DirectorGeorge A. Romero
Release Date(s)1977 (March 27, 2023)
Studio(s)Laurel Productions/Braddock Associates (Second Sight)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
While George A. Romero will always be best remembered for revamping zombie lore with Night of the Living Dead and the sequels that followed, his own personal favorite of all his films was actually Martin, which was an equally noteworthy reinvention of vampire mythology. Romero had followed up the underground success of Night of the Living Dead with a string of films in a variety of different genres, all of which had failed to find an audience. Martin wasn’t necessarily a hit, either, but it did revitalize his career while breathing new life into a subgenre that had become a bit stale at that point. It also marked an artistic turning point for Romero, as it was his first feature film collaboration with producer Richard P. Rubenstein, cinematographer Michael Gornick, composer Donald Rubenstein, and most significantly for Romero fans, makeup effects artist Tom Savini, who also had a small acting role in the film (something that he would continue to do going forward). It was an intensely personal film for Romero on multiple levels, and aside from perhaps Knightriders, it remains the most personal film that he ever made.
Night of the Living Dead had completely thrown out the traditional voodoo trappings in favor of turning zombies into undead flesh-eating ghouls instead. Martin didn’t quite go that far, but it does interrogate the conventional nature of cinematic vampirism by setting up a dialectical clash between the old and the new, as well as between the real and the imagined. Romero’s story revolves around Martin (John Amplas), a shy young man who believes that he’s an 84-year-old vampire living in modern-day Pennsylvania. If he really is a vampire, he’s not the typical version from folklore, but instead someone who simply needs human blood in order to survive, utilizing modern tools like sedatives and razor blades rather than hypnotism and fanged teeth. Martin has traveled to Braddock, Pennsylvania in order to live with his elderly cousin Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) and Cuda’s niece Christine (Christine Forrest). The devoutly Catholic and wildly superstitious Cuda has no doubts that Martin is the real deal, so he provides a dire warning to his young relative:
“Vampire! First I will save your soul, then I will destroy you... You may come and go, but you will not take people from the city. If I hear of it, a single time, I will destroy you without salvation.”
In many respects, Martin’s supposed vampirism is a manifestation of his discomfort with his own sexuality. He’s fascinated by sex, surreptitiously traveling around the seedier parts of Braddock to explore adult shops, but he’s shy and awkward around women. As a result, Martin is only able to engage in what he calls “the sexy stuff” during the course of his vampiric activities, raping the women while they’re unconscious. Yet he still longs for a normal relationship, even though he’s unable to let go of his perverse fantasies. The real world of Martin may be that of a drab, industrial Pittsburgh suburb, but Martin keeps seeing Gothic, sepia-toned visions of a world that once was, or perhaps it’s only one that could have been. Romero never clarifies whether these black-and-white interstitials are flashbacks or fantasies, but either way, Martin sees them instead of his own real world while he’s engaging in acts of rape and murder. His reality is fantasy, regardless of whether or not he’s actually a vampire. It’s only once he finally takes a few baby steps toward engaging with a woman on genuine human terms that he’s able to see the world for what it really is, but that ends up becoming his undoing.
Martin remains ambiguous regarding whether or not Martin is a genuine vampire, because the answer to that question isn’t particularly important to this story. The only thing that matters is that Martin honestly believes that he’s a vampire, and even more importantly, that his cousin(?) Cuda does as well. Yet their own beliefs are still completely at odds with each other. Cuda calls Martin a Nosferatu, and he accepts the fantastical trappings of vampire lore as established fact. Martin rejects that mythology, telling Cuda that “there is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.” The central irony of Martin is that it makes no difference which one of them is right, or indeed if either of them is right at all. They could both be equally wrong, and yet their individual beliefs will still send them down a predestined path to inevitability. Eight years after the release of Martin, a very different vampire in Fright Night would tell his hunters that they had to have faith for their crucifixes to work on him. Tata Cuda’s own faith may be weak, and his trinkets may be equally worthless, yet his core beliefs are still strong enough that he’s able to overcome any such weakness to take decisive action. Martin’s beliefs are equally strong, so he continues to do what he thinks that he needs to do, but that puts Cuda in the position of having to put his own beliefs to the test.
It’s in that regard that there’s a secondary irony in Martin. Tata Cuda established the rules under which he would allow Martin to live in his house, and for all of the contempt that Martin may have for his cousin’s beliefs, he still abides by those rules. Yet in the end, Martin is undone by a misunderstanding. Cuda may or may not be mistaken in his beliefs about Martin’s vampiric nature, but regardless, he’s mistaken about Martin’s actions in Braddock. Cuda passes judgment based on his own error, which makes a mockery of the whole notion of “sincerely held beliefs”—the sincerity of such beliefs is of cold comfort to the likes of Martin. As with the rest of Romero’s best work, it’s the process of unpacking all of these layers that makes Martin so endlessly fascinating, and real vampire or not, Martin himself has achieved a kind of immortality as a result.
