites are very real.
Note: Lincoln Maazel, father of well-known orchestra conductor Lorin Maazel, played Tateh Cuda and lived to be 106 years old — he was already 75 when Martin was filmed.
Martin is not often said in the same breath as Romero’s zombie films and that’s a shame. It remains my favorite of his works, as there are so many ways to analyze the film. It’s not light watching or escapism, but the questions that it poses will stay with you long past the end of the film.
PS – Martin is not an easy film to find. I was satisfied knowing that I could get it at the Carnegie Library until I found my copy at VHSPS.com (sadly, it’s no longer available on their online store, so I’m glad I got my copy).