Bill Lustig’s Maniac was a film born of the slasher boom, with a gloved killer on the loose and Savini’s effects at the fore. Yet, compared to Savini’s other films, Friday the 13th, The Burning, The Prowler, or any of the other slashers in the pipeline at the time, Maniac is a completely different beast. Where most slashers offer us catharsis in murder or the perspective of the victims, Maniac gives us an insular, claustrophobic look inside the mind of a killer. Definitely not the feel good movie of the year, it’s nonetheless went on to live quite the life on video, due likely in part to being one of the first wave of films released on VHS and Betamax, ensuring a long life on video shelves everywhere. Today with video shops fading away, it’s now nostalgia, either of seeing the film or its iconic box art warning viewers not to go out tonight, that still makes it a heavyweight of eighties horror. But how does this shoestring movie by first-time filmmaker and nephew of Jake LaMotta hold up in the ring today? Let’s stay in tonight and give Spinell a spin in HD.
The film begins on a pay set of binoculars intended to look over the beautiful New York skyline. Instead, the voyeuristic eyes see a couple camped out on the beach at dusk, and proceeds to slice the two to shreds. Right after that, we wake up with Frank Zito (a nod to Joseph, a friend of Lustig’s and who had just worked with Savini on The Prowler), Joe Spinell’s tormented killer of the title. He screams in the shadows of his room, which is decorated with pictures of the Madonna and babies, and with mannequins strewn about. In case there was confusion as to whether the balaclava’d killer from the start was someone other than Zito, who at this point looks to be the protagonist, Lustig has Zito go out and kill a prostitute. He pays for a room with her but demands she keep her clothes on. She kisses him, but he can’t get it up. He strangles her without word and then scalps her. He returns home and places her hair onto one of his mannequins. Slowly, he’s rebuilding his family.
We know little of Zito, but through his mumblings he makes it clear that his mother left him. She was promiscuous, always with other men instead of tending to her son. It’s left him empty, disturbed and alone, an island in New York City. Next he tails a woman through the underground subway, and later shoots the head off a man (Tom Savini) pulled over with a woman at a ditch. He takes their hair, or what’s left of it, back to his apartment and tries to dress up the emptiness he feels inside. Things start to look up, though, when Zito runs into a charismatic photographer, Anna (Caroline Munro, Dracula AD 1972, The Spy Who Loved Me), in Central Park. She takes his picture, and in a way it forces him to look at himself objectively. Is this his chance to change?
Zito meets up with Anna at one of her fashion shoots and gives her a stuffed bear. The two hit it off – he makes her laugh and she makes him feel whole again. They decide to go out for dinner and have a nice talk. Before heading anywhere else together, though, Frank wants to quickly visit his mother’s grave. It’s there in a panic that he tries to do the same to Anna as he’s done to all the others, but she makes a courageous escape. All Frank is left with now are his thoughts, and they begin to play terrible tricks on him as he falls into a horrific haze. His mother and his mannequins come back to life; the demons of his abandonment have finally come to feast.
I often wonder about the fans of Maniac. The film is a very grim account of a psychologically disturbed man that does nothing but plunk us down in his dead end existence. At least a similar movie, like Taxi Driver makes Travis Bickel a man who tries to change and better himself. There’s an attempt at improvement. In Maniac, Frank Zito is ten steps over the deep end the entire movie, and even when Anna brings a potential change to his life he still continues to do the same murderous routine. There’s no hope for this guy, and when storytelling is based around the mechanics of change, the movie is like a leaden weight at the bottom of Lake Depression. Taxi Driver also offered the flourish of style, with Michael Chapman’s smokey, moment-in-time cinematography a filter to an otherwise shabby existence. In Maniac, Lustig instead takes us handheld and verite into this guy’s life, making escapism impossible. We must see the world entirely as Frank Zito sees it, and, well, that isn’t very fun.
A public screening I attended earlier this week was met with curious cheering when Zito blasts Disco boy Savini with a shotgun shot to the face. The effect is splendid, yes, but the context is so much different than your usual root-for-the-killer slasher. I couldn’t imagine a Schindler’s List audience applauding at the effects work during the scenes when boney corpses are being piled by the truckload in Auschwitz. Maniac is a curious movie that today, more than telling a story about a character, instead kind of tells a story about its audience. The subject matter is monotonously morose, and at some point it begs introspection – why are we watching, and enjoying, this sad self-destruction? How different is this, really, than other horror films that feature murder for entertainment? I question whether Maniac can be enjoyed as entertainment, but make no mistake, it’s certainly a provocative film that’s worthy of respect.
