Three decades later, it’s still pretty powerful stuff. Sure, the levels of gore which outraged a 1980’s critical community are pale in comparison to the latest examples of arterial spray and as an example of Greed decade horror, it’s far more exploitation than eerie. But there is something about William Lustig’s legendary Maniac that reminds us of horror’s second Golden era, when the entire cinematic community both here and abroad came together to push the boundaries of the genre and its formulas. Sure, some call it a low rent slasher and others dismiss it as a sick pseudo snuff film, but the truth is far more complicated. As an artistic statement by everyone involved, this “misogynistic mess” is also a minor masterpiece.
At the center of Maniac (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground) is a stellar performance by forgotten fright myth Joe Spinell. From his early work as an Italian wise guy in The Godfather and Rocky to his late in life turns as a recognizable character type, the former Joseph Spagnuolo became a solid movie archetype – lean and yet ultimately weighty, sinister, but never too sharp to mock his glorified ‘goombah’ persona. Always capable and never out manned, Spinell would dive into any role with a gusto matching his earnest ethnicity. Though his untimely death at age 52 would cast a drunk and debauched pall over his career, he remains today a fixture of that most important of home video staples – the reliable performer who consistently transcends the material he or she is forced into.
As the clearly disturbed Frank Zito, Spinell does elevate Maniac. With a backstory of maternal abuse and a clear hatred for all things female, the role could have easily been a masked murderer throwaway. Instead, Zito comes across as confused and corrupted, his seedy one room apartment loaded with mannequins suggesting a dire dead end existence. As he goes about his insane mandates, as he kidnaps and kills his victims (usually scalping them in the process), this villain avoids the one thing that makes other members of his league – Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger – so beloved. Spinell uses his undeniable talents to show us where true terror lies, and in doing so, turns his killer from an embraceable cartoon concept of evil to a real, redolent depiction of same.
Maniac is a movie rife with such contradictions. The main narrative is a standard stalk and slice. Zito sees someone he fixates on, has aural hallucinations of his mother’s cruelty, and then grabs the butcher knife. But he also tries to fit in, wooing sexy photographer Anna D’Antoni (Caroline Munro) while picking off her models one by one. It’s an unusual move for a splatter film, considering that it seemingly comes out of the furthest parts of left field. But Spinell makes it work, his evident animal magnetism riveting us even as his eyes scream “Helter Skelter”. Munro also helps, never one allowing us to question her attraction to such an obvious oddball. Together, they take Maniac to places the standard terror tale never thought of.
Equally important is the contributions of a then struggling Tom Savini. While he was noted for his work in both Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, the make-up and F/X icon was undervalued and underpaid at the time. Hoping to spend some time in New York City, he agreed to supply what now seem like some quaint, if still quite effective kills. While he would reach his noxious zenith on the memorable Romero film Day of the Dead, there are indeed some stunning sequences here. One of the best involves Savini himself. Playing “Disco Boy”, he receives a shotgun blast to the head, a mock up of the man exploding in a torrent of brains and grue. As part of the Blu-ray’s bonus features, we learn that it was Savini himself pulling the trigger as Spinell wasn’t available to pull off the stunt.
Also interesting are the various pundit reactions to the film’s original release, including a completely disgusted take by late film critic Gene Siskel. Indeed, it’s funny to look at the controversy now and wonder what all fuss was about. Granted, for 1980, it was a envelope pusher, but by today’s torture porn prone standards, it’s fairly lax. Of course, one argument Maniac can’t quickly beg out of is the notion of an anti-women agenda. While no movie purposefully positions itself against a specific gender, the interchangeable quality of the victims along with the sexual glorification and exploitation of same definitely argues for a lack of equity. Even with Zito getting his imagined feminine comeuppance at the end, for many it will be too little too late.
Of course, this all assumes a motive behind the movie that probably doesn’t exist. For all its gross out gravitas and feminine fear and loathing, Maniac is really nothing more than a below average effort elevated by above-average talents. Savini and Spinell literally save this film, forcing it out of the grindhouse incompetence of Lustig’s designs (he’s done better in his career) and rallying its reserves of meaningful fear. Even better, they add a level of authenticity that clearly got under the skin of those who consider themselves superior to such shock theatrics. Unlike Friday the 13th or Halloween, Maniac plays like it could – and even more disgustingly, did – happen, a sickening slice of life divorced from the paranormal pandering of their cohorts. Frank Zito is a recognizable horror, a man at odds with his own homicidal lusts. On the other hand, Lustig looses site of this concept, creating a surreal finale that makes little or no logical sense.
Again, it’s not hard to see why audiences and watchdogs wailed. Maniac is a strong, strong statement. But it’s not the end of modern civilization or smut disguised as a standard slice and dice. Instead, it’s a weird amalgamation of star power and some very special work behind the lens, a career calling card for two men who would go on to radically different careers. Savini remains a F/X stalwart to this day, spending more time today in front of the lens than creating gory nightmares behind it. As for Spinell – he simply died too soon, leaving behind an imprint that was more myth than meaningful. Removed from its time, it’s relatively tame. But when viewed as part of its period, Maniac stands as a significant, social assessment.