Cinematographer Michael Gornick shot Martin on standard 16 mm film using Arriflex 16SR cameras—not in Super-16, as IMDb claims. (The full Super-16 frame would have been at a ratio of 1.66:1, not 1.37:1 as with Martin.) Gornick used reversal stock, since they had some left over from the production of the television documentary series The Winners. Reversal captures a positive image, not a negative, so using it can eliminate the interpositive stage, as a dupe negative can be created directly from the camera original, with release prints struck from that. Martin was blown up to 35 mm for theatrical release, but it’s not clear if that was done directly from the original reversal, or if there were intervening stages used in the process. While those prints would have likely been shown matted to 1.85:1, Romero and Gornick’s preferred framing was always 1.37:1, and that ratio has been reproduced correctly here. Second Sight’s restoration utilizes a 4K scan of the 35 mm dupe negative, graded in High Dynamic Range in the relatively rare dynamic HDR10+, with the whole process supervised and approved by Gornick.
All of that needs to be taken into consideration when assessing this transfer—it doesn’t necessarily need to be graded on a curve, but it does need to be judged with realistic expectations. The grain is moderately heavy, and the fine detail is necessarily limited, even in 4K. No, there’s not really 4K worth of detail visible at any point, nor would there have been even if the original 16 mm footage was still available. Yet the grain is managed perfectly by the 4K encoding, and there are no other compression artifacts of note. The bit rate isn’t maximized due to the quantity of extras included on the disc, but Fidelity in Motion still did their usual excellent work here. There’s not too much remaining damage to report, aside from the occasional very minor scratch, and some debris at the edges of the frame. There are a few shots throughout the film that look like they may have been derived from later-generation dupe elements, but while they’re slightly less well-resolved than the surrounding material, they’re not too distracting.
The HDR grade extracts the maximum amount of color information available from the elements used, but don’t expect anything revelatory in that regard. Romero actually wanted to release the entire film in black-and-white, so he was never focused on the color in the first place. He may have lost that battle, but he was at least able to compromise and keep the flashbacks/fantasies in black-and-white. (As an aside, that’s why they’re sepia-toned rather than true black-and-white, as they had to be printed on color stock.) The contrast range shows the most improvement, with genuinely deep black levels—arguably a bit too deep at times, since there’s some crush, but there likely wasn’t much shadow detail on the dupe negative to begin with. On the other end of the spectrum, the highlights are brighter, bordering on being blowing out occasionally, but they never quite cross that line. It’s obviously not a perfect presentation, nor could it be, but it’s still the best that Martin has ever looked on home video.
Audio is offered in English DTS-HD Master Audio, in three different mixes: 1.0 mono, 2.0 stereo, and 5.1. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. Note that the 2.0 track is surround encoded, so the only real practical difference between it and the 5.1 track is that the latter has greater separation due to the discrete encoding. The 1.0 track is the original theatrical mono version, so purists will want to stick with that one. On the other hand, Donald Rubenstein did record his score in stereo, so there’s something to be said for the other versions as well. In both cases, the dialogue and sound effects remain focused on the center channel, so they primarily offer the score in stereo, with reverberant effects in the surrounds. It’s such a great score that it seems like a shame to limit it to mono, but the choice is yours. Regardless of which track that you choose, they’re all generally clean and clear, and it’s interesting to note that the few defects that do crop up occur equally on all three tracks—for example, there are a couple of faint pops right before Martin opens the train door at 2:53, and they’re present in every version. Issues like that are few and far between, however.
Second Sight’s Standard Edition 4K Ultra HD release of Martin is UHD only, with no Blu-ray included. (They’re offering a Region B locked Blu-ray edition separately.) The extras mix two archival commentary tracks with two new ones, and new featurettes with a couple of vintage ones. (Note that the extended black-and-white workprint of Martin couldn’t be included here despite Second Sight’s best efforts). The following extras are included:
DISCS ONE & TWO: UHD & BD
- Audio Commentary by George A. Romero, John Amplas, and Tom Savini
- Audio Commentary by George A. Romero, Richard P. Rubenstein, Tom Savini, Michael Gornick, and Donald Rubenstein
- Audio Commentary by Travis Crawford
- Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger
- Taste the Blood of Martin (HD – 69:15)
- Scoring the Shadows (HD – 17:30)
- J. Roy: New and Used Furniture (HD – 11:13)
- Making Martin: A Recounting (Upscaled SD – 9:34)
- Trailer, TV, and Radio Spots (HD & Upscaled SD – 4:40, 4 in all)
The first vintage commentary with Romero, Amplas, and Savini was originally recorded for the Anchor Bay DVD in 2000. If you’ve ever listened to any of Romero’s group commentaries, you’ll know what to expect here, as it’s very freewheeling and conversational. These are old friends, reminiscing about old friends. They kick things off by talking about the longer cut, the apparent loss of which Romero calls the great tragedy of his career, and also about the fact that Romero wanted the entire film to be exhibited in black & white. They point out the missing material all throughout the track, and compare it to what happened in the novelization. The second vintage commentary with Romero, Richard P. Rubenstein, Savini, Gornick, and Donald Rubenstein was originally recorded for the 2004 Lionsgate DVD. While it inevitably covers much of the same material as the first one, the presence of Gornick and the Rubensteins means that there are a few different angles as well. Both commentaries definitely have archival value, though they may occasionally test the patience of all but the most avid of fans. Still, they do represent Romero’s own thoughts about Martin, so it’s wonderful that they’re both included here.
