Note: The premise and certain plot points of both of these films will be discussed, but spoilers will be kept to a minimum.
The more I discover of 70s horror films, the more my claim that the genre was at its best in that period persists. The works of filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, and Wes Craven only scratch the service in terms of what the decade had to offer in horror. In doing some delving recently, I came across two films that shared strikingly similar analyses of vampirism. George Romero’s Martin and Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess both explore the supernatural ailment as a tragic curse, and the two films share some eerie connections alongside similar concepts. The titular Hess is played by Duane Jones, who Romero cast as the lead in Night of the Living Dead five years prior. Both feature eccentric scores, Martin sporting gothic compositions from the typically bombastic Goblin, and Ganja & Hess featuring a soulful version of a Greek chorus from artist Sam Waymon. Both contain the impact of organized religion on the lost souls of the protagonists. When thinking about both of these films after seeing them so closely together, the connections became uncanny.
Though it was released five years after Ganja & Hess, I want to start with Martin. Romero stated long after the fact that it was his favorite film he ever made, and it was released the same year as his large scale follow-up Dawn of the Dead. Made for a much lower budget than Dawn, Martin was shot in the summer of 1976 with many friends and family members of the crew filling in supporting cast roles. A true independent picture, Martin is Romero’s skeptical view of one of the monsters of our history distilled perfectly into a tale of isolation. The plot follows the titular character who we see drugging a woman and drinking her blood in the opening scene. However, he insists he is not a vampire in the traditional sense and that “there’s no real magic.” When he moves in with his elderly cousin after leaving Indiana, Martin explores the new environment and meets people that change his life all while trying to satisfy his thirst for blood. His cousin Cuda does not make life easy for the young vampire, insisting that Martin do his feeding elsewhere and stay away from his granddaughter, threatening to kill him with a stake through the heart if he disobeys. Cuda is a devout Lithuanian Catholic that often compares Martin to a Nosferatu figure, despite Martin’s objections to the old man’s narrow ideas of him. In a pivotal scene that effectively characterizes Cuda, Romero himself appears as a young priest, and even he is baffled by the delusions Cuda seems to hold.
Martin’s vampire plotline, more than any other themes, is a communication of loneliness. Martin spends the film emotionally shut off from those around him, choosing instead to fantasize about the women he meets before drinking their blood and disappearing. When he begins to develop a bond with a lonely housewife in the second half, we wonder if the boy will be turning over a new leaf. Only, there is no redemption for the would-be vampire, as the film ends with him alone and with more regrets than he held before. Martin is seemingly cursed to be alone, his decisions creating a negative feedback loop that leads to his endless isolation and loneliness. Religious isolation is prevalent in the film as well, with Martin and Cuda clashing ideologically over what vampirism even is. A long scene involves Cuda calling an older priest to perform rites on Martin to save his soul, and leading man John Ambrose (a Romero regular) performs the scene with a repressed and vengeful silence. It’s not just a film about being lonely, but of actively being isolated and being victimized by a long family history.
On the other hand, we have Ganja & Hess. A long-forgotten film from the blaxploitation boom, Ganja & Hess is no Dolemite. The film is an experimental, character-focused study of black assimilation and the hypocrisies of the church. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is a wealthy anthropologist studying the Myrthians, an ancient, blood-drinking African tribe. After Hess is stabbed with a Myrthian ceremonial dagger by his mentally unwell assistant, he discovers he has developed the same bloodlust. When Ganja, the assistant’s estranged wife, appears at Hess’s mansion looking for her husband, the two quickly become lovers. Ganja is initially horrified when Hess turns her into a vampire, but he manages to teach her how to survive. Hess later suffers an existential crisis and returns to a Christian church, no longer satisfied with his existence.
Unlike Martin, which buckles down on one strict allegory for the curse of vampirism, Ganja & Hess’s interpretation of the supernatural ailment covers many ideas and themes. While the film isn’t overtly concerned with racism, the ever present Damoclean sword hangs over the characters. Hess starts out the film living lavishly, but as his addiction worsens (symbolized by a chilling chant, only one ingredient in the film’s oppressive sound mix) he finds himself more isolated from the world even when Ganja comes into his life. A lengthy and taxing scene as he returns to the church of his past finds Hess seemingly succumbing to the trappings of faith. The film has a dichotomy to it, the vampiric status simultaneously a symbol of power and a trap from which there is no escape. Perhaps it can be seen as both, as Hess’s sudden consciousness of the world in which he exists tortures him, seeking faith again as a way to suppress his awareness of the outside world’s hostility toward him and people like him. Hess’s return to faith as a comfort blanket serves as a biting commentary on the way black people are often forced to submit to systems of oppression. In this case, Hess turns to faith in the hopes that God will reward him for bearing through his suffering, though we want to see him fight for a proper life.
Both Ganja & Hess and Martin have been incredibly rewarding to view and unpack, and it’s only through the lasting will of horror fans that they are available for viewing today. Do I consider them true companion pieces? I’m not sure. There’s no record of Romero claiming to be inspired by Gunn’s film when making Martin, though Ganja & Hess does have a similar delivery of Night of the Living Dead, with everything laid out through subtext as the supernatural plot unfolds. Both films were nearly lost to time, and both deserve to be seen by all interested in the genre’s highest order of allegorical mastery.
Essays bill gunn brian de palma dario argento david cronenberg dawn of the dead dolemite duane jones ganja & hess george romero goblin john ambrose martin night of the living dead sam waymon wes craven