Directed by: William Lustig
Written by: C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell
Starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton and Kelly Piper
Reviewed by: Josh G.
‘I warned you not to go out tonight.’
This disturbing shocker is a dark character study in the form of a city slasher. With Joe Spinell as the lead, giving an uproariously well done performance as Frank Zito, Maniac has been hailed as one of the most troubling and infamous of the video nasties ever made. Gruesome effects by Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead; Friday the 13th; The Burning; The Prowler) highlight the feature and adds even more to the already severely grim atmosphere. People have called the film an abomination, filthy trash, and even the worst of the worst. Daria Nicolodi was rumored to be making her American film debut with this one, but even though she starred in gory classics from Dario Argento, she refused due to the graphic violence depicted in the script. Caroline Munro (of Slaughter High, The Last Horror Film, and Faceless) would go on to replace her as Anna D’Antoni. Brutal and endlessly sick, this is Maniac!
Frank Zito is a momma’s boy – even when his mother is dead. He wanders the city of New York in search of women to cut up and scalp. He even collects mannequins just to hold his precious presents, with the help of some nails of course. First a couple on the beach is hacked up, and then he goes out to strangle a hooker (Rita Montone). Life’s a bloody journey for this nut. He honestly believes that his mother Carmen is out there...somewhere. She looks different, and yes, her hair is probably changed as well, but she’s there. She abused Frank; locked him in the closet, but Zito is a forgiving man, and just wants to see her again. His reality is warped, and unfortunately, so are his victims, once he’s done with them. His events have made front page on the newspapers; he’s almost a celebrity now, but nobody knows it. A young photographer named Anna crosses paths with Frank, and the two start dating. But damn. She’s just like all the others: she looks like his mother. And so does Rita (70s porn star Abigail Clayton, shown in the credits under the new stage name Gail Lawrence). Just what is Frank trying to accomplish, and how will he continue going about doing it? A friendly ‘hello’? Or another maniacal scalping?
Poor Abigail Clayton. Her porno days kind of affected her later career, but at least she remains preserved in this exciting horror-drama. Some of her past life even rubs onto Maniac, what with that bathtub scene and all. Susan Tyrrell of Night Warning and Cry-Baby was also said to be appearing in Maniac, but as you can see, that never happened either. What a pity. Banned in multiple countries, the film has had quite a history. Even the timeless poster art of a man with a blood soaked knife and blonde scalp is enough to cause a ratings board riot! At fifteen, I found out that Maniac would be playing on the television at five in the morning. I had barely heard of it, but I knew it was a retro slasher, which meant I could not fail. The only problem was, the channel was only available at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. But you know me, a feisty teen. I forget how, but I managed to spend the night over at their place, and along with Massacre at Central High, I stayed up over half the night just to witness Maniac. Amazing! How could I describe the feeling of what I had just watched? It was gritty and dirty, and even though there was only one scene of nudity, the entire feature was sleazy throughout! I felt like I needed to take a shower after. Researching the movie, I found other people saying the exact same thing! Well, I knew my conscience was working, and I wasn’t a young wimp. It was indeed notorious.
The director, William Lustig, later went on to direct the completely underrated Maniac Cop trilogy, Uncle Sam, and Vigilante. This, his third film, is definitely the one that has given him, presumably, the most cult following for his directorial. He offers all characters, small and big, a likable, or at least deep relation. The acting performance Joe Spinell puts on makes Frank Zito so strong in emotion that he becomes more than a killing machine. His monologues are spooky and quiet; he thinks out loud about his mother, his life, his victims, and his abusive past. The expanded setting of murder adds to the feeling of nuttiness. I mean, Frank travels to the beach, to a hotel room, to underneath of a bridge, through the subway, into an apartment, down to the cemetery, and even a photo shoot. It makes New York attractive with everything there is to offer, you know, with the exception of it all feeling like a greasy burlesque cooked chicken dancing with fishnet stockings on. Yes, there’s a picture for you. Too bad that doesn’t make an appearance anywhere in the movie (or anywhere else, for that matter).
The murders are all fantastically carried out, obviously thanks to Tom Savini’s effects, and the magical creative mind of the writers. Some of the gore is a bit sloppy. A girl’s throat is slit with a razor on the beach, dripping blood, but you can clearly see that no mark is made on her flesh. It’s a trick weapon, and it looks it! A head is later pulled off (!) of a person, which is absolutely disgusting, but the head looks ultra fake. Meanwhile, the scalpings are gross, at one point, exposing a brain, dripping blood down the head. A man is strangled by a wire and it cuts into his neck, oozing blood. Tom Savini has a small role as a man on a date with a woman in a relationship (the sleaze bar raises higher). Frank takes out his anger by pulling out a shotgun, and blasting Savini’s head to bits with it! It’s gruesomely incredible. Scanners doesn’t seem to be the only mind blower of 1980. Include a squirting headless corpse, a couple impalements with a sword, and you have one disgusting film. Filthy, even.
Caroline Munro is one hot woman. There are so many things about me that should not make me love her, and yet, she is so beautiful, foxy, stylish, pleasant, talented...the list goes on. She makes the nearly pointless scenes, only available for characterization, bearable. A scene at the restaurant serves purpose for what could have been said when Frank was first meeting Anna at her apartment. Thankfully, the place is as atmospheric as the rest of the movie. The graveyard is probably the best looking area for gothic and horror set pieces. The fog machine just rolls on out. Apparently, fog also seeps into apartment rooms, as Zito’s musky home is a dirty wreck, blurring the eyes to show just how evil his home is. Though, the mannequins with bloody scalps on their heads are doing a fine job by themselves too. Scoring uses tense synthesizers, keyboards, and light drums, and the music playing at the photo shoot is mood-setting and catchy. “Going to the Showdown” also made it into the trailer. Yeah, it’s that good.
The best scene in the film is suspenseful and heart racing. I can only explain it as ‘the subway scene’. A nurse is walking home from work when Zito follows her from behind. She leads him to the subway, where she rushes to input quarters for a ride and misses her trip. She must hide in the public restroom, keeping deadly silent to stray Frank away. Maniac is outrageously simplistic. It’s the story for a mad man who kills because of his mother, and goes out with a pretty young lady photographer. That’s it! Summarized in one sentence. For this twisted nightmare, you don’t have to pay a hooker one hundred dollars for “the ultimate,” because “the ultimate” is available on DVD for about eighty bucks less from Anchor Bay or Blue Underground. Widescreen presentation with an audio commentary, radio interviews, a Joe Spinell documentary, trailers, tv spots, radio spots, gallery of angry letters directed at Maniac, poster and still gallery, talent bios, and the best presentation that the film has ever looked. There are few questions that pop into my head after watching this. One of those few is ‘Why would Anna date a man completely out of here league? Sure he’s nice, but his looks are terribly unflattering.’ Too shallow of me? I’m just being realistic here. Anna is on the other end of the food chain, but being an artist, I can kind of see how she looks for the inner soul. I would love to give Maniac a mandatory rating. It’s superb. However, I believe that it is not for everyone, and classic or not, it still has low points of interest. But don’t lock your doors. Let the maniac into your home for sure. Buy it!
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