Blue Underground // 1980 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // October 26th, 2010
I told you not to go out tonight.
New York is under siege by brutal serial killer Frank Zito (Joe Spinell, The Godfather), a man haunted by the traumas of his childhood. His therapy, unfortunately, comes with stabbing, slashing, and shooting women, collecting their scalps, and nailing them to his family of mannequins kept in his seedy apartment. Salvation seems to come when this loner strikes up an unlikely friendship with a high-class fashion photographer (Caroline Munro, Starcrash)...but how long do either have before his mask of sanity finally slips?
Maniac is not a popcorn movie. It is mean spirited, depressing, and nihilistic throughout its 88 minute running time. If you're a young horror movie pup trying to zero in on his or her next Friday the 13th or Final Destination setpiece slash-a-thon, look somewhere else. However, if you're a horror fan looking to stretch your eyeballs across some polarizing, gritty killer fiction, Maniac has you covered.
With Maniac as his first film, director William Lustig sought to combine the stylized, gory deaths commonplace in the Italian giallo films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava with a cinema-verite style character piece chronicling the private life of a serial killer.
Giallo films, especially that of Argento, traditionally unspooled in the landscape of the protagonists' brain. The vantage point of the central character washes over every detail of the film. However, while the viewers are often treated to the sick, macabre point-of-view Frank Zito, the film restricts this interplay to Zito's apartment. Within it, we view the killer with his "family" of mannequins -- his collected victims -- as well as a shrine to his abusive mother and vast collection of weapons.
As the film continues, Zito's interior consciousness begins to extend beyond the limits of his apartment as he targets riskier game, the most tempting being his would-be-girlfriend. Things get progressively more bizarre outside the apartment and extremely bizarre within it. Without giving anything away, the weirdness crescendos in an ending that would have David Lynch himself squealing.
Yet, despite representing a unique fusion of Italian surrealism with cinema-verite New York style, the film never completely gels. Its elements feel disparate and piecemeal, and while the sum never quite lives up to its formula, Maniac's effective cinematic spurts hit hard enough to forgive it.
This stems from a great degree of craft put into the film's stalk-and-slash sequences. Memorable scenes include a chase through a deserted subway platform and a harrowing home invasion. The effectiveness of these sequences resides in a realism aided by both Lustig's ability to direct suspense and Tom Savini's special effects.
You'll find some of the most impressive work of Savini's storied, gory career here, from stabbings to shotgunnings. Even though film's notoriety has heralded it as one of the all-time-great video nasties, Maniac is wise enough not to allow the film to succumb to latex-and-karo syrup wankery. There's a great deal of restraint in what Savini and Lustig show off, and that strengthens the impact all the more. Yes, Maniac is as graphic as they come, but aside from the film's scalpings, the movie revels in its violence just long enough to royally screw with your head.
While Savini and Lustig gained notoriety from their work in the film, Maniac is truly Joe Spinell's lasting legacy. Here, the character actor (what Judge David Johnson would refer to as a "that guy") gets his first starring vehicle and gives a thoughtful, utterly believable performance. It helps that Joe Spinell wrote the film (with the help of C.A. Rosenberg in his only screen credit) and while he doesn't get points for script structure, Spinell shows a deft understanding of real-life horror. Frank is a pathetic little man living out his fantasies through his knife, desperately alone and utterly terrifying in his realism. He isn't a hulking stuntman in a hockey mask or a square jawed actor with a butcher knife; he's a lumbering, pock-faced, overweight loser with mommy issues whose private life will stay with you long after you've watched the film.
Going toe-to-toe with Spinell as his main squeeze is B-movie bombshell Caroline Munro. While she's a beautiful actress with a uniquely European flavor, Munro fails to leave a memorable impression. It doesn't help matter she has to work with a completely underwritten character, one who befriends Zito for no other reason than to push the plot along and add extra layers of suspense. In this ham-fisted construction, Munro's character fails to add anything of substance to the narrative.
The supporting actresses and actors are porno-quality at best, mostly female fodder -- hookers, models, and nurses -- who sadly play corpses better than they say dialogue. Only Tom Savini manages to bring a memorable presence as a hapless sap who meets the wrong end of a shotgun.
The score is a mixed bag of thick, sleazy synthesized compositions and delicately composed string ballads. The choice is unconventional and effective, but is dragged down by an overabundance of screeching musical stings. These often accompany sloppily edited sequences, causing the composer to overcompensate by just laying on those stings in the most painful, droning manner imaginable. Just ready your volume button and you'll be fine.
