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“This hair-raising film traces the grim steps of a maniac killer as he stalks New York City streets randomly searching for his prey. After ritually murdering and graphically scalping his victims, he takes their hair and clothes to his lair which he shares with his grotesque collection of mannequins which he costumes with his grisly trophies.”
Director: William Lustig
Starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton
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As “The film the L.A. Times refused to advertise,” Maniac’s theatrical release was not exactly met with critical acclaim. The Times said that the film had “no socially redeeming value whatsoever,” and they felt it was their duty to their community “not to encourage...such violence.” William Lustig, the film’s director, was furious with the newspaper but, as it turned out, not everyone was out to sabotage his first attempt at mainstream filmmaking. Roy Scheider (Jaws), Stacy Keach (Up in Smoke), producer Bruce Gilbert (9 to 5) and director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) all sent telegrams to the Times protesting its decision. The controversy was compounded when feminist groups took to the streets in protest saying the film promoted harm to women. If the desired effect of these actions was to keep people from going to see Maniac, they failed miserably. In fact, at a time when slasher films came and went weekly, Maniac might have floated under the radar into obscurity, but the controversy sparked a curiosity in moviegoers that we can’t help think contributed to its cult status today.
Maniac stars beloved character actor Joe Spinell (The Godfather, Rocky, Taxi Driver) as Frank Zito, a man whose childhood abuse at the hands of his mother led him to become a deranged serial killer. He spends his nights stalking the streets of New York City in search of victims to kill and remove their scalps for his strange collection of mannequins. After having his picture taken by a photographer in the park, played by Caroline Munro, he goes to her apartment where he is met with unexpected kindness and invited inside. We then see that Frank isn’t entirely in control as he tries to resist his murderous urges.
Huge horror fans, Spinell and Lustig had long talked about making a horror film together. Spinell’s interest in serial killers coupled with Lustig’s interest in Italian horror films were the driving influences behind Maniac. It wastes no time in getting to know Frank’s victims and, unlike most slashers of the time, Maniac is a film almost exclusively focused on the killer’s perspective (which was pushed even further in the POV stylings of the recent remake). This was not always the plan though! Story has it, the film originally featured Jason Miller (The Exorcist) as a cop and Daria Nicolodi (Tenebre) as the female lead, to be financed by her then husband Dario Argento with a soundtrack provided by Goblin. It was gonna be an American Giallo! When this fell apart, the film was left to Lustig and Spinell who decided they were going to make it happen anyway. Pooling their money—Lustig had some from shooting porn and Spinell had a paycheck from Cruising (1980)—they got started with the hope that, as Lustig put it, “when the train left the station, other people would want to jump on board.” He was partially right, additional financing trickled in but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until after they ran into Caroline Munro at a Fangoria convention and offered her the leading female role that her then husband, Judd Hamilton, stepped in and offered to help fund the rest of the movie.
Ok, time to talk about Tom Savini. Fresh off the set of Friday the 13th, Savini agreed to do the film because it meant he got to live in New York City for a few months. As always, his gore effects are great, and in Maniac he got to blow up his own head! He conveniently had a mask of himself in his kit and had done a similar effect in Dawn of the Dead, so all that was left was to find organic shrapnel to explode out of it. In addition to condoms filled with fake blood, he also stuffed the head with random items from the catering table like shrimp dip, cabbage, and apple cores. Due to the Sullivan Act, it’s illegal to fire a gun in New York, so they had to flee the scene immediately after the shot. After making their getaway, the car was stashed in a garage for two weeks before retrieving it to shoot the remainder of the scene. However, during that time the catering scraps had turned the car so rank that the crew decided to drown it in the Hudson River with Savini’s dummy and blown apart head still inside.
Maniac is a classic in the Slasher genre and is deserving of its cult status. Joe Spinell is perfect as a deranged killer; whether he’s in tears while scalping a prostitute or trying to fit in at a fashion photoshoot, he’s consistently terrifying. The film manages to build a sense of suspense lacking in many horror films then and today. Savini offers his opinion on this, claiming that new movies rely too heavily on “chair jumpers” when the real terror occurs when you see the monster behind a door as you watch doomed characters walk toward it. Maniac attempts to offer layered meaning through metaphor but we’re not sure it ever feels fully fleshed out. The film wants to compare Frank’s observation that a photograph has the power to preserve, and ultimately own, a person’s image forever with his habit of nailing women’s scalps to mannequins in order to fully possess them, but the metaphor never really lands. Based on this, we think that he fights his killer urges specifically with Caroline Munro’s character because he has projected onto her a similar need to possess people through her art and thus believes they might have something in common. The layered meanings are enough to encourage interesting conversation but don’t really make a significant statement in the film.
Spinell had plans to make a sequel to Maniac but, sadly, he went off the rails when his drug and alcohol problems increased after the death of his mother. He managed to produce a 7 minute promo titled, Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, in an attempt to find funding but died before it could ever be made. A hemophiliac, he had cut the back of his head after slipping in the shower and, drunk and stoned, he passed out before he could properly take care of it. He was found dead in a pool of his own blood while sitting on his sofa in a bathrobe.
Maniac, like some other slashers we’ve watched, is hard to fully recommend. We loved it and if you like cold, gory slashers from the 70’s and 80’s, you probably will too. It’s a character study of a serial killer played by a great and naturally creepy actor who had so much more to offer the world. R.I.P. Joe Spinell.