Film Ramblings:MARTIN(1977) Romero’s Tale of Ordinary Madness

“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

Charles Bukowski

     When I go to the cinema of politics to see what shitty movie these fat old geezers have playing, I park my ass on the right side of the auditorium. Living in New York State, about thirty miles east of Manhattan, some might say I’m behind enemy lines. It’s something one gets used to. I don’t like the politicians, most of their policies, the high taxes, exorbitant cost of living, the disgraceful conditions of the roads and the fucking DMV. Most of the people I’ve run across, however, are stand up citizens. If you’re all for everyone having Freedom of Speech, Bernie Bros and Trumpsters alike, we’ll get along fine. The other contentious shit, guns and whatnot, we can discuss over a few gentleman’s whiskeys. I know all the good spots. If you’re a gal,  drinks are on me. Buying a lady a couple of martinis isn’t a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy. It’s a simple gesture of respect and friendship.

The good sense of community aside, it’s still best to be cautious when you’re out and about. Especially, if booze will be added to any mathematical equation regarding your activities. There’s no need to accompany conversation with cannon fire. Society harbors too many crazies that will fuck with people simply because they have different values. Too many lunatics drinking the juices of hatred that want to become a Youtube star by beating the snot out of someone for thoughtcrimes. I’m not picking sides here. And I’m not talking about the politicians and much of the media. Let them stew in their own unsavory soup. Out of everyday folks, there are scumbags and solid people on both sides of the political aisle. Always has been. Always will be. No matter what the internet ghouls tell you.

I like to haunt the bars of New York City. I worked downtown for ten years and it’s only about a forty minute trek on the loathsome LIRR from where I live now. I don’t do the club scene anymore. To tell the truth, I never enjoyed those type of places. I’ve seen too many zombie flicks already. I was also born in ’72 and the only person that old that should be in a club, among the twirling and twisting youngsters, is the owner. Maybe the cops and EMTs if some chick overdosed in the can, or if some punk decided to end a fistfight with a pistol. You won’t catch me in one of those dens of displeasure, decorated with laser lights and smoke. What’s bottle service go for in one of the trendy places nowadays? Two or three grand for a carafe of watered down vodka? No wonder all the fucking millennials are broke.

I enjoy the quiet caves now. The dive bars. Half crowded joints that can be filled with a cocktail of longshoremen, your garden variety office worker, construction workers, creative types and a few hipsters sprinkled in. I dig that mix in clientele that the New York City gin joints offer.  Even on a Saturday night, you can find places that have breathing room. Who wants to fight their way through a mass of people like they were an adventurer chopping through unexplored jungle to find a legendary artifact just to get to the bar? Your prize is that you get to drop $23 for two drinks. Boozing should be a pleasurable experience. Until it comes time for you to peel your face off the concrete of some cold and damp back alley, that is. You never can tell who you’re doing shots with. Some people are hardcore.

Martin is the vampire story Bukowski would’ve scribbled on wet bar napkins.”

I’ve dropped this line a few times over the years while trying to pick up some of the arthouse refugee chicks that might be congregating in the bars in the East Village, or what’s left of Hell’s Kitchen. Manhattan dwellers know their independent film cinema. They also know their horror movies. Even the people that look like they dwell on the fringes of society, that maybe half the money they earn doesn’t come from legal avenues are well versed in the arts. Since it’s the Big Apple, many of them spin yarns about meeting a now dead writer in 1982, getting into a fist fight with a misanthrope actor in ’99, or blowing some drugged out punk rock guitarist in the late seventies. I never doubt these stories. Why would anyone feel the need to impress me? I’m just some dude looking to get drunk and have some fun.

It’s generally safe to talk about film, literature and music in a bar. I’ve found this to be true, anyway. People will spill blood over sports, religion and politics and not even feel remorse about it. It’s like they’re defending their children, an extension of themselves. It gets ugly quick. However, it’s tough to get a stranger’s blood boiling if you tell them that Sorcerer is better than The French Connection and contains the best ever performance by Roy Scheider. You tell that same person that you like Trump’s Tax Plan better than the proposed Tax Plan of Bernie Sanders and you’re at risk of getting drowned by that cheap vodka getting tossed in your face, or becoming a human urinal cake in a dirty men’s room. Keep those fights on Twitter, folks. Getting cancelled by The Church of the Perpetually Offended is one thing. Getting bones broken and limbs bent the wrong way is some real world horror that we should avoid like that co-worker with the dead tooth who always gets uncomfortably close to you when they talk. Each deliberately enunciated word out of their mouth brings the stench of the living dead clawing their way out of a sewer.

Is the statement regarding Bukowski and Martin valid? Maybe. Bukowski drank wine. Wine is a metaphor for blood. Vampires drink blood. See how easy that shit is? It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, either way. Just drop some outlandish thesis and make your explanation sound a tiny bit logical. The important thing is that it has to be entertaining. Inject it with emotion.  People would rather not be bored when they’re being bamboozled.  Art is subjective. That fact is a good thing for prickly film professors who don’t have any real world skills, as well as third rate writers of average looks with slight drinking problems. People need to get paid. Folks want to get laid. Time marches on like an undefeated army.

