Shot on a shoestring budget guerilla style, William Lustig's Maniac is an unpleasant, violent film that once was banned in Britain under the United Kingdom's Obscene Publications Act. As is often the case, the film feels a lot less controversial in 2019 than it likely did in 1980. An interesting time capsule of gritty, pre-Giuliani New York City, Maniac did not live up to expectations for me. Neither the nihilistic classic nor the exploitation shocker I expected, Maniac unspooled as a fairly standard, early 1980s thriller. Joe Spinell, who has small parts in Rocky and Taxi Driver, is a compelling lead, and his multifaceted portrayal of serial killer Frank Zito brings some humanity to an otherwise callous film.
Zito stalks the streets of New York City searching for vulnerable women, like prostitutes and drug addicts. He haunts a Times Square that no longer exists, and is invited into a seedy hotel by a hooker (Rita Montone). Instead of sex, he strangles the woman and scalps her, before chastising himself for doing these things yet again. Zito was abused by his mother, herself a prostitute, and suffers from a mental illness. He is a chameleon and can play in polite society to a degree, but the devil remains on his back. He stalks a young couple making love in their car and, in one of the film's most controversial scenes, graphically murders them with a shotgun. These actions repeat throughout the film, though Zito meets photographer Anna (Caroline Munro), who appears for a time to be a genuine love interest for the twisted killer.
This is director Lustig's first mainstream film, and it came (no pun intended) after a string of adult films he shot as Billy Bagg. New York City was still reeling from the Son of Sam killings just three years earlier and Zito, like David Richard Berkowitz, randomly chooses victims. Shot amid a host of other horror/thrillers of an increasingly violent and depraved nature, Maniac is certainly an extended, unpleasant trip through the underbelly of Manhattan. The film has lost some of its shock value, and the pacing is uneven, leaving long stretches of dull, tire-spinning exposition. SFX master Tom Savini, who also makes an on-screen cameo, provides some gruesome effects, and Maniac certainly shoots for realistically graphic kills.
Spinell's performance is quite good, and this character is at least somewhat complex. Maniac gives its anti-hero some redeeming qualities and viewers understand his mental illness is driving this behavior. After each kill, Zito shrivels into self-loathing, as he did after the abuse of his childhood. With nods to Norman Bates and Ed Gein, Zito fluctuates between dead-eyed killer and humble, awkward charmer as he tries to woo Anna. This courtship is more sad than anything else, as we know Zito neither deserves nor can he sustain such a relationship. While Maniac is not close to my favorite film of this era, it does have enough redeeming qualities to make it worth experiencing.
This 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is sourced from a new 4K restoration and is, by all accounts, far superior to the image on the 2010 Blu-ray release from Blue Underground. Anyone expecting this 16 mm-sourced production to look slick and clean should leave now; but this Blu-ray image presents Maniac in a way that I suspect very closely mirrors seeing it in a decent theater back in 1980. The grain is moderately thick but natural and never artificially altered. Black levels and color reproductions are faithful, and shadow details in the frequently grimy settings impress. Depth, detail, texture and clarity all impress, and skin tones and highlights are nicely balanced. I noticed no issues with compression artifacts, aliasing or digital tinkering. I cannot imagine this film looking much better than this.
Audio is available in 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo. I chose to watch in stereo, but have also screened portions of the 7.1 mix and both impress. The track is completely remastered and without hiss, distortion or element crowding. The original sound design is preserved with clear dialogue, ambient effects and appropriately boisterous action bits. The 7.1 mix livens the surrounds up a bit, and the LFE comes to life appropriately in both formats. Spanish, French, German and Italian 2.0 Dolby Digital mixes are included, as are a host of subtitle options.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This three-disc limited edition includes two Blu-ray discs and a CD soundtrack. The discs are packed into an oversized clear case with dual-sided artwork. A booklet with information on the film and presentation is included. The case is wrapped in a lenticular slipcover. The set includes a veritable f**kton of extras:
On Disc One you get a collection of Trailers (15:14 total/HD), TV Spots (3:08 total/HD) and Radio Spots (3:19 total/audio); as well as a Commentary by Director William Lustig and Producer Andrew W. Garroni recorded in 2010 and a Commentary by William Lustig, SFX artist Tom Savini, Editor Lorenzo Marinelli and second assistant camera Luke Walter, both of which offer tons of technical information and production anecdotes.
On Disc Two you get the following "Featurettes": Outtakes (18:53/HD), which is a silent reel narrated by Lustig; Returning to the Scene of the Crime (7:53/HD), in which the director visits the film's locations; Anna and the Killer (13:08/HD), an interview with Munro; The Death Dealer (12:07/HD), an interview with Savini; Dark Notes (12:12/HD), which is a chat with composer Jay Chattaway; Maniac Men (10:35/HD), with interviews of Lustig and several songwriters; The Joe Spinell Story (49:20/HD), about the actor; and Promo Reel (7:24/HD), about an unmade sequel. The next section, dubbed "Publicity," includes the following: a Radio Interview (19:11/HD) with comments from Lustig, Spinell and Munro; Movie Madness (47:18/SD), a call-in program in which Lustig answers viewer questions; Joe Spinell at Cannes (0:43/SD), a brief interview; Joe Spinell on The Joe Franklin Show (13:13/SD); a Caroline Munro TV Interview (2:53/SD); Barf Bag Review Policy (2:10/SD), a funny, critical shot at the film; Grindhouse Film Festival Q&A (22:19/SD); and a Poster and Still Gallery.
Next you get the "Controversy" section, which includes Los Angeles (7:48 total/SD), a three-segment bit culled from newscasts; Chicago (2:13/SD), a similar segment; and Philadelphia (3:28 total/SD), which also comes from local news segments. Newsbeat (21:11/SD) is a two-segment bit on movie violence; Midnight Blue (6:32/SD) is a two-part bit with interviews from a pornographer; and Gallery of Outrage is a host of ravaging reviews for Maniac.
I am not especially taken with Maniac, but I can understand its cult appreciation. This gritty 1980 thriller offers a strong performance by Joe Spinell and a stark look at a New York City that no longer exists. This Blue Underground re-release repeats the ample, worthwhile supplements and offers excellent tech specs. Recommended for genre fans.