Blue Underground // 1980 // 88 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 22nd, 2010
I warned you not to go out tonight.
"Take this picture somewhere else. Not in the Philippine -- take it to
-- Measured response from the Philippine Board of Review for Motion Pictures and Television rejecting the producers' application for distribution
Frank Zito (Joe Spinell, The Last Horror Film) is one sick dude. He's never gotten past his lousy childhood, when he suffered abuse at the hands of his sleazy mother. Now, Frank lives in a cramped New York City apartment filled with decaying mementos of his youth.
Frank is also a collector, of female mannequins. They are all over his apartment, and they make it seem even smaller than it is. Frank talks to them, and in his mind, they talk back.
But what's especially disturbing about the mannequins is their hair. It's human, collected by Frank from women he stalks, kills, and scalps. Frank's a serial killer, a Maniac who can't help himself, and no one is safe from him, including the lovely Anna (Caroline Munro, Slaughter High), a photographer who might end up being Frank's first real girlfriend -- or his next victim.
Unlike most slasher films of the '80s, with violence so ludicrously over-the-top and villains cartoonishly powerful, Director William Lustig's Maniac is not an especially "fun" film. It's a grim, serious affair told from the point of view of the deranged killer. More Peeping Tom than Friday the 13th, this is a very well-made but disturbing film that's at times more than a little difficult to sit through.
On its release, Maniac received attention because of its violent scenes. Certainly, there were movies being made with higher body counts, but the kills here lack the silly, visceral thrills of most slashers. The death scenes are brutal, carefully and realistically constructed, and extremely well executed, thanks to Tom Savini's outstanding make-up effects. Savini also appears on screen in one of the film's most controversial scenes, in which Frank shoots a man through a car window, graphically blowing his victim's head to pieces. It was this scene that reportedly caused Gene Siskel to walk out of the film and denounce it on Sneak Previews for its excessive violence.
It's worth remembering that when Maniac was produced, New York City was the crime capital of the U.S. The 42nd Street where Zito does some of his hunting was Grindhouse Alley, a place where hookers and dealers openly set up shop. The Son of Sam killings were a recent memory, the city had been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, street violence a common occurrence, drug use was rampant -- the "crack years" were just around the corner -- and people who could afford it were fleeing to the suburbs. This is the sensibility that powers Maniac; the film is very much a product of its time, its ugly, unsettling, nihilistic vibe a reflection of the city in which it's based.
That the film is so effective is due in no small part to the performance of Joe Spinell as Frank, the schlubby-looking guy whose darkness overwhelms him. This is not the standard, amateurish, paint-by-numbers horror villain turn. Spinell creates a fully formed portrait of this monster that goes far beyond the surface. He mutters to himself, talks to mannequins, growls like an animal when stalking his prey -- yet he can be charming as well, and while the pairing of Spinell and Munro as lovers has a definite Beauty and the Beast quality to it, it's not entirely unbelievable. Had Maniac been more of a mainstream film, Spinell might have been remembered as one of the great horror heavies.
Lustig and company put Maniac together with spit and glue, and the raw, rough edges work in its favor. It's an ultra-low budget feature produced by young filmmakers in the days before digital video made everyone a potential director. The phrase "guerilla filmmaking" comes up a few times during the supplements, as does Lustig's rather wistful observation on how being young (24 when he made this) and adventurous enabled him to take risks. Many shots were "stolen" -- that is, filmed without permits, including the shotgun scene and a brilliantly harrowing sequence in a subway station that actually involved shooting in several subway stations and a bathroom of a public pool.
While Maniac might have been made like a Datsun, Blue Underground's release of Maniac: 30th Anniversary Edition is a luxury ride. The film looks great in Blu, the 1080p transfer just clean enough without losing the film's grittiness. I doubt Maniac has ever looked this good; the transfer offers a fine level of depth and dimension. There are several audio options; the English-language ones are both solid, a DTS-HD 7.1 track and a Dolby Surround track. These are free of distortion, hiss, pops, and all those other noxious nicks.
This is a two-disc Blu-ray set, with one Blu disc containing the movie and some extras, and the other a standard DVD that contains still more extras.
The supplements are a mix of ports from Anchor Bay's 2001 release (which I believe was rereleased by Blue Underground in 2007) and new features created for this release. Like Troma's release of The Last Horror Film, a lot of time is devoted to Spinell, and rightly so. Maniac was very much Spinell's baby. He wrote the story, executive produced, and was pretty much involved in every aspect of the film. A great character actor and a great -- and bizarre -- character, this release is a fitting tribute to both the man and the movie.
* An audio commentary with Lustig and co-producer Albert Garroni, which was recorded for this release
* An audio commentary with Lustig, Savini, Joe Spinell co-hort Luke Walter, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, ported from an earlier release
Both commentaries are a lot of fun, filled with trivia and cool stories. What's nice about the older one is that even though it features four people, it's not one of those affairs where everyone talks at the same time and ends up being incomprehensible.
Four new interviews presented in HD:
* "Anna and the Killer" is an interview with the still lovely Caroline Munro
* "The Death Dealer" gives us effects artist Tom Savini
* "Dark Notes" is an interview with composer Jay Chattaway
* "Maniac Men" -- William Lustig interviews song writers Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky, who wrote the pop hit "Maniac" for the film Flashdance, about the long-standing legend that this film inspired that song.
* A promo reel for the unmade Maniac 2 featuring Spinell as "Mr. Robbie"; this is also in HD, though it's not new -- it was featured on Troma's release of The Last Horror Film
* Trailers, TV, and Radio Spots
The second disc, which is a standard DVD, contains material that's mainly ported from the earlier release:
* "The Joe Spinell Story" -- A terrific 49-minute documentary
about the star of Maniac that's filled with anecdotes and archival
footage, and includes interviews with people like Robert Forster, Sponny Grosso,
and Jason Miller
* "Maniac Publicity" -- Nearly two hours of archival footage of Lustig, Spinell, and Munro promoting the film, including a bizarre radio interview, footage of Spinell at Cannes and on The Joe Franklin Show, and an old cable TV show with a very young Lustig; there's also a stills gallery; I don't know that all this footage was included on other releases.
* "Maniac Controversy" -- This is an absolutely astonishing pile of archival material centering on...well, the Maniac controversy. It seems that the violence in this film -- enhanced, I'm guessing, by the low-production values and downbeat nature of the whole thing -- was considered so offensive that it sparked protests from women's groups and refusals from some news outlets to run ads for it. Highlights include columnist Rona Barrett ('member her?) doing a tabloid-esque op-ed on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show in which she dissects the socioeconomics behind the popularity of slasher films; a rant by Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein on his infamous Midnight Blue cable show on how violence is permitted to be shown on cable but sex is a taboo, punctuated with shots from Maniac; and Gene Siskel's disgust at the whole thing. Besides these (and a few other) video clips, there is a "Gallery of Outrage" that features quotes from reviews ("This is the kind of trash that makes you want to join the Moral Majority," says Joseph Bensoua of South Bay Breeze) angrily vilifying the film. Siskel gets his licks in here too: "A film so repulsive that I was forced out of the theater after seeing only its first half-hour."
Small wonder it went on to become a genre classic.
Seedy, seamy, graphic, violent, ugly -- what's not to like?
This is going to be high on the list of cult releases of the year. Blue Underground's Blu-ray of Maniac: 30th Anniversary Edition is more than just guts and gore, it's heart and soul. Highly recommended.
It's the guilt that makes it worthwhile.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Italian)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Archival Material
* Image Gallery
* TV/Radio Spots
* IMDb: Maniac
* IMDb: The Joe Spinell Story