Just to the right of the tumult that is the autograph line for George Romero at ZomBcon, a man stands casually in front of a dealer’s table, smiling unassumingly at passersby. Bright eyes twinkle from behind his glasses, and his tousled salt-and-pepper hair and aware-but-genial expression suggest a good-natured academic who’s wandered into this den of undead mayhem by mistake.
But I know better. He’s Martin the Vampire.
John Amplas began acting at age ten, honing his craft in various community theater ventures in Pennsylvania before studying at Pittsburgh’s prestigious Playhouse School as a teenager. He’s appeared in several films, and currently serves as associate professor of the Theater and Arts department at Point Park University, putting his four decades of experience in theater and film to work educating a new generation of actors and filmmakers. Impressive as these accomplishments are, however, Amplas is in Seattle thanks to his long association with director George Romero. He’s appeared in a half-dozen Romero pictures, playing everything from a dyspeptic vengeful ghoul in Creepshow to an earnest scientist in 1985’s Day of the Dead, but his most memorable portrayal remains his first for the director: the title character in the director’s 1977 movie, Martin.
Released just a year before Romero blew the horror genre wide-open with Dawn of the Dead, Martin tells the story of a young man who may or may not be a vampire, satisfying his bloodlust amidst the dessicated husk of a small Pennsylvania industrial town. It’s one of the director’s most subtle pieces–less a horror flick than a haunting character study for most of its running time–and Amplas’ incredible work in the movie gives it much of its quiet power. Few screen sociopaths this side of Norman Bates manage to engender such a beguiling combination of sympathy, pity, humor, and revulsion.
The SunBreak caught up with Amplas in between ZomBcon panels and screenings, and true to form, he offered choice insights on his finest film role, his years as part of George Romero’s repertory company, and his career as an educator…all without sucking a drop of anyone’s blood.
Martin‘s one of the great overlooked horror movies of the 1970’s, in large part because of your work in it. How did you become involved with the production?
Thank you! I was acting in a play in my senior year [of college], and George Romero happened to see it. He contacted me, and two or three months later–fall of 1976–we started filming.
I heard that George re-wrote the script to accommodate you. Is that true?
Well, George told me that when he first wrote Martin, he’d written the character [as] much older. Then when he saw me, he went and revised the script to make Martin a younger man.
Martin comes from that horror tradition of very sympathetic, very human monsters.
I agree, although I don’t think I’d call him a monster, per se. His addiction to blood is just that–an addiction–and I played him as someone who had this very big need. I played him as an addict, someone who couldn’t help doing awful things to satisfy that need. And there’s a sense of isolation, of abandonment in Martin that I could really relate to and tap into as an actor. So I didn’t see Martin as a monster…
How much input did Romero give you on creating the part?
George is a wonderful writer, and it was his vision, so I was just trying to bring the character to life. But he did give me a lot of leeway when it came to creating Martin. And we both agreed that whether Martin was really a vampire or not, he believed he was.
That ambiguity is really one of the reasons why the movie’s so effective. And as melancholy as it sometimes is, there’s a sense of dark humor that pops up too.
George’s sense of humor sometimes gets overlooked, but there is humor in Martin. He’s always had a great sense of humor. It’s one of the things that makes him so great as a director, and it’s always kept things comfortable on the set as well.
Martin‘s one of Romero’s most subtle movies.
Another thing that gets overlooked about George is his subtlety as a director. And that’s all over Martin. There are only about 90 seconds of gore in [the movie], but what’s there is really effective. It’s my favorite movie of the ones I’ve done, and George has said that it’s his favorite of his films. That’s a real honor.
Speaking of gore, are you much of a fan of horror films?
When I was a kid, I saw a lot of B-movies, but I never really followed them much. My favorite horror movies are more about psychological horror than the gory stuff–movies like Psycho that offered some insight into their characters.
You’ve done a lot of movies with George, in various capacities.
I’ve always said that George’s sets are like family gatherings: It’s a really relaxed environment, and everyone truly loves being there. We all wore multiple hats and got our hands dirty working on his movies [laughs]!
After Martin I had a small part in Dawn of the Dead [playing one of the dissenters at the movie’s beginning who gets shot on the tenement rooftop]. My other job on it was as a casting director. I helped George find David Emge [Stephen in the film], but mostly I cast zombies, which meant getting them into full costume and makeup and sending them on their way. That was a lot of fun.
Your work as a theater director and educator seems to have been your emphasis for a long time.
It has been, and I don’t mind that at all. I’ve been working at Park Point University for about 28 years, and with directing, I have a little more control over what I want to see onstage. Doing movies was a lot of fun, but I love the interaction with the cast and crew on a theater stage.
Were you aware of the following that George Romero’s films in general, and Martin in particular, have amassed over the years?
It was a total surprise to me. I had no idea that there was this kind of appreciation out there. And a lot of it’s been from people who weren’t even born until after [Martin]was released! Meeting the fans has been wonderful: They’re so friendly, so loyal…If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be able to have this conversation with you today! [laughs]