The first of the new commentary tracks features journalist and film programmer Travis Crawford, and it’s not his first rodeo commenting on a Romero film, since he also worked on releases of The Crazies, There’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, Dawn of the Dead, and Monkey Shines. He explains up front that he’s going to provide some generalized thoughts about Martin rather than a scene-specific breakdown. He does give an overview of the shooting and original release of the film, as well as the context of Romero’s career up to that point, including the early days of Laurel Productions and their work in television. He also provides a history of Braddock, information about the cast & crew, and more details about the provenance of the extended workprint of the film. He traces many of the differences between the screenplay, the final film, the re-edited Italian version Wampyr, and the seemingly lost workprint.
The second of the new commentary tracks features author, editor, and critic Kat Ellinger. Since she specializes in Gothics and vampire films anyway, Martin is firmly in her bailiwick. She sees the film as being Gothic to its core, despite the contemporary setting, and makes the damned good point that the settings of the original literary Gothics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula were actually contemporary for readers of their day. While she does touch on some production stories, she explains that her primary approach is going to be to “pick Martin right down to the bones” to see what Romero was trying to accomplish with the film. She says Martin is a monster, but one who’s vulnerable and fragile, and of all the unique elements in Martin, the most significant one is that Martin is actually a sexually inadequate vampire. That makes it feel somewhat tragic, albeit in an even more transgressive fashion than other vampire films do. Ellinger may have been an obvious choice to provide a commentary on a vampire film like Martin, but as always, she proves why she’s the right choice.
The wonderfully titled Taste the Blood of Martin is a new documentary on the making of the film, produced and directed by David Gregory, featuring interviews with Gornick, assistant cameraman Tom Dubensky, Savini, and one-man sound department Tony Buba, as well as actors John Amplas, Christine Forrest, and Sara Venable. They all share stories about how they met George Romero, and how they became involved with the production of Martin. They discuss how Romero developed his ideas, and the relaxed but challenging nature of shooting this film. While most of the interviews were all recorded separately, Amplas, Gornick, and Dubensky also walk together through the streets of Braddock, searching for all of the original locations. The subject of the longer workprint does come up at one point, but the exact nature of rumors surrounding the supposed discovery of it is left as ambiguous as is the question of whether or not Martin really is a vampire. Taste the Blood of Martin is a great introduction to the world of Martin for new fans of the film, but there’s plenty of interesting material here for existing fans as well.
Scoring the Shadows is an interview with composer Donald Rubenstein, who talks about his life, his influences, and his work with Romero. He explains the way that he composed the scores, and how Romero ended up cutting them to film—he says that Romero was a wonderfully adept music editor. J. Roy: New and Used Furniture is a documentary short subject from 1974, directed by Tony Buba, that looks at legendary Braddock entrepreneur “Diamond” Jimmy Roy, who remained an eternal optimist through multiple business failures, and reinvented himself as something of an influencer for the rest of the business community. Making Martin: A Recounting is a short featurette from the 2004 Lionsgate DVD. It includes interviews with Romero, Savini, Gornick, Forrest, and Donald Rubenstein. It doesn’t really reveal much that isn’t covered in Taste the Blood of Martin, but it’s still of great value since it includes interviews with Romero, and it offers Angelina Buba as a bonus. (Romero also makes it clear here that he doesn’t think that Martin really is a vampire.) Finally, the Trailer, TV, and Radio Spots are all interesting because they’re narrated on-camera by Martin, so they include footage that isn’t in the film.
Second Sight is also offering a Limited Edition UHD release of Martin that’s a three-disc set including a Region B locked Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as a CD of Donald Rubenstein’s soundtrack album. It also includes five art cards designed by Adam Stohard, and a 108-page booklet featuring essays by Daniel Bird, Tony Williams, Kat Ellinger, Andrew Graves, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Jon Towlson, Elena Lazic, Simon Ward, Miranda Corcoran, Stephen Thrower, Heather Drain, and Travis Crawford, as well as a collection of stills and other promotional materials. Everything is housed in a rigid slipcase that uses the iconic original poster artwork for the film. That set is obviously the gold standard for Martin, but it’s going to sell out quickly, so this Standard Edition is a viable alternative when that happens. The disc-based content is identical, and Rubenstein’s soundtrack is available elsewhere. It may take a bit of effort to obtain it, as Second Sight can’t ship it directly to North America for legal reasons, but it’s well worth the effort to track down.
- Stephen Bjork