If the '80s is known for anything, it will be the reemergence of the horror icon as a viable form of film franchise. In the early days of Hollywood, terror was typecast by certain scare stereotypes. These caricatures were then thrown onto available Gothic legends -- the vampire, the monster, the werewolf -- and serialized to maximize their moneymaking potential. A similar approach was taken during the Greed Decade, were manmade myths like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and that central Cenobite Pinhead became symbols for fear's slide into post-modern mediocrity. Among the outsiders also trying their hand at such fright idolatry was the makers of Maniac Cop. Realizing the financial benefits of creating their own contract player, the individuals behind the 1988 effort realized that all a potential series needed was a symbolic psycho at the center and a lot of ancillary action around the fringes and -- VIOLA! – instantly identifiable (and repeatable) evil entity. Luckily, this less than lawful peace officer was introduced in one of the decade's best independent endeavors. And it is all thanks to the seriousness and professionalism of the cast and crew involved.
New York City is abuzz after a series of senseless killings. While the police suspect another serial killer, the citizenry is awash in rumors that a rogue cop is responsible for the atrocities. While law enforcement looks for clues, Jack Forrest's distressed wife is found brutally murdered. Suddenly, this member of New York's Finest finds himself the prime suspect in all the slayings. While the coarse Captain Ripley thinks they have their man, lead investigator Frank McCrae believes otherwise. After all, fellow cop Theresa Mallory is Forrest's ironclad alibi. Still, Commissioner Pike wants a scapegoat, and Forrest appears to be it. A chance discussion about a former policeman named Matt Cordell leads McCrae to department file clerk Sally Noland and the strange circumstances surrounding Cordell's professional downfall, incarceration and death...except, McCrae doesn't really think he's dead. No, he's convinced Cordell has come back to life, and is taking out his vengeance on the city officials who treated him so shabbily. And with Forrest as the perfect fall guy, this Maniac Cop can go on killing as long as he feels the need to meter out his own jaundiced justice.
Maniac Cop is one of the best b-movies ever made, a sensational combination of old fashioned film noir and pure unadulterated '80s schlock. The brainchild of genre veterans Larry Cohen (It's Alive, Q) and William Lustig (Maniac, Uncle Sam), this spin on the standard slasher flick represents the true tale end of the fear fad's cinematic viability, while proving that storyline and execution can overcome even the most formulaic film facets. Indeed, some of the best elements of this exemplary exploitation effort are the creative choices made by Cohen and Lustig. A master at manipulating a narrative so that it travels down paths unexpected by audiences, Cohen keeps the viewer guessing throughout, giving us red herrings and probable motives from almost everyone in the cast. Equally endemic is this screenwriter's desire to make every individual in the story a complex and multi-dimensional part of the plot. There are no throwaway roles here – everyone onscreen serves a significant purpose. All Lustig has to do is realize the script's solid sentiments and a sturdy little surprise is in store for followers worried about witnessing the same old slice and dice nonsense. Thanks to his superb work behind the lens, Maniac Cop transcends its tired terror trappings to become an elemental action epic.
It helps that Lusting and Cohen cobbled together such a fine, formidable cast. The success or failure of most films can be calibrated on how winning the performers playing out the scenes really are. In the pivotal roles of old time cops Frank McCrae and Capt. Ripley, Lusting brings on character stalwarts Tom Akins (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) and William Smith (Any Which Way You Can) respectively. Representing two sides of the same law enforcement coin, Akins is the determined detective out to clear an innocent man's name, while Smith, voice simmering with a school of hard knocks rasp, is a pure bureaucratic bad-ass. The two make a terrific tag team, taking much of the pressure off the babyish Bruce Campbell, still providing those patented Ash facial gestures as he gets Forrest's narrow butt beat again and again. Yet our famous fake Shemp is still required to carry the majority of the movie, and he does so admirably. As his blonde bombshell gal pal, Laurene Landon is very good, trading on her appearance to make Theresa Mallory as tough as well-manicured nails. But the best bit of non-starring acting comes from the sensational Sherre North. Giving a leg brace and a considerably crippled walk, she manages to be both moving and menacing in a role that easily defies description. On the one hand, her Sally Noland is a decent person, suffering from a past plagued by bad decisions and a lost love. But she's also hiding a secret, a clue to who may be behind all the pain and suffering.
