Maniac (1980) Review

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MANIAC

**** Out 5

Tagline- I Warned You Not to Go Out Tonight

Release Date- December 26th, 1980

Running Time- 87-Minutes

Rating- NR

Screenplay- C.A. Rosenberg & Joe Spinell

Director- William Lustig

Starring- Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Gail Lawrence, Tom Savini, Kelly Piper

Released in 1980 William Lustig’s Maniac was one of the more controversial movies released at the time and was attacked for its graphic violence, which most of the victims were women (however the most violent death in the movie was a man). Maniac was met with people protesting the movie and wanting it banned and the critics blasted the movie for its graphic violence. Many deemed this nothing more than vile trash and looked upon as nothing more than 1 step above porn (but barley at that). Maniac was heavily censored and even banned in many places as well; as I stated there were countless groups out protesting the release and the mainstream media was all over it to further bash the movie (even though most of these people never actually saw the flick).

Maniac came out at a time when the exploitation film were on their way out in favor of slasher flicks and 1980/1981 was in some ways the last stand for these films and while a few were made here and there after this Maniac is one of the last and one of the best of the early 80s exploitation films. The year Maniac was released also so the release of Friday the 13th, which got all the attention and also released that year was Prom Night and due to the success of Carpenter’s Halloween in 78 and then Friday the 13th in 1980 the slasher flick became all the rage and movies like Maniac were pushed aside. But seeing as this film is also a slasher flick even if it differs from something like Halloween, William Lustig was able to crossover to the rising popularity of the slasher film.

Over the years Maniac has built up a cult reputation due to the performance by Joe Spinell the gore F/X by Tom Savini and for the gritty and bleak tone of the movie, but Maniac has also been overlooked by many horror fans and critics that just really see it as a sleazy gore flick with little merit besides the gore. But I have to heavily disagree; Maniac has a lot more going for it than one might think. I wouldn’t rate Maniac as one of the all-time great horror flicks, but I do think it’s a very good movie that again has more going for it than people realize and it does make for a nice character study on a deeply deranged person.

The plot is straight-forward with a killer on the loose in NYC murdering and mutilating people (mostly women). The screenplay by C.A. Rosenberg & Joe Spinell was fairly solid and while nothing here really stands out and the characters are sort of inter-changeable, but the script is actually fairly well written. Frank Zito (Spinell) is the typical serial killer with mother problems. If you look at most serial killers many of them had some kind of psychical, mental or even sexual abuse from their mothers at a young age. Rosenberg and Spinell never really stray from that and don’t really offer anything different, but what they have works well. We actually never fully learn Frank’s backstory, but we get enough info to understand why he’s so messed up.

Frank in the main character and he’s in every scene either at the center of it or somewhere on the side hiding and typically movies like this don’t always work for me since the killer ends up being the only character we the audience can identify with, but there really isn’t anything likable about Frank. He’s actually rather pathetic and whiny, but also wants to stop and in some ways might even feel guilty for the crimes he does. Maniac does make for an interesting character study of a very deeply psychotic person that is trying to fight his urges to kill. Maniac perhaps isn’t the best written horror film, but its far better than one might expect.

Maniac marked the feature film debut for William Lustig (unless you wanna count the porn flicks he made prior under the name Billy Bagg). Lustig is an often overlooked filmmaker who did some solid work, but never really got the attention he deserved. He got his start at the time when filmmakers like John Carpenter, Dario Argento and George Romero were at the peak of their career. Lustig though has built up a following, but he never really reached the success like other filmmakers from his era, which is quite unfortunate since in my opinion he’s an excellent filmmaker. William Lustig is a big fan of 70s exploitation and it clearly shows with Maniac; Lustig manages to create a really gritty and uneasy feel throughout the picture and always keeps the pace moving along even when there is no action. The murder scenes are quite graphic and bloody, but while the gore is great the highlight is the murders are very mean spirited. Starting around the mid-80s and you can even make a case for the early 80s as well, too many movies would have kill scenes that were sort of fun, which is cool, but I prefer movies like this where the deaths give you an uneasy feel.

Like I said Maniac has a lot more going for it than people might realize. The shotgun blast to the head easily rates as one of the greatest murders this genre has ever seen. I’d even go as far to say possibly the best death scene in the genre, but there is far more here than just shocking murder scenes. The scene in which, Frank stalks a young nurse (Kelly Piper) leaving the hospital all the way to the subway and then in the subway is a classic example of suspense and tension; the whole set up is excellent and downright chilling. And this scene would later inspire Alexandre Aja with High Tension.

And the scene when Frank attacks Rita played by Abigail Clayton (under the name Gail Lawrence) was another prime example of a scene filled with suspense and tension. William Lustig again is able to make more than just sleazy exploitation flick and delivers a movie that is quite disturbing and even chilling in many areas. William Lustig in his day was an excellent filmmaker who never really hit the big time despite being very deserving of it. Along with Vigilante, Lustig in my opinion made the two best exploitation films of the 80s and made one of the more entertaining slasher flicks of the 80s with Maniac Cop.

The acting was mostly good and Joe Spinell probably best known as Gazzo from Rocky and Rocky II gives the best performance of his career. Frank Zito is a classic character and far scarier than most horror movie villains since people like Frank are out there. He isn’t the boogeyman who can survive multiple gunshots, stabbings and being set on fire. Spinell is downright chilling in the role, which is a lot more complex than some might realize.

Caroline Munro is very charming in the role of the naive and trusting Ana. A lot of people comment on her relationship with Frank, but I also think people might be missing the point. Even I did at first. First off some people are easily trusting like Anna but more importantly Caroline Munro in an interview mentions her character maybe being a lesbian and it actually makes sense. There really doesn’t seem to be anything sexual between her and Frank plus all her photographs are of women and at the photo shoot she does seem very touchy with Rita. I never picked up on that until the interview with Munro, but it makes sense and I see the film a different way now.

Maniac is a nice piece of 80s exploitation cinema with plenty of sleaze and violence, but again has a lot more to offer than just that. Maniac is one of my very favorite horror films of the 80s and despite the cult status I feel it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

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