The Film: Maniac (1980) Buy the 30th Anniversary Edition From CHUD
The Principals: William Lustig (director), Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Gail Lawrence, Tom Savini, Nelia Bacmeister
The Premise: Frank Zito (Spinell) is a middle-aged Italian-American slumming it in the pits of 1980 New York. In addition to a weight problem, Frank also has a little bit of a scalping-women-and-using-their-hair-as-wigs-for-his-mannequins problem. But he’s working it out. Sort of. Not really.
Is it Good? A difficult question to answer. There’s a goodly bit of sadism at play, as Lustig’s story is told from the perspective of the killer. Frank Zito is Norman Bates minus the cross-dressing plus an apartment / scalp dungeon in the city. When the killings amp up and the city realizes there’s a deranged psychopath on the loose, it’s easy to draw comparisons to the Son of Sam murders of the late 1970s.
The cesspool of early 80s New York, particularly Times Square, is the perfect setting for a story like this. Lustig films the seedy underbelly like it’s going out of style which, as we know now, it was. This is New York at a time when brown bagging it through central park wasn’t frowned upon by city-dwellers and tourists. So location’s a big part of it.
But it also adds to a grittiness that borders on overwhelming at parts. There’s no moralistic message to the film and the viewer is completely without a safety net. Personally, I enjoy that sort of film as it becomes something of a deranged endurance test. And your stomach will be put to the test, as Lustig unflinchingly focuses in on Frank’s many scalpings and stabbings. It’d be almost comical watching a grown man living alone hammering a wig to his beloved mannequin, but when that wig is human flesh torn from a woman’s scalp, well, it gets complicated.
Also tested is your patience. At 87 minutes the film still feels too long. Frank’s not a bucket of laughs in his down time and, as the story doesn’t reach far beyond Frank knocking off victims, it becomes something of a tedious exercise, albeit mildly compelling in stretches.
Is it Worth a Look? Sure, why not? The effects are done by Tom Savini (who also makes a cameo before his head gets blown off), so you know the gore’s going to be top notch. There’s a moment in the final seconds that’s clearly homaging the master’s work in Dawn of the Dead, and it’s a beautiful thing indeed.
Adding to the worthwhileness of it all is an incredible synth-heavy score from Jay Chattaway – which I’d put up against the best of early-period Carpenter scores.
If you can swing with it, no easy task given the audacious subject matter, Maniac is a slasher film competently told from the slasher’s perspective. Lustig does inspired work putting you in the middle of the madness, but it‘s not for everyone.
Random Anecdotes: Joe Spinell was an interesting fellow. He was married to adult film star Jean Jennings for a couple years in the 70s. He also played mob-heavy Willi Cicci in The Godfather Parts I & II, and was all set to appear in the third had he not died before filming. Spinell cut himself on his shower door and, instead of calling for help, simply sat around his apartment bleeding to death.
Spinell was also in tight with Sylvester Stallone, so much so that he was godfather to Sly’s recently deceased son Sage.
Cinematic Soulmates: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Taxi Driver, Bad Lieutenant, The New York Ripper