That just leaves Robert Z'Dar in the title role, and he is marvelous. Using his dominating physical presence and unusual facial features to make Cordell a fierce force to be reckoned with, it's interesting to note that his character doesn't utter a single line in the film. Z'Dar must only use his body and his gestures to get across the inner rage burning inside Cordell, and he delivers said ire in every single scene he is in. Though the Maniac Cop's makeup would improve over the course of the series, this initial offering of the undead vigilante is perhaps the best, and the creepiest. It allows Z'Dar, not the prosthetics, to do most of the performing. Such a subdued strategy is actually part of this film's fascinating appeal. Surprisingly, there is not a lot of gratuitous gore or unnecessary nudity featured. Lustig keeps the red stuff limited to necessary narrative sequences and restricts the use of special effects to give his film a more realistic edge. There are a couple of peculiar deaths (one involves some freshly poured concrete) and the ending is right out of a classic '80s buddy film. But because of the attention to detail and the creative teams treatment of the subject, Maniac Cop avoids entertainment embarrassment to become a true testament to the DIY spirit of the VHS decade.
Representing a marked improvement over previous releases of this terrific title, Synapse Films offers a painstaking remastering of Maniac Cop that reveals long hidden details and many of Lustig's more cinematic aspirations. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is remarkable, with levels of depth and clear, controlled colors. Some may spy a few stray specs of grain in the many night scenes, but overall, this is an impressive looking transfer that helps preserve many of Maniac Cop's best attributes.
Again revamping the movie from the aural elements department, Synapse scores again with a pair of stellar soundtracks. Taking the old Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (also included), the company ramps up the channels as it delivers an undeniably great 6.1 DTS presentation of the film. The music mingles effortlessly in between the dialogue and effects, and the use of the speakers is significant, providing both directional and spatial ambience. While the 5.1 Surround soundscape is equally immersive, the additional high-end mix is definitely the way to go.
For those who own the previous Elite Entertainment DVD release of this title, the porting over of already existing bonus features may seem like a significant stumbling block to plunking down your dosh for a new version – revamped audio and video aside. True, the original added content is outstanding, consisting of some additional scenes filmed for Japanese television (all revolving around a crooked mayor character only referenced in the final film), a collection of trailers and TV ads, and a joyful audio commentary featuring Lustig, Cohen, Campbell and composer Jay Chattaway (in fact, it too was a holdover from a previous laserdisc edition of the film).
The only new feature is a 12 minute interview with Z'Dar that is filled with juicy tell-all tidbits. Perhaps the most shocking is his suggestion that he and Laurene Landon were more than mere co-stars during production, while he has nothing but praise for the rest of the cast and crew. As much a career overview as a personal perspective on Maniac Cop, Z'Dar is a wonderful Q&A subject and his participation here is much appreciated. And while a new alternate narrative could have been provided, it's hard to imagine that it could beat this daffy discussion. Everyone is out to have a good time, and while Lustig argues for certain creative choices, Cohen and Campbell cut up and criticize some of the storyline's more considered quandaries. For anyone who enjoys the way in which digital supplements flesh out a film, the extras offered as part of Synapse's Maniac Cop package are pretty special indeed.
When it first came out in the mid '80s, Maniac Cop was seen as a pleasant, if pedestrian diversion, a movie trading of the fading phantoms of the serial killer splatter rampage category of film to pry a few more dollars out of a less and less demanding demographic. Today, viewed with renewed appreciation and a definitive digital makeover, this cleverly controlled entertainment becomes one of the era's finest forgotten gems. Easily earning its Highly Recommended rating, Maniac Cop stands as a milestone in the career of its director, and another notch in the many indented creative headboard of its influential genre scribe. Those who've previously dismissed the movie need to give it another spin. You'll be surprised at how compelling a standard slasher cop drama can be. Newer members of the Maniac Cop clan will definitely want to pick up this disc. Synapse has given new life to an old favorite, and just like the resurrected corpse of Officer Cordell, this DVD is hard to refuse...or ignore.