"I warned you not to go out tonight"
Deeply traumatised by his childhood abuse, a psychopath lets loose in New York City, killing young women and taking their scalps as his trophies.
A notoriously disturbing, grotty and downright sleazy shocker from 1980, Maniac is one of the taboo films that the British Board of Film Classification absolutely hated back in the 80s, refusing to give it a certificate upon its initial release in 1980 and then banning it from a potential home video release in 1998. Finally released in 2002 with fifty-eight seconds of cuts, it’s good to know that I tracked down the original uncut version from the US to watch. I have to say that Maniac’s reputation is well-deserved, perhaps more so for the fact that this isn’t your typical slasher film.
Maniac comes at the material solely from the point-of-view of the slasher himself with no clear protagonists to draw in our sympathies. The audience goes through every single emotion that the killer goes through as we see the world from his eyes, understand his motives and become repulsed at the things he does. The most dangerous man with mummy problems since Norman Bates opened up the Bates Motel, Frank Zito is one fruit basket short of a bunch of grapes. Like Bates, he’s not truly evil and is torn between two personalities, as a result of his troubled upbringing, and he becomes a multi-layered character with no clear dividing line between what is right and wrong. In the hands of someone else, Maniac could have really gone off the rails. But with competent director William Lustig and a first-rate character actor in Joe Spinell, who clearly did loads of research for the role, the character becomes one of the genre’s most emotionally-damaged and tragic antagonists.
Joe Spinell, as Zito, puts in one of the best portrayals of a serial killer ever committed to film. He’s not just a killing machine, though he’s pretty good at that, but an unhinged individual, bordering on the edge of insanity. His monologues are creepy, giving us an insight into his degenerating state of mind, but he can hold it together enough to stalk his victims, plan out his line of attack and even develop relationships in order to get to his next targets. He is the psycho-next-door that we’ve all read about in the newspapers or seen on TV – not the mask-wearing silent slashers like Michael Myers or Jason but someone masquerading themselves as normal during the day but unleashing a repressed inner rage at night. That’s what makes him scary. Spinell’s performance never turns comedic, camp or cartoony. He strikes the right line between charming, caring and compassionate, and downright scary, aggressive and single-minded. When Zito gets into the zone, he kills. It’s as simple as that. Spinell’s performance, particularly his crazed facial expressions, really express the unpredictability of the character and is what makes Zito such a compelling and fascinating watch.
The problem with Spinell’s casting is that, let’s be brutally honest, he was no oil painting so the idea that all of these ridiculously hot models would find him sexually attractive is rather ludicrous. None more than so than the truly gorgeous Caroline Munro, who is literally one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen. However, despite all of these attractive women walking all over New York, director Lustig paints the city in very much a different light. New York is shown to be an unsympathetic and harsh place, isolating individuals and turning them into a product of the environment. Perhaps the puzzling thing to Maniac is just how it comes off as seedy and grotty without even trying. Lustig’s filmmaking techniques work wonders to capture the darker side of New York, something he would go on to employ in his later work Maniac Cop.
New York’s mean-spirited nature lends itself an element of notoriety in a lot of 80s horror films, none more so than Maniac. But what has lent this film even greater notoriety more than the nihilistic feel is some of the most realistic and downright nasty gore effects this side of a zombie splatter fest. Special effects maestro Tom Savini delivers some impressive gory set pieces here in some of his earliest, but many would say best, work. The most famous of them all, the shotgun sequence with the couple in the car, is truly terrific and horrific in equal measure. Foreshadowing Captain Rhodes’ death at the end of Day of the Dead five years later, the brilliantly brutal decapitation by multiple hands ripping away at flesh and bone is truly marvellous. It’s the type of gory set piece you’ve got to be careful not to be watching if you’ve got young children in the house!
Maniac’s blatant problem is that there’s no real story. Zito kills a few people, there’s a few scenes of him talking to his mannequins, he then goes and finds another victim before befriending Caroline Munro’s photographer character. That’s virtually it. There’s no hiding the fact that he’s killing people right from the opening scene. Things go a little bit weird towards the end when Zito finally snaps and there’s a few supernatural twists – clearly the writers hadn’t got a clue how to end the film and so just plumped for the most abstract way to finish it.
So outright filthy that you’ll feel like having a good scrub down in the bath after watching, Maniac is a true classic of the genre which has never received half as much credit as it truly deserves. Disturbing, mean-spirited and downright shocking at times, it can be tough to sit through but will linger in your mind for long after viewing. If Oscars were given out for horror performances, Spinell deserved one for his portrayal of one of cinema’s most compelling serial killers.
Director(s): William Lustig
Writer(s): C.A. Rosenberg (screenplay), Joe Spinell (screenplay)
Actor(s): Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton, Kelly Piper, Rita Montone, Tom Savini
Duration: 87 mins