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Down the years I have passionately ate, drank and occasionally thrown up cinema. I have experienced cinematic fictions both astonishingly profound and unbearably ghastly and have enthusiastically sought out rare, celluloid delights when the overdraft deems it safe to do so.  

Martin - Special Edition
There are so many films I haven’t seen, but there are few I have not heard of. So it was with a fair amount of anticipation that I look inside my letterbox and find a copy of George A. Romero’s Martin, a film that had slipped entirely through my filmic radar, but in a few short hours had managed to etch itself into my memory banks forever.

Produced just as the entire western world was recovering from the societal cold turkey that was the seventies, Martin is the fundamentally serious tale of a teenage vampire (John Amplas) struggling to find a recess for his personality in a barren suburban wilderness that is one more job loss away from becoming a ghost town.

Living with his hostile, God-fearing cousin (Lincoln Maazel), Martin struggles with his natural craving for human blood, a methodical process that involves razor blades, heady barbiturates and affectionate, non-penetrative rape. But the real world is an intolerant place, and it is not long before Martin finds himself the victim to suburbia’s more vampiric aspects.

With all of his productions, Romero injects his narrative with themes that reflect the crucial issues of contemporary society of the day. Night of the Living Dead was infinitely more subtle in its treatment of racial tensions than films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Equally, with The Crazies Romero looks at social hysteria and paranoia, standing up well next to similar films including The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In this way, his films are just a significant as those of his peers such as Scorsese or Bogdanovich; subverting the conventions of these stereotypically trashy genre films and injecting them with a heavy dose of gritty realism.

Martin takes a much more emotional route than the other films on his CV, standing out as Romero’s most personal work to date. It is about personality problems and fitting in. Martin’s not evil; he is just another monster that was raised in Pittsburgh instead of purgatory. Amplas instils Martin with a vulnerability and sweetness that ultimately makes for compelling viewing when Martin calmly conspires to take yet another unsuspecting victim.

Martin - Special Edition
Although Amplas essentially carries the film on his shoulders, the supporting cast also pull in some fine performances. Romero often casts non-actors in his films and his acting troupe only adds to the overall unsettling authenticity of the whole piece. I shouldn’t end this without praising fan favourite Tom Savini’s performance as a disillusioned car mechanic. Martin marked his first collaboration with Romero and also created the make-up effects and performed all the stunts.

One of the most endearing aspects about the film is the no frills, guerrilla style approach. The film was shot with a small crew and limited resources. Catering came courtesy of the owner of the house where most of the action took place and Romero himself multi-tasked, performing the role of director, editor, producer, screenwriter and actor. Because of the bare essentials approach to this film, every shot exudes care and precision, every frame conveying love and enthusiasm. Nowadays, we rarely see experienced filmmakers indulging in this back to basics approach. It would be interesting to see what this year’s Best Director nominees could deliver with these kinds of restrictions.

Nevertheless, it is great to see Martin receiving a proper DVD release. Although this version does not contain the legendary 2 hours 45 minute cut of the picture, it is still a joy to see it so lovingly transferred and packaged in this way.

To put it simply, Martin is not your typically schlocky, drive-in movie. There is a real power to the film; a rebellious horror flick that doesn’t just make its mandate to go out for cheap scares and excessive gore (despite there being plenty of this). Romero fans will be thrilled, but so should any self-respecting completist of American independent cinema. The film has something important to say, but is not arrogant enough to want to jam its message down the viewers throat. A remarkable achievement and a gem of a movie—buy two copies and chuck one in a time capsule. Romero’s films have lovingly charted the appalling progress of American society down the years. No one does it better.

Martin - Special Edition
Video
This special edition two-disc set, presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer where the original full frame aspect ratio has been matted to 1.85:1. For what it is, the grainy image quality (a direct result of the original film having been shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm) is adequate. The image on a whole is soft and lacking in details and definition. Colours seem washed out and muted and there is also the hint of noise visible at various points. It certainly looks better than any VHS release, it’s just a shame the distributor did not see the film as significant enough to warrant a proper restoration.  

Like other films of its type released on DVD, the film’s age is apparent with the occasional scratches and blemishes criss-crossing through the picture at various moments. For many consumers this may well be a serious barrier toward purchase, for this viewer however, I always find these aspects endearing, as the aging of celluloid is just something that comes with the fragility of cinema. Like the folds on the spines of books or the crackles on a vinyl record, there’s warmth and definition to the image that exudes character. You don’t buy a film like this for the flawless image quality. You buy it because you desire to own it.  

Audio
The audio presentation is a similar case of putting up with the limited resources the filmmakers had at their disposal. Two soundtracks are on offer.  One is in the form of a Dolby Digital 5.1 arrangement, while the other is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Neither audio tracks will put your sound system through its paces.

The clarity of the dialogue was adequate and the lack of background noise, possibly due to extensive ADR at the time, is a real bonus. The audio commentary and supplementary materials get Dolby 2.0 Surround.

Martin - Special Edition
Donald Rubenstein’s memorable avant-garde score has never sounded better. His innovative use of found objects place Martin firmly in the realm of the eerie, no doubt influence by Wayne Bell’s work on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and in turn being an inspiration for Michael Giacchino’s work on ABC’s Lost.  

Extras
The supplements are spread out over both discs with the audio commentary featuring Romero, Donald Rubinstein (composer), Tom Savini (actor, stuntman, make-up) and Michael Gornick (director of photography), proving to be a particular highlight on the package. As you might expect, the whole track plays out like a high school reunion, full of touching memories and amusing anecdotes. Each member talks fondly of the experience and one gets the impression that if it wasn’t for rheumatism or colostomy bags they’d get together and do it all again in an instant. Romero very much leads the discussion talking with a wit and intelligence that only great filmmaker raconteurs could possess. He also doesn’t take himself too seriously and is more than happy to point out the weaker, less effective moments of the film without worrying about whether it will ruin his credibility.

Much of the second disc is fairly weak for a film that is being marketed as a ‘Special Edition’ release. ‘Making Martin’ is a pathetic nine-minute documentary that only skims the surface on the making of the movie. Knowing that there is a whole lot more to be said as evidenced by the revelations on the audio commentary, this was a real disappointment. The documentary features Romero, Savini, Christine Romero, Gornick and Donald Rubinstein as well as the old, devout catholic home owner whose house the filmmakers covered in liberal lashings of gore.

This scrawny package is rounded off with a few radio spots, a TV spot, the original trailer and a stills/poster gallery. Could they not have fitted all this on a single disc? There’s nothing like the old two-disc ‘Special Edition’ scam to get DVD fans slavering with anticipation and then duping them into purchasing a feeble package. It is discs like this that really weaken the credibility of other, much more munificent packages.

Martin - Special Edition
Overall
I simply cannot recommend Martin enough. This is a successful transference of the vampire myth to a modern setting, long before Buffy came on the scene.

I had the pleasure of meeting George Romero when he visited the Edinburgh Film Festival last year. I asked him if he had any advice for young filmmakers. His reply to me was,

“Don’t make pussy lollypop movies.”

After experiencing Martin I find myself being drawn toward Romero’s guidance all the more.


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