George Romero, who wrote and directed, among other films, Dawn of the Deadmade his “vampire” movie Martin in 1977. How does it relate to anything Bukowski wrote? The titular character in Martin roams the same sort of desolate landscape as Henry Chinaski. Fans of the wine swilling poet and novelist might know Hank Chinaski as well as their corner barber, or madame of the massage parlor in that nondescript strip mall near their home. Like books and films, only some massages have happy endings. For those of you who don’t drink and are not enlightened, Henry Chinaski is the alter ego of Charles Bukowski and the anti-hero of five of his novels. Both Chinaski and Martin seem to float on the outskirts of society, sometimes slamming into everyday citizens like an untethered dirigible and causing fair amounts of destruction. Both characters have addictions that usually have devastating effects on the souls that cross paths with them. Chinaski and Martin are almost like malfunctioning automatons, powered by monstrous urges hardwired onto their main circuits. Neither seems to have much control over their outrageous acts. Chinaski spends much of his time being an anti-social drunk who has a fondness for the racetrack and loose women. Martin, I believe, loves the ladies in his own way, as well. A most disturbed way. These brief relationships usually end in death. No time for any walks of shame, or uncomfortable break-ups.

Martin, played with a quiet skill by John Amplas, is a bland young man who mopes his way through life. A sad sack loner who buries himself in books and magic tricks. He also has a thirst for human blood. Chinaski would be seen by most as a sub-par human specimen. He’s a 90 proof puddle in the corner of the room. Like many of us, the dude has potential. He has a knack for writing. Chinaski’s capacity for success, however, is hobbled by whatever bottle of booze he can scrape up the money to afford. Liquor doesn’t have a long shelf life in whatever fleabag motel or transient flop house he is taking up space in. These two characters have flaws that, to say the very least, would make it difficult to have normal relationships.

Excessive drinking and writing has been one of the most successful partnerships in human history. Writing and a decent bartender is also the best, and cheapest, therapy for that alcoholic in your life that isn’t quite ready to strive for abstinence. You get to loathe yourself with humor and honesty with the shit you plop down on the page. It’s a shield. If you’re talented enough maybe you string some words together in an entertaining manner and some people toss a few coins at your drunk ass. The addiction metaphor has been used in the past with vampires, as well. Romero gives it a plainspoken and quiet pathos seldom seen before or since. This is no small feat when the audience considers the unspeakable acts Martin performs in the shadows. The claustrophobic opening of Romero’s movie, expertly shot and edited, shows us that Martin is nothing more than a serial killer.

Martin is an eighty four year old vampire. He believes this. Vampirism is a social construct, right? The elders of his family think he is “Nosferatu.” However, sunlight only bothers his eyes. Like a Chinaski hangover, nothing a pair of sunglasses can’t remedy. The sight of a crucifix doesn’t faze him and he chomps on garlic like it was an apple. There is no magic, Martin says. Romero’s vampire creation has no fangs, so he uses razor blades to open up wounds and drinks and bathes in the blood of his victims. Martin doesn’t wish to hurt the pretty ones, so he drugs them before slicing them open.

Martin is shipped off by train to go live with his cousin, Tata Cuda(Lincoln Maazel). Cuda is a man who looks like he has lived ten decades already. He is impeccably dressed in a garish white suit and strolls around with a walking cane. He treats his younger cousin with scorn. Cuda screams at him with contempt flaring out of his nostrils like a bull snorting as it zeroes in on some brittle pipsqueak to gore. Cuda lives in the dying Pennsylvania steel town of Braddock. Braddock was recently seen in the Christian Bale flick Out of the Furnace. Little seems to have improved for Braddock in forty plus years, which is a sad footnote for this movie. It’s also a sad footnote for America.

The audience gets the impression that Cuda and some of the other old-timers in the family might have some sort of tribunal. They have judged that their bloodline has been cursed by numerous “Nosferatu.” It seems that only the older generations in the family believe this nonsense. Cuda’s granddaughter,  played by Christine Forrest, thinks the old man has lost his mind. Cuda’s mission is to save young Martin’s soul and then destroy him. As Cuda shows Martin to the guest bedroom in the attic of his home, the old man issues a stern warning to the vampire. If Martin takes anyone from his city he will destroy him without saving his soul. Martin handles it the same way a teenager handles getting their allowance reduced for some minor infraction.

