Release Date(s)1980 (October 26, 2010)
Studio(s)Magnum/Analysis (Blue Underground)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
The early 80s were prime time for the stalk-and-slash genre. Halloween had made every holiday from Valentine’s Day to your birthday a cause for alarm, Jason Voorhees had just begun his reign of terror at Camp Crystal Lake, and there was no shortage of rundown screens to project them all on, from 42nd Street to the drive-ins of the South. In the midst of all this, William Lustig’s cheap ‘n’ sleazy, down ‘n’ dirty Maniac generated a shit-storm of controversy, thanks in no small part to its exceptionally lurid poster art. Studios change key art the way most people change their socks but I’ve never seen a release of Maniac in any format that didn’t use this infamously bloody crotch shot. Why mess with success, right?
Thirty years later, it’s still possible to understand what all the fuss was about. Character actor Joe Spinell produced and co-wrote the script, in large part to give himself a rare leading role. Spinell plays Frank Zito, a madman terrorizing the streets of New York, slaughtering random women (and any men unlucky enough to be with them at the time). He scalps the women, steals their clothes and brings his trophies back to his seedy apartment where he dresses mannequins and nails the scalps to their heads.
Unlike most other movie monsters at the time, Zito is a believable serial killer. He’s overweight, sweaty and whimpers under his breath whenever he sees a beautiful woman. You probably won’t run into a giant machete-wielding dude in a hockey mask the next time you go camping. But the next time you’re in New York City, you’re guaranteed to run into a few people who could be Frank Zito.
Of course, the controversy was entirely based on the presupposition that movies like Maniac actually cause violence against women. It’s the same basic argument that’s used today by concerned parents railing against violent video games and it’s just as ridiculous now as it was then. If you’re offended or disturbed by the movie, that’s fine. Don’t watch it. You certainly can’t say it’s been sold to you under false pretenses. But to make a direct link between any creative work and real-life violence is simplistic and absurd. End of story.
Obviously if you hate slasher movies, Maniac is not going to be the one that wins you over. But if you are a fan of the genre, this one’s better than most. Spinell is pretty damn good as the creepy psycho and any sci-fi/horror fan will seize any opportunity to check out the beguiling Caroline Munro, cast here as a photographer who becomes inexplicably sympathetic to Zito. Tom Savini’s makeup effects are top-notch as always and the movie proves he didn’t need a big budget or lots of prep time to creative effective, gory gags. The movie has an authentically grimy feel to it and, despite a lame final scene that makes no sense, it’s a nasty but believable slice of 80s horror.
It was only a matter of time before Blue Underground brought Maniac to Blu-ray. After all, director William Lustig is the company’s CEO, so it should come as no surprise that the movie has been given A-list treatment. This is a very strong transfer that still conveys every dark, grainy, low-budget frame. It looks like you’re watching a brand new print the very first time it was run through a projector back in 1980. The soundtrack has been boosted up to 7.1 DTS-HD and while it isn’t particularly dynamic, it’s effective and works well with Jay Chattaway’s score. The disc also offers 5.1 and 2.0 options in English, plus 2.0 dubs in French, Italian and German.
The first disc of this double-disc set includes several new extras, including new interviews with Caroline Munro, Tom Savini, Jay Chattaway, and most amusingly, songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky. Sembello and Matkosky are on hand to address once and for all the rumor (propagated by Spinell himself) that their hit song “Maniac” from Flashdance was originally written for this movie, albeit with lyrics about a serial killer instead of a steel-town girl on a Saturday night. All of these featurettes are presented in HD, by the way. The disc also includes two audio commentaries, one with Lustig and co-producer Andrew W. Garroni. The other is a holdover from a previous release with Lustig, Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli and Spinell’s longtime assistant, Luke Walter. Both are quite good with the second commentary having a slight edge. The disc also includes seven trailers, nine TV spots, four radio spots, and the promo reel for the unfinished sequel, Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2, by Spinell and Combat Shock director Buddy Giovinazzo, also in HD.
Disc Two is a DVD containing the excellent documentary The Joe Spinell Story, another previously produced extra. The Maniac Publicity section contains vintage radio and TV interviews with Spinell, Lustig and Munro, a still gallery, and a Q&A from the Grindhouse Film Festival. The Maniac Controversy section features news footage of the outrage surrounding the film from Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere, proving that balanced, un-sensationalized news coverage was as alive and well in 1980 as it is today. In the Chicago clip, Gene Siskel sounds as if he’s ready to grab a pitchfork and lead a mob of angry villagers to Bill Lustig’s house. All in all, this is an amazingly comprehensive set that makes you think more filmmakers should own their own DVD companies. You certainly have access to a wealth of bonus material.
There’s no question that Maniac is an incredibly violent splatterfest but it seems a strange movie to get worked up about. Lord knows I’ve seen horror movies far more offensive and misogynistic than this one. Maniac isn’t the most polished or sophisticated movie ever made but it’s those rough edges that make it work. Blue Underground has cleaned it up just enough to get it ready for HD but it still hasn’t lost that grimy, not-so-fresh feeling.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke