George A. Romero’s Martin (1976) is the most thoroughgoing, sophisticated re-examination of the vampire figure yet attempted. Outwardly a retarded teenager, Martin (John Amplas) claims to be eighty-four, but his kindly niece (Christine Forrest) and the audience can’t tell if he’s being serious. He dreams of a black-and-white 1920s in the Old Country, where a beautiful victim welcomes him as her lover. But in modern Pittsburgh the potential blood donors plaster their faces with mud and Martin is less fearsome than the cops and junkies into whose shoot-out he blunders. Like Count Yorga, Martin has tried to adapt (his nighttime prowls are assisted by hypodermic needles, safety razor blades and remote control gadgetry), but he cannot cope with human beings. He assumes a housewife who has seen her husband off on a business trip will be an easy kill, but is outraged and frustrated when he finds her with another man. Martin pours out his problems to a late-night radio phone-in, but all he gets is a patronising nick-name, ‘The Count’.
Romero’s Savant is Tati Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), Martin’s cousin, a green-grocer who screeches ‘nosferatu’ a lot and waves crucifixes and garlic at the Monster. Cuda takes the shame of his family into the house with a promise to destroy him if he kills anyone from the town. One night, Martin waylays Cuda, frightening him with a Count Yorga costume. He spits out the plastic fangs, wipes off the grease-paint, shucks the cloak and bites into a clove of garlic. As Martin says, ‘there’s no real magic’. Martin is Romero’s most deeply felt film and John Amplas gives the most successfully realised, non-comic book performance of his work. This vampire is a psychotic innocent, out of place in a horribly decaying neighbourhood. The resolution is traditional, but tinged with Romero’s habitual irony. Martin is about to conquer his obsession through a normal love affair with a neurotic housewife. Depressed beyond his power to comfort her, she slits her wrists. Cuda, thinking Martin is the murderer, drives a stake through his heart. Martin is buried in the back garden and his grave is seeded with grass. After the credits have rolled and the cinema is empty of all but the most devoted movie purists, the sound montage of the all-night radio show ends with a nervous voice. ‘I’ve got this friend … who I think might be The Count.’