I remember the horridly lurid poster for this movie. It shocked and fascinated me no end: the burly man holding a bloody knife and a woman's severed head. "I warned you not to go out tonight." Can't get more incendiary than that; and the movie sparked a firestorm of controversy simply due to that poster, as clearly none of the protestors had actually seen the film. Had they ventured into one of the sleazy grindhouse theaters that dared show it, they would have found a more-misogynistic-than-usual slasher, with a few bits of serious gore book-ending very little preposterous and pointless plot.
Maybe I'm just jaded by 35 years of horror consumption, but I've got to say I do believe Maniac has lost some of its power to shock. Director Bill Lustig's spit in the eye to habitués of The Deuce is certainly single-minded and effective in its way, but years of cruel grue like the Saw and Hostel series (not to mention even more extreme examples from overseas) may have inured horror fans to its sweaty charms. Noted slimy thesp Joe Spinell plays Frank Zito - the titular nutjob - with fierce conviction. He's a resentful mama's boy - if you look closely you'll find the unsavory subtext for his hate - who only wants to kill women. That's about it. Midway through, Zito becomes attracted to a fashion photographer played by the lovely Caroline Munro, and implausibly she bites. Aside from being ridiculous and unbelievable, this development at least allows Spinell to show a bit of humanity to which viewers can relate, while demonstrating how psychos of Zito's ilk can don a mask of humanity. Otherwise it makes no sense, and is a bit laughable.
As a warped character study, Maniac is solid, but who wants such a thing? Unsuspecting punters then and now just want(ed) to see Zito scalp and skewer women, and blow bit-player Tom Savini's head off with a shotgun. What they didn't expect was the unrelenting air of sweat, pathos, and desperation that suffuses this effort like a bad coastal rental infested with mold and mildew. Yes, Lustig knows what you want, and he's going to punish you for wanting it. His ally and aide-de-camp Spinell seems to know exactly what it means to be a hopeless shlub who can't stop murdering women and tacking their scalps onto mannequins. Though this is a movie that every gorehound should see, it's not a heck of a lot of fun. I guess it's a cautionary tale, kind of laying it out both for murder movie fans and their makers - this is an ugly, squalid business no matter how you slice and dice it.
Yes, but can't these movies be fun? Can't they be scary? Yes, they can, though Maniac isn't exactly such a movie. Despite a jump-scare or two, Maniac is simply a slog through squalor. I'd argue it was made to subvert the burgeoning slasher genre as much as cash in on it. But now, since we've seen it all and then some, we're past the point of subversion. We're either into this type of stuff or we're not, and can find any number of movies more graphic, shocking, and even some more relentless than Maniac. Therefore, that handful of gory set pieces Maniac gives you, while refreshing in their lack of CGI, have lost some of their power to shock. And when you get to Spinell and Munro on a romantic date, you cringe as intended, but you also laugh a bit. Surely Maniac's morose desperation and Spinell's full-tilt sicko-performance mark the movie as an all-time exploitation classic, and one that should be on every collector's shelf. However, you modern-day horror fans will probably escape your viewing without the same outrage Maniac generated in 1980.
Four Featurettes between 11 and 13-minutes-long, each, are new to this release. Anna and her Killer hits up the fabulous Caroline Munro, who manages to get better looking each year. An interview with Tom Savini, The Death Dealer, highlight's the effects master's impish, geeky side as he revisits some of his most gruesome work. Dark Notes delivers composer Jay Chattaway's unique perspective on the shocker, and finally the Maniac Men, composers Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky, get their chance to set the record straight about their hit song 'Maniac' as it relates to Joe Spinell's scalping ways - absolutely hilarious stuff. In addition to a brief Easter Egg, Maniac Trailers, TV Spots, and Radio Spots accompany the notorious, and now rather easy to find seven-minute Promo Reel for Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, the sanctimonious slasher sequel we'd still like to see made. And yes, you get Subtitles, with English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai being represented. Clearly this is meant to be the definitive edition.
Maniac Publicity is a gallery of numerous related bits such as a 19-minute "Paul Wunder" Radio Interview with Lustig, Spinell and Munro with leisurely pacing and sketchy sound, but of real interest to hardcore fans. William Lustig on "Movie Madness" rolls on for 47 minutes of pure New York Public Access Cable TV. It's a Black and White, 4 X 3, VHS-sourced marvel of the uncomfortable aspects of amateur television. You get about a minute of Joe Spinell at Cannes, promoting the film - a tiny historical artifact. 13-minutes of Joe Spinell on "The Joe Franklin Show" further sinks viewers into the world of '80s New York. A three-minute Caroline Munro TV Interview is somewhat uncomfortable viewing. The 2-minute Barf Bag Review Policy finds an NY TV news program instituting a new 'bad movie' review system, seemingly using Maniac as its catalyst. 22-minutes of a Grindhouse Film Festival Q&A is generally what those familiar with this would expect, and a Stills Gallery finishes things off. But there's more!
Maniac Controversy is a gallery of old news items regarding the infamous films. About 14-minutes of local news stories from Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia are amusing and nostalgic. 21-minutes, in the form of two long-form news stories from the "Newsbeat' show, focus on Movie Violence and Violence in Movies. Meanwhile, on "Midnight Blue", 'Screw' publisher Al Goldstein rails on for 7 minutes about the hypocrisy of promoting movies like Maniac while keeping sex hidden away. Finally, the Gallery of Outrage assembles many, many derisive blurbs from contemporaneous reviews - laugh-out-loud stuff!