Night train to Pittsburgh. In a sleeper carriage a woman is jabbed with a hypodermic needle. Within minutes she is stripped naked and unconscious. Eighteen-year-old Martin (Amplas) undresses and lies down beside her. He slits the victim's wrist with a razor and drinks her blood.
The next morning Martin is met at the station by his elderly cousin Cuda (Maazel). Cuda is a modern day Van Helsing dressed in a white three-piece suit and carrying a cane. He has taken it upon himself to house the vampire Martin while trying to save the boy's 84-year-old soul. Cuda litters the house with anti-vampire paraphernalia to keep him away from his granddaughter Christina (Forrest; Romero's wife-to-be). "You may come and go but you will not take people from this city," he cautions Martin. "If I hear of it a single time then I will destroy you without salvation!" But it's not long before Martin steps out into the night, ignoring Cuda's warning.
From the very opening scene Romero - with help from Rubinstein's lo-fi score - conjures up a bleak and disturbing atmosphere, one that drifts through the entire film. Through travelling hand-held camerawork and atmospheric black and white flashbacks, he creates a raw and intimate portrayal of the dislocated junkie-like lead. Romero is a master of economic filmmaking thanks to his background in industrial films. Snappy editing and strict shots capture Martin's night-crawl excursions with the same calculated precision carried out by the film's bloodthirsty protagonist.
In one particular scene Martin taps into the core power of the film. Sat at the dinner table with Cuda and Christina, he performs a trick with a toy finger-guillotine. He slams the blade down and, digit still intact, says: "Things only seem to be magic... There is no magic!" By doing away with pointed teeth and exotic Counts in favour of razor blades and a sulky teen, Romero is removing the magic and mystery from the vampire legend. But rather than defusing the terror, this modern take on Transylvanian folklore reveals a far more alarming contemporary alternative.
Martin is right up there with other great revisionist vampire films such as Kathryn Bigelow's road movie Near Dark and Abel Ferrara's ode to heroin The Addiction. It also happens to be one of Romero's most accomplished films along with his underrated virus-shocker The Crazies.