Romero wisely focuses on the rundown neighborhoods in Braddock. Watching Martin plod aimlessly among the crumbling architecture of abandoned industry, the audience gets the sense of alienation Martin feels in this strange location. This can be compared with Chinaski bouncing from bar to bar on skid row, drinking whatever he can afford to dull the pain of his meager existence. To take it a step further, are these two desperate settings any different than the digital slums we face on social media everyday? The alienation caused by cancel culture is some mean-spirited shit. It’s almost as if we don’t think those are humans behind those computer screens and smartphones on the internet.

During his travels on foot, Martin watches the people of  Braddock and the neighboring towns and cities come and go as they move through life. Most that encounter Martin regard him as a non-entity. Some are hostile towards him. Martin isn’t just a curious people watcher. He’s scoping the landscape for future victims. He’s an unassuming predator and those are usually the most dangerous kind.

Tata Cuda puts Martin to work at his butcher shop. As the customers file in searching for pork chops and rump roast, Cuda flirts with the younger women as he prepares their orders. We’re talking about younger women that look like they’re at least in their sixties. However, this movie is over forty years old. People aged a lot faster back then. It was all that cigarette smoking, bad diets and a shitty economy. Exercise was pounding back scotch with every meal. Shitty fashion didn’t exactly help people look as if they were aging in a graceful manner, either. Polyester dresses in lime green and burgundy, fake pearls and an extra 20 pounds of sagging skin didn’t make one recall Audrey Hepburn in the 1960s.

Martin delivers meats on foot, sweeps up the shop, stocks shelves and other menial tasks. Like many older folk do to their younger subordinates, Cuda berates him in front of the customers. The younger generation always gets shit on. And it’s not always deserved. Martin is branded lazy and an imbecile by Cuda. Henry Chinaski experienced similar abuse from people like his father and his multitude of bosses in novels like Factotum. The boozy Chinaski can’t hold a job down as the boredom sets in which, inevitably, leads to some ill-timed drinking and general debauchery. Dogs and drunks have no concept of time. They’ll both do anything at anytime. Martin also has trouble focusing on things. We can see the struggle and the hunger wash over him. Martin is overcome by the taxing minutiae of life when the urge to drink blood controls him like a marionette wearing a costume cape, fake fangs and pancake makeup. The blood lust pulls Martin from the light and turns him into a night stalker, prowling dark corners in alleys and lurking in the shadows of people’s backyards.

There are two major set pieces in this when Martin hunts his pray. Don’t expect any explosions or crazy special effects. This is a low-budget flick. Romero, in an inspired display of artistic flair, cuts from color which represents the film’s present day to vignettes in black and white. These film noir interludes represent the past in the “old country.” Or maybe they’re just delusions caused by Martin’s psychosis? Martin’s fragile psyche isn’t getting any help from the constant casting of aspersions from the family elders that he’s a vampire. The audience should be enthralled with the seamless way Romero splices the two together. For instance, we see the modern day Martin being pursued by the cops on that splendid, slightly grainy 1970’s color film stock. This is cut with a black and white scene featuring a fresh faced Martin, wearing shorter hair and period clothing. He’s being hunted down by townspeople who march after him, fists and torches waving in the air. It’s a vision that would make Boris Karloff proud.

Martin becomes a local celebrity when he calls into a talk show on the radio. He uses the moniker “The Count.” The nonchalant way in which Martin details his affliction and some of his nocturnal escapades is chilling in a strange way. There is almost a childlike innocence to Martin as he recounts the stuff in his life. It’s not hard to fathom a Martin in 2019 becoming an internet sensation. He’d very likely have a vast army of Twitter followers and his Youtube channel, in which he details all things vampire, would be monetized for hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for him. That would buy a lot of razor blades. Martin would just need to spin his vampirism and murderous behavior as a result of him being oppressed by society. He could then be given the moral high ground. The “normies” are always wrong these days.

At its heart, Romero’s Martin may simply be a metaphor for generational differences. The traditional citizens of a society against the weirdos, the outcasts. The old holding onto an antiquated  past and the young wanting to shape a different future from the present. These are themes as old as history and religion. There’s ample religious imagery in this film. We often see church spires rising over the decaying city. The camera focuses on crucifixes mounted to the walls and other trinkets of Christianity on display in Cuda’s home. I remember staying with my aunt when I was young due to a death of one of the elders in my mother’s family. My aunt had a house similar to Cuda’s. It was probably around the time Martin came out. I always recall thinking the dozens of crucifixes and portraits of icons a little unsettling to me. It’s stayed with me to this day. Don’t get me started with the portrait of Christ on the wall above the shitter. It was just too weird.

Martin will stick with you, as well. The movie’s final fifteen minutes is filled with tragic ironies. One can imagine these twists of fate would be something Chinaski would be glib about as he pounded beer from pilsner glasses at 11am in some hole in the wall joint in Los Angeles. This movie has an amazing score by jazz musician, Donald Rubinstein. It evokes the histories of the old world and highlights a modern day sadness. This is a film that is tough to categorize. It’s as much an independent film drama as it is a drive-in horror flick. Martin is George Romero’s quiet masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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