Said amateur touches might be endearing to those who grew up on Z-level, so-bad-they're-good 80s slashers, but this just ain't that breed of film, and a little tightening could've made Maniac the next Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While it never quite reaches those levels of grindhouse glory, it instills a sort of soul crushing madness that, for me, has only been topped by Cannibal Holocaust. (I wouldn't suggest a double feature of the two without a couple of anti-depressants on hand.)
Blue Underground, Lustig's long-standing horror specialty label, brings the film to us in a 30th Anniversary set that represents the alpha and omega of Maniac on DVD.
The box declares the DVD as having, "a new 2K High Definition transfer from the original uncut and uncensored negative." Believe me, the image lives up to the ad copy. Yes, the film is just as gritty and grindhouse looking as you remember it, but the image is sharper, details are finer and the colors more robust. It's like watching the film for the first time, as cliché as that may sound. The film's 5.1 sound mix is also impressive, though the inclusion of a DTS track without the original mono mix is a little alienating for purists like me.
A new commentary featuring William Lustig and Co-Producer Andrew W. Garroni is included, along with the commentary track with Lustig, Tom Savini, Editor Lorenzo Marinelli and Joe Spinell's assistant, Luke Walter. I've long been a fan of William Lustig's commentary tracks, which are not only packed with memorable anecdotes and trivia, but also carry a great sense of humor. Continuing the man's tradition, I was happy to find that neither of these tracks disappoint.
Red Shirts Pictures, DVD producer Michael Felsher's long-celebrated production company, has been reunited with Blue Underground for a series of retrospective interviews and a featurette on the film.
Anna and the Killer gives Caroline Munro's perspective on the film, recollecting her experiences with Joe Spinell, reaction to the film's violence, and overall affection for the film. She's as charming and sweet-natured as her film persona, and I could listen to her prim and proper accent all day.
The Death Dealer highlights Tom Savini's work on the film in an interview that's surprisingly less technical than it is informal; Savini is candid and funny as he describes his reasons for taking the job, what it was like to work on the film, and his experiences living in New York for a month. He weaves stories like a master, and one tidbit involving a run-in with some punk-ass kids named Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert will cause instant nerdgasm for any horror fan.
Dark Notes interviews composer Jay Chattaway. In comparison to the other interviews, this one's a little rambling, but worth watching for fans of the film's score.
Maniac Men has Bill Lustig interviewing songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky to debunk whether or not the film Maniac inspired the hit Flashdance single, "Maniac." The footage is hilariously absurd; as are the original lyrics Sembello sings ("He's a maniac-maniac/that's for sure/He'll take your cat and nail it to the floor!"). To say anything else would step on the joke, so I'll just tell you to check it out.
This release also recycles the 49-minute David Gregory documentary The Joe Spinell Story. In terms of documentaries about Hollywood, it ranks with the likes of The Kid Stays In The Picture -- a wonderful, melancholy portrait of Spinell as a blue collar character actor whose charming personality, great generosity, and irrepressible appetite for life left a great impression on all those who knew him. The film includes interviews with Lustig, Munro, Robert Forster, and Jason Miller, as well as footage of a young Steven Spielberg's reaction to not being nominated for a Best Direction Oscar for Jaws, and how Spinell saved him from embarrassment. I promise you, watch this documentary once and you'll want to watch it again within the week.
Capping off Disc 2 is a series of archival footage that gives even more context to the film's torrid history.
Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2 offers a fascinating demo reel of footage directed by Buddy Giovanazzo (Combat Shock) that was shopped around for sequel funding, but failed to get off the ground before Spinell's untimely death.
Promotional Materials and Maniac Controversy spins many hours of radio interviews, television interviews, Cannes footage, and archival review footage chronicling the filmmaker's defense and promotion of their film and the outrage it (and many other slasher films of the time) gained.
If that isn't enough for you, Gallery of Outrage compiles the nastiest quotes from the film's many reviews, among them bits from notorious slasher film heretic Gene Siskel.
Finally, an equally outrageous gallery of theatrical trailers, TV spots, and radio spots are also included.
Not guilty based on insanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Dutch)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Footage
* Image Gallery
* Promo Reel
* TV/Radio Spots
* IMDb: Maniac
* IMDb: Joe Spinell Story