Saturday, June 14, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 8

When we last left our friend George A. Romero, he was stumbling a bit over his other revisionist horror projects. The lagtime between the Season of the Witch and today's film was a period of growth for Romero (and his budget). The Crazies was a more concentrated effort, and one with a message. After Night of the Living Dead, not wanting to be pigeonholed, he took a turn down the road less traveled. He went for broke with There's Always Vanilla, then decided maybe horror still had something to offer him, but wanted to add something of his own to it. With Season of the Witch, he equated witchcraft with middle-aged sexuality. He added some elements of Night of the Living Dead to The Crazies, but that film was mostly a bolder restatement of his earlier theme of the murderous potential of a group of people. His next film has a number of important distinctions from his previous three features; it's a post-modern, revisionist vampire film quite unlike any other; it acted as the foundation for the style he was about to become famous for; and it's one of his best films.

by George A. Romero

A twitchy young man watches as an attractive, young woman takes her seat on an over-night train to New York City. He waits for darkness, prepares a syringe, and waits outsider her door. He imagines the scenario in which a woman like this would willingly invite him into her room. Then he charges in, sticks her with the syringe, and tries to subdue her. When she protests and tries to swear at him to call him down, he shouts back "Please! This is important to me....just go to sleep". When the drugs take effect, he undresses and lies with her on her bed. He then cuts her arm with a razor blade and drinks her blood. This should be in the pantheon of great horror movie introductions along with Night of the Living Dead, The Thing, and the new Dawn of the Dead, but as I appear to be one of 1,000 people who've seen this movie all the way through, I'll excuse it's absence.

The young man excuses himself from the Train at Pittsburgh and is greeted by a large man in a white suit. The two walk in silence from the trains to the older man's house. Martin, the young man, is visibly awkward and his older cousin seems to fear him. When they arrive home the first words out of the older man's mouth is "Nosferatu". The old man appears to be on to Martin's killing spree, but doesn't know quite what to do. A word about our old man; he is in no uncertain terms a nut. His name is Tada Cuda, he believes every word of his eastern European religious upbringing, which means that he believes that Martin is descended from vampires, and therefore must be one. Martin goes out of his way to show the coot that he is not a vampire, like taking a bite out of the garlic left in his room and going out almost exclusively during the day, but that doesn't stop Tada Cuda from putting an alarm bell on Martin's bedroom door and ranting to whoever will listen. Martin's other relatives are a touch nicer, though it must be said, not unconditionally. His cousin Christine is a kindly woman in her late 20s married to an absent blowhard named Arthur. Christine likes Martin, but probably just because he isn't Arthur, who stays out drinking when he isn't at work. Romero handles this little subplot really well showing once again that he is in his element portraying real people instead of caricatures.

Despite the obstacles, Martin tries to settle in to his new life. He befriends one lonely housewife who he does chores for and begins spying on another lonely housewife who we assume is the boy's next target. As he has no one to talk to about personal things he begins making phone calls to a local radio DJ to try and talk out his extraordinary existence and the difference between it and what you might see in the movies. Tada Cuda meanwhile tries to ingrain the religious fervor into Christine and all others within earshot. The old man sees religion as the ultimate justification for his loathing of the boy and whatever actions he might take. While Tada Cuda tries to either reform or condemn the boy publicly, Martin takes both of his relationships one step further. First he stalks and kills the woman he's been spying on, then he begins sleeping with the other. The killing doesn't go as planned (the woman's lover is present, upsetting his plans more than a little), and the consensual sex is not something he is used to; together the events are enough to throw him off pretty seriously. He begins getting anxious and starts trying to kill drifters which nearly gets him arrested. Between his relatives, his lovelife, his only outlet for conversation, and his hunger for blood things are bound to come to a head.

Martin is and has always been George A. Romero's favorite of his films. Having seen most of them, I'd call that pretty reasonable. Martin is, more than any other Romero film with the possible exception of Night of the Living Dead, about real people. Season of the Witch and There's Always Vanilla were about close-to-normal people, and the characters in Dawn were a touch exaggerated and everyone that followed was just this side of completely unbelievable (sometimes, as in Creepshow, this was on purpose). With the purposive exceptions of the titular hero and Tada Cuda, everybody acts in a reasonable manner, not even given the circumstances; everyone is very clearly an average inhabitant of Pittsburgh. Their actions in the face of all the weirdness are thus perfectly understandable. When Christine and Arthur leave Martin, upsetting him to the point of nearly getting caught, they do it because it seems the logical step in their marriage, that it serves as a plot-point for the story proper seems incidental. This is a very interesting choice to make because he invests much more energy into telling the story behind the religious infatuation and blood motivation charging Martin and his crazed uncle. Romero (who cameos as their talkative, down-to-earth priest, who actually got a few laughs out of me) goes out of his way to contrast Tada Cuda's religious ravings with that of the neighborhood christianity. The religion that Christine adheres to, the one that Romero's Father Howard preaches, is as much a part of the Pittsburgh lifestyle as the game that Arthur insists on watching, the factories on nearly every street, and Tada Cuda's grocery where a lot of chatty women pass the time. Martin serves as an upset to the community in more ways than one. By entering the town to alternately kill, sleep with, and divert the affections of many women, he is not unlike your typical movie vampire; the difference is that he nearly becomes a member of the community in doing so. Having an affair with one of the women makes him close to the two lovers he stalks and kills. Instead of a descent into depravity, Martin descends into normalcy, which in the end has the same effect as if he was as evil as Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi. Except instead of a village or even a small party with torches, it's one old man and his warped beliefs. That neither Martin nor Tada Cuda is in the right when the film's conclusion rolls around is definitely a good thing. Martin seems to have relaxed his vampiring, and ends blamed for the one murder he didn't commit. There's a lot going on in this movie and for it to remain uncelebrated is criminal.

The actors are all competent: John Amplas as Martin in particular seems like he's not acting at all. Romero found him at a Pittsburgh playhouse. This film was the first of Romero's post-Night community pictures: his wife plays Martin's cousin, Tom Savini plays the hard drinking Arthur, the brothers Buba who acted as editor and sound designer respectively, on top of lending Romero their house to use as a location, show up as drug dealers near the end, and a few zombie extras in Dawn show up as extras here. This kind of communal feel is really what makes Romero's films so special to me on top of everything else. Technically it isn't anything special to look at, but there's one decision Romero made that floored me in its conception. Whenever Martin is in the process of attacking or gets the urge to kill we see black and white footage of the boy in period clothes performing a more romantic seduction and murder. He's imagining an ancestor doing the killing and it looks not unlike many other cinematic vampire attacks. Playing with time like this, in a brilliant flash of montage editing, is something he'd never done before and he's never done since. It works really well and Martin is made thrice as interesting because of it. It makes clear just how much Martin is influenced by old lore, though he jumps on his old uncle for the same influence.
The message seems to be that tradition is a great corrupter and that one needs to make way for the new. It's why Christine and Arthur leave their town, why Martin becomes an object of lust, why a priest laughs at an old man's tired faith, and why Martin is a new kind of vampire. His use of syringes and razor blades is, for my money, ten times as gross as using your teeth (What would have made the teeth work better for me is to show the wounds getting infected the same way your mouth does when you get punched in the jaw. Thank you Nick Smerkanich for that tidbit). The only tradition Martin adheres to is to go around vampiring, and as with any old evil, there's an old consequence waiting for you.

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