William Lustig’s depraved classic was massively controversial when first released. It garnered the ultimate accolades for an exploitation film- it was HATED by Siskel and Ebert (Gene Siskel said he made it to the shotgun murder then had to leave the preview screening as he couldn’t stomach anymore!) and it was picketed by feminist groups.
The film centres around serial killer Frank Zito who likes to scalp his victims and place the scalps on top of shop mannequins in his apartment. It’s also shown that hes a victim of abuse by his mother who later died in a car accident (did he cause this?) On the walls of his apartment are paintings of deformed children amongst other things.
Tom Savini provides the special effects and does so with gay abandon. He also stars in the film with explosive results!
Maniac isn’t just a great piece of sleazy horror cinema but is also a snapshot of a time when New York really was run-down, dangerous and crime-ridden. It feels more like a gritty documentary than a film made for 42nd Street. The scene in the deserted subway station at night is the stuff of nightmares!
The movie also places actor Joe Spinell centre stage in the role of Frank. He gives one of the greatest depictions of psychotic psychopathy ever captured on film. Spinell can also be seen in Taxi Driver (he delivers that ‘You talkin’ to me’ line in Maniac) and William Friedkin’s masterpiece Cruising. An amazing actor.
The film also looks gorgeous. Check out the framing of the murder of the couple on the beach that opens the film. It’s exquisite. In fact the film seems more like a giallo, an opera of blood, splattered brains and strands of hair.
The first time I learnt of the film was when I saw the poster for the movie in a copy of the French horror magazine Vendredi 13 in the mid-80s- a close up of the killer’s midriff and crotch (which leaves nothing to the imagination), the words ‘I warned you not to go out tonight!’ written in spiky font, a knife in one of the psycho’s hands and a severed woman’s head in the other. Even this poster wound up in trouble and had to be censored in certain countries.
The film was rejected for cinema release by the BBFC in 1980 and again in 1998 for a potential VHS release. It was then cut for a DVD release in 2002. But worry not- Blue Underground, the director’s Blu-ray label are releasing a 4K transfer in December.
A sick, disgusting film that proves itself to be worthy of the hype. Highly recommended.
4/5 out of 5 stars