Story by Joe Spinell
Screenplay by Joe Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg
Directed by William Lustig
Maniac is an infamous film, a violent slasher that is almost entirely focused on the killer. The film faced criticism upon release due to violence against women, but became a hit and has gone on to become a genre classic. The film is far more complicated than just a simple slasher film. Co-written by and starring Joe Spinell, Maniac is disturbing, but well-crafted and delivers suspense and terror in a way modern horror has shifted away from.
I saw Maniac at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (yes, Maniac was screened at a museum!) in their Bay Area Now 7 program, under the Invasion of the Cinemaniacs! heading, specifically the part curated by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of Midnite for Maniacs, who hosted two William Lustig triple features (a sextuple feature?) spread across two days. Maniac screened with Vigilante and Hit List, while the next night was all three Maniac Cop films. William Lustig himself was in attendance, and did some entertaining Q and As. Lustig is very charismatic and shared stories about filming and some of the actors/producers of his films. I’ve included some of what he mentioned in the reviews. What I like about screenings like this is I would probably never just watch Maniac on my own. Horror/slasher films aren’t really my bag, but to see it as part of a screening group like this makes it just fit in. Watching film is all about expanding your horizons, because you never know what you will discover when you leave your comfort zones. I try to follow that philosophy at TarsTarkas.NET, hence part of why we cover such a diverse range of global cinema.
Maniac follows Frank Zito as he embarks on a crusade of terror in the streets of New York City, stalking and slaying women, then scalping them and dressing mannequins up in their clothes, with the scalps nailed to the heads. Much of the film is Frank following the various women and the ladies responding in terror, the tension building as their attempts to escape become dashed again and again. In between we see Frank breaking down in his apartment, conflicted by his compulsion, but unable to do anything to stop it. Frank has issues about his abusive dead mother. In a conversation with photographer Anna D’Antoni (Caroline Munro) in the film’s loose plot narrative, Frank talks about photos as a way to preserve the women forever. Frank’s talks with Anna are about as normal as he gets, but the facade can’t last long and soon he’s breaking down and hallucinating his dead mother is attacking him in a graveyard. Frank’s demons are his ultimate undoing, his destructive force turning upon himself.
The gore is the lure to get butts in the seats, and Tom Savini delivers a red-drenched spectacle with slashed throats, multiple scalpings and stabbings, and a famous close-range shotgun blast to a head. Tom Savini’s head, as he already had a cast of his own head and thus it was economical to use. The cast was filled with all matter of fake gore and blasts with a shotgun guerrilla style (the film rarely had permits to shoot) in the early morning, the gun then quickly spirited away in case the cops hurriedly came by to check out what was going on. The scene is bloody, but far more accurate in the damage a weapon like that can do than the flesh wounds and CGI blood we get in modern action cinema.
Maniac rises above a lot of the junk I’ve seen because it doesn’t just rest on the violence to try to sell itself. Maniac is truly disturbing because of the character of Frank Zito. He’s disturbed, has obvious mental instabilities and desperately needs help. He was abused as a child, emotionally and physically (and it is hinted, sexually) and probably saw his mother have sex with men for money. Frank will occasionally break down and begin crying and talking to himself and rocking back and forth. It’s an amazing performance. The types of mental instability are hinted at a lot with modern procedural shows, where the murderer of the week will have a few quirks. Maniac is entirely Frank’s show, so we get fully immersed in his character and his character’s problems, giving us a look television and other films rarely match. The focus on Frank is a happy accident, there were scenes written about a cop in pursuit of Frank, but they were unable to be filmed (until a bit at the very end) and Maniac is stronger for it.
Maniac is one of the films often mentioned for depictions of violence against women. Gene Siskel was very much against it, Siskel claiming he walked out of a screening. Maniac came out just after a special edition of Sneak Previews Siskel and Ebert did about films they claimed did nothing but depict violence against women, Siskel references the special while talking about Maniac and it’s marketing technique. Maniac was advertised not just in the normal way, but with theaters showing clips of the violent scenes of the films in a loop on a tv outside the movie house. Sort of a best-of reel.
Maniac‘s release led to protests and news channel controversies. Lustig mentioned that one prominent protestor who said the film would cause violence against women was later arrested for accessory to murder that was committed before the film was released. There are arguments that slasher films are actually empowering to women, but that’s a discussion for a broad overview of the topic, not a specific review as part of a screening. Let’s just say there are arguments for both sides.
I do not subscribe to the theory that people will watch murder films and then go and kill people because of the film. Sociopaths who would run out and slaughter for fun aren’t created by watching a film, they’re created by society and the many flaws and cracks that make the world an awful place. People look for scapegoats, be they violent video games, movies, comic books, whatever, because it’s easier than addressing the systemic problems in life. Child abuse, neglect, war – these things we could be working on solving, but charlatans looking to make a quick buck lead people down paths of easy targets. It’s a sick system that needs to be pushed back whenever encountered.
Maniac was ~75% completed when Lustic and Spinell ran out of funds. Joe Spinell had worked with Carol Munro in Starcrash, and she was in New York for a Fangoria convention and he went to go say hi. One thing led to another when discussing what he was up to, and Munro’s then-husband Judd Hamilton offered to fund the rest of the film, which lead to her role.
Yes, the rumor is true, the song Maniac was originally written for Maniac before resurfacing as a song in Flashdance (after a total lyrics rewrite!) On the Blu-Ray, Lustig interviewed Michael Sembello and even got a performance of the original version of Maniac. Sample lyrics:
He’s a maniac, maniac that’s for sure,
He will kill your cat and nail him to the door.
Maniac was interesting and the right side of eerie. Slasher fans have probably already seen it long ago, but for those not familiar with the genre and curious, Maniac is a good example of late-70s/early-80s horror that is worth tracking down just to become informed and join the argument.
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