Every time you go out this kind of thing happens.
A woman has her throat sliced as she was waiting for her boyfriend on an empty beach. When the boyfriend returns, a hulking figure attacks him from behind and garrotes him off of the ground. Frank (Joe Spinell) wakes up screaming and sweaty. It was only a nightmare. He begins to rock himself back and forth to gather his bearings. It is apparent that Frank has some serious mental issues… and we are only three minutes into the film.
Bill Lustig’s Maniac was extremely controversial upon its theatrical release. It was deemed misogynistic, brutal, ugly, and sick. Film critics panned it as trash and the National Organization for Women protested its theatrical run with the intensity of a lynch mob. The movie poster art was enough to warrant such reactions… featuring a man with a huge bulge in his crotch holding a fresh scalp under the tag line “I warned you not to go out tonight” Maniac had as much subtlety as a shotgun blast to the face. Thirty years later, it still has the ability to sicken and disgust the viewer, but it is also an agonizing glimpse into the last days of a serial killer and quite possibly the best slasher film of the decade. Having directed hardcore pornographic films, Bill Lustig’s first foray into the horror genre is an inside look at the emotional turmoil of a serial killer haunted by memories of a sexually promiscuous and abusive mother who died in a car accident. In order to exact revenge against her and/or gain approval from her, Frank Zito ventures out into a gritty Big Apple to kill ordinary citizens… mostly women. In a fetish-like fashion, Frank scalps the women and nails his trophies to mannequins strewn about his shabby apartment. While stalking potential victims in a park, Frank is photographed by a professional photographer (Caroline Munro). When he attempts to connect with her and ultimately fails, his psychosis takes the better of him and once again descends into depravity.
Completely devoid of any traditional narrative, Maniac manages to move the story based solely on the performance of Joe Spinell. As his first time in a leading role, Spinell made the most of his performance… going to such extremes as depriving himself of sleep to pull it off. His performance is so good that most actors would be crushed under the pressure of depicting such a loathsome creature and still have the audience feel sorry for him. Frank is a really the combination of three distinct characters. There is a character that slips between a remorseful adolescent Frank and his abusive mother, and a ‘normal’ version of himself that can interact with people without raising suspicions. Then there is the insatiable murderer that kills with precision which dominates his personality until the final act of the film; when his other personalities battle against each other and his guilt literally tears him apart. As graphic as the final scenes may be, they are symbolic in showing Frank’s identity being ripped apart by his own delusion.
Maniac is a tour de force but one aspect that slows the film down is the inclusion of Caroline Munro’s character. She is quite alluring and is quite competent as an actress, but sticks out like a sore thumb. As explained on the commentary track, her character’s role was expanded quite a bit when Munro signed on (and possibly meant to capitalize on her name… she was a Bond girl, after all). As realistic as the film is, it is unrealistic that someone as attractive as Munro would not only befriend Frank, but date him as well. Her role and the subplot surrounding it is completely unnecessary to the film and comes dangerously close to bogging everything down. Ironically, Spinell and Munro teamed up again in the 1982 film in a story that almost capitalizes the duo’s roles in their pairing two years earlier.
That being said, Maniac is far from cinematic art and still dwells in the realm of low budget shock. Most notably is the fact that a lot of the smaller roles were filled by porn actresses who had worked with Lustig on films such as and (most notably veteran porn stalwart Sharon Mitchell). Secondly, Tom Savini’s almost perfect special effects squarely root the film in the slasher genre yet remain realistic enough to keep the film from requiring the audience to suspend its disbelief. I would argue that Savini’s work here is his best because the gore in Maniac gives the feeling of unadulterated brutality that even modern films have had a hard time achieving. Lustig and Spinell took monumental risks and managed to create a film that was greater than the sum of its parts and arguably chronicles a downward spiral into madness more effectively than Travis Bickle in . Just my opinion….
While the Anchor Bay release is out of print, Bill Lustig’s own Blue Underground re-released Maniac in 2007 and from what I can tell is identical to the OOP Anchor Bay version. Although it wasn’t released as a ‘special edition’, it is still chock full of extras including a radio interview with Lustig, Spinell and Munro, various radio and television spots, a huge still gallery, and talent bios. There is also a 49 minute movie chronicling Joe Spinell’s career, obviously titled , and one of the better commentary tracks featuring Lustig, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, Tom Savini, and Luke Walker (Joe Spinell’s assistant) who sound like they are having a ball reminiscing about their involvement on the film. Like the OOP release, this version is THX certified so those who have only watched the film on VHS will be pleasantly surprised on how well it looks (it was shot on 16mm and blown up to 32mm) and sounds… especially Jay Chattaway’s haunting score. And at under $18, there is no excuse for any self-respecting horror fan not to pick up a copy.