First-time director Bill Lustig shows a young maturity in the way he portrays Frank. Most movies make the killer out to be the villain – he does repulsive, negative things that make it easy for the audience to distinguish between good and evil. Jason may be a well-meaning mamma’s boy, but the filmmakers still emphasize that he’s the monster, and that the teenagers are the ones that need to ultimately prevail at the end. In Maniac, the audience does not get off easy. The movie is entirely shot through Spinell’s vantage point. There are no protagonists, only a disturbed killer that’s humanized by Jay Chattaway’s fluttering flute theme. He doesn’t torture his victims, he doesn’t sexually exploit them, he kills them out of loneliness. When you see him ask the prostitute to keep her clothes on, it’s clear that he is not a sex maniac like the others, but instead one looking for a woman to be his mother surrogate. He’s striving for the American dream in a most demented of ways, and even when he’s doing things more vicious than your average Jason, Michael or Freddy, he’s a sad soul you can empathize with. Frank Zito is both our monster and our victim, and the movie refuses to make it easy on the audience by distinguishing between the two. Lustig’s world is one of greys, not one of right or wrong, but one where the murky, colorless horizon offers hope.
It’s important to mention Zito’s world, because the New York setting is paramount to demonstrating the isolation Frank feels within. He’s in the biggest, busiest city in the world, yet he’s alone. He’s stuck in dirty alleys or run down apartments, his city, like his mind, in disrepair. This is a movie where the city is as big of a character as anyone else – indeed it could be argued that it’s the antagonist of this whole piece. Imagine if it were filmed in LA…it just wouldn’t work. At the same time, a remake wouldn’t work in the cleaned up New York of today, either. This is a film that spontaneously captures the darkness, a movie that makes the grime of the big city infect the emotional wounds of its main character. Using naturalistic lighting and filmed guerilla style on any and every location, it’s a movie that just seems to grab the essence of 1980 New York and slap it on the screen. Again, there’s no stylistic distance to both city and character like there is in Taxi Driver. Instead, we get a pathway straight to the soul of Frank and the city that’s become his hell.
In other horror films, there’s a force going against the villain. It’s Dr. Loomis on the prowl, the sheriff’s office in full force or a private investigator trying to make things right. Characteristic to Lustig’s no holds personification of New York as a godless, judgeless cesspool of indifference, nobody but Zito himself poses a threat to his reign of terror. Instead, the city speaks by way of sensational headlines on the paper or news on the television. They report the crimes but do nothing about it, the city is helpless, and worst of all apathetic. Maniac is a challenging, different kind of movie, that demands not only that we reconsider our villains, but more that we question our place and its impact on our lives. Frank Zito is a product of his environment, and all of America is to blame for letting him slip through the cracks.
Zito’s descent is memorably played by Joe Spinell. Like how Lustig refuses to give easy answers or easy distinctions between good or evil, Spinell injects his character with zestful ambiguity. When we first see him, he’s crying, and it’s pretty clear that he’s a sympathetic character, but next thing he’s condescending in shades as he picks up a prostitute. We see him as scarred, both mentally and physically, we see him as a menace, but we also sometimes see him as an almost loveable eccentric. The scene where he offers the doll in a cage a cracker is just so human. With every scene, Spinell seems to be revealing a different side to this quiet, mumbling character, but while most actors would work to hammer home the pathos or the darkness, Spinell just tries to make him human. You never quite know what Zito is going to do, or what he is going to wear or what he’ll say. In a film where the city is always dark, the kills are always brutal and the story is always unflinching, Spinell adds this wildcard levity. He’s unpredictable, and the spark of life in an otherwise dark caldron of social decay.
I still don’t know about the audience, but I have a lot of respect and appreciation of Lustig and Spinell’s work on Maniac. It’s a direct movie that captures a dark place at a very particular moment in American history, and Joe Spinell’s au naturel performance is certainly a memorable one. It’s a chilling, believable document of child abuse and abandonment, that settles under the skin. As a gorefest, well, it is that too, but so is a car accident.
It was Bill Lustig’s dirty little secret while filming, but Maniac was, like The Evil Dead around the same time, shot on 16mm and then blown up to 35. This resulting Blu-ray, a 2K restoration like Vigilante, is therefore understandably soft. Compared to the THX certified DVD there is a lot more detail, but most of that is added grain particles. Maniac looks even grimier in HD, but where the recent DVD for The Evil Dead made the image that much crisper, this transfer just magnifies the flaws in the original that much more. Colors have been noticeably saturated for this new release, but I’m not sure if that’s such a good thing. The DVD had a desaturated, almost black and white at times, look, and that really fit with the cold despair of the main character. Here, the purples of his walls or the blue haze on the streets and in the subways are much more apparent, but the colors are kind of tacky and asynchronous. A lot of the filming used as much natural light as possible, thus a lot of different color temperatures were used, resulting in a pretty inconsistent color base. Flesh tones vary from reddish to orange with the added saturation of this new Blu-ray, and while it may be more true to the source, I’m not as sure it works in the film’s favor. What this new transfer does nicely, though, is improve the levels and exposure of this new release, allowing for deeper blacks and a brighter frame. Technically, this Blu-ray is a better transfer, but it will come down to personal preference whether it’s preferable to the DVD.
Maniac has been expanded to DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 for this Blu-ray, and while the DVD was no slouch in DTS-ES 5.1, there is definitely an audible improvement. While the dialogue still sounds relatively flat and thin, it’s been mixed about as good as it ever could be in 7.1. Much of the film depends on background ambiance in New York, and throughout cars, sirens and chatter can be heard directionally across the soundspace. There are plenty of instances of left to right movement, and while the back isn’t as directional, the rear surrounds get quite amped with Jay Chattaway’s moody, memorable score. Key audible events like the shotgun blast don’t exactly rock the LFE, but they do have presence, which is not bad for a movie made 30 years ago for $50,000. It won’t blow the roof off, but this mix for Maniac does a good job at surrounding you in Frank Zito’s inescapable world of despair.
Maniac celebrates its 30th birthday in high style with over seven hours of all the gory details behind the grindhouse classic. The first is a new commentary with Bill Lustig and Producer Andrew Garroni, recorded the same time the two recently sat down for the Vigilante Blu-ray commentary. The two reminisce about the production, explaining how they got the money, how they swiped outtakes from Argento’s Inferno to fill out their movie, and the kind of crazy things Spinell did throughout the production. They also talk quite a bit about how they setup distribution and how the film was then received, both when it was originally released and when they cut the film down to an R to play in some of the southern states. Overall, it’s another candid look into the production side of filmmaking, something that isn’t too often shared on special features.
The second commentary is from the previous DVD and the Laserdisc before that. It features Lustig, Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli and Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter. The four are a lively bunch, and have a lot of laughs describing the fabled “de-clitorisation” scene that Spinell was so gung-ho to shoot. It’s funny how at one point Savini talks about “modern horror” and describes it as mostly psychological and free of effects, citing films like Unlawful Entry and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. My, how things have changed! While Lustig and Garroni certainly share a lot of interesting facts in their commentary, a lot of the major ones are also covered here, and this larger and more varied batch of participants make for a lighter, more entertaining track overall.
The first new video extra, shot in full 1080p is “Anna and the Killer”, a thirteen minute interview with sex symbol and Maniac star, Caroline Munro. Produced by Red Shirt Pictures with their usual elegance, it’s a nice featurette on Munro’s early history, her impressions and involvement with Maniac and more. Dara Nicolodi was actually supposed to play her part, but she couldn’t make it over from Italy in time for filming, so Munro was brought in at the last minute. This and more are revealed in this earnest piece.
“The Death Dealer” (HD) is a twelve minute interview with who else, Tom Savini, about his effects work on the film. He’s pretty jovial in talking about why he took the film, the illegal corners they had to cut to do the shotgun blast, and most memorably of all, how he had to turn Joe Spinell down when Spinell had suggested a biting of the clitoris effect. The word “oyster” is thrown around a couple times. Savini has a few other fun anecdotes, including meeting the Evil Dead boys after seeing the Maniac on 42nd street. There isn’t a lot of talk about how the effects were created, nor is there any surviving behind-the-scenes footage, but Savini’s anecdotes are more than worth the viewing. Stick around after the credits for a special message about the Maniac remake.
The next interview is with Jay Chattaway, the composer for Maniac and many a Lustig movie, “Dark Notes”, which runs twelve minutes. Chattaway talks about how he got his start in music, how me moved to films, how he met Lustig and ultimately the approach he ended up taking with Maniac. He talks about not particularly liking horror but that Lustig and his crew had such a passion for the project that he couldn’t resist being a part. He also talks honestly about the creative process in the eighties and how it’s a different beast today.
Another extra on the music, “Maniac Men” (HD), humorously addresses the urban legend that the hit song “Maniac” from Flashdance was in fact written as the theme for Maniac. Bill Lustig sits down with the “Maniac” songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Martkosky, and the two have a lot of laughs in recalling their versions of the story. None are quite the same, but ultimately it ends with a thrilling rendition of the track with the original, darker lyrics. As a fan you can’t even dream up an extra like this!
Rounding off disc one is the seven minute promo for the never-shot “Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2” starring Joe Spinell. It’s quite good, featuring Spinell as a washed up children’s TV star who does what a maniac does best, killing a cokehead at a bar after closing time. The effects for the death sequence, which includes showing a boiled face and then a butcher knife stabbed right into the eye, are quite disturbing. Shame Spinell was never able to complete it before he went the way of Frank Zito. Theatrical trailers, TV spots and radio spots are also included, as they were on previous releases. Also, look for a cool easter egg with William Friedkin on the main menu (previously in the extras menu on the old DVD).
The second disc DVD contains the fifty minute documentary, “The Joe Spinell Story”, which chronicles the larger than life journey of a larger than life character actor. It features interviews with family, friends, directors and actors who have worked with the man, and includes some pretty rare and notable video footage. One such instance is when Spinell and Frank Pesce were invited over to Spielberg’s house to watch the Oscar nomination announcements when Jaws was the #1 movie in America. The two console him when he doesn’t get nominated, and it’s quite the novelty. Spinell’s relationship with Stallone, his work on Maniac and his tumultuous life of drugs and alcohol are all given good screentime in this informative documentary by now Severin Films partner David Gregory. This was on the previous DVD, but is more than a welcome addition here.
Also on the second disc is a collection of vintage news clips and videos from across America in response to the furor over Maniac and splatter films dubbed “Maniac Controversy”. It’s over thirty minutes in total, and provides an accurate portrait of just how pronounced the media was against these kind of movies during the splatter boom. Many of the broadcasts focus on women petitioning the film or painting over the lurid poster. One has some humorous interviews with some not-so-bright theater patrons being totally spoon fed the interviewer’s agenda. A “Gallery of Outrage” is also included, with text quotes from many leading critics across the country lambasting the film, including Gene Siskel. The gallery of outrage we’ve seen before, but all the actual video clips are new for this release.
On the flipside is “Maniac Publicity”, which features over an hour and forty minutes worth of promotion for the film, both during its original release and later on in revivals. Bill Lustig, Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro give various interviews, both on TV and on the radio, right around the time of original release. The longest, and probably most entertaining, is a 47-minute piece with Bill Lustig at a local New York TV station. The guy he’s with is a total blowhard, and Lustig is forced to wince through a lot of vapid callers. It’s kind of fascinating to see just who made up the horror community back then, with guys sort of doing what we do today – trying to find the best possible versions of obscure films, like when a guy asks about screenings of a Russ Meyer movie. Then there’s the prank callers, something you never find in today’s age of TV, with one guy snickering when he mentions a chick’s bush in Maniac. The other pieces are a lot more professional, and overall it’s a great document of how the film was marketed and received upon release. There’s also a recent Grindhouse Q&A with Lustig, Garroni and the female nurse from early in the film to give a modern day perspective. Aside from the radio interview, all the promo material here is being presented for the first time on this Blu-ray.
With hours and hours of extras, some new, some old, and some fresh just for this release, this has to be the final word on Maniac.
For most, Bill Lustig’s Maniac isn’t a wholly enjoyable movie (and for those it is, hmmm…), but it’s undoubtedly a challenging, provocative and well made one. It’s an unflinching character piece of an abused man who abuses others in a city of dark, impenetrable indifference. Joe Spinell makes the maniac a person rather than a metaphor or an agenda, Tom Savini’s effects make his madness palpable, Jay Chattaway’s tragic score makes him sympathetic, and Lustig’s direction makes sure to never let Zito, or his audience, off easy. The 2K video restoration is solid, but potentially exposes the flaws in the 16mm negative that weren’t quite evident on DVD. The sound, though, has been nicely expanded to 7.1, and the extras, spanned over two discs and containing over four hours of new content to go along with the robust three hours of old content, are definitive. Coupled with the retro extras, this release of Maniac paints as complete a picture of the splatter era, both in film and in life, as has ever been portrayed. Highly recommended.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
"Characteristic to Lustig’s no holds personification of New York as a godless, judgeless cesspool of indifference, nobody but Zito himself poses a threat to his reign of terror. Instead, the city speaks by way of sensational headlines on the paper or news on the television. They report the crimes but do nothing about it, the city is helpless, and worst of all apathetic. Maniac is a challenging, different kind of movie, that demands not only that we reconsider our villains, but more that we question our place and its impact on our lives. Frank Zito is a product of his environment, and all of America is to blame for letting him slip through the cracks."
I couldn't agree more with what Rhett feels about Maniac. I can't picture people having a good time with it like Rocky horror picture show or Friday movies, it gives no break to the spectator, you almost feel dirty. It's just a full blown descent into the worst of the human mind and probably that's why remains a horror favorite.
Another nice review.Grindhouse Releasing is rolling new 35mm prints out soon for the lateshow circuit just as they've done for EVIL DEAD and THE BEYOND.Watch their website,maybe it'll screen near you.I know it's playing in D.C. before years end.
Great review. I haven't seen Maniac. I was waiting for the BD, but now I think I will pick up the current DVD.
What about the character Munro plays? Is she indifferent? Or is she being portrayed as one of the only people in the city with a heart?
Great review, Rhett! I can't wait to get this Blu-ray!
My all time favourite slasher, hands down. So deeply disturbing, dark, tragic, and ultimately real.
She's portrayed as one of the only people with a heart.A non-judgemental girl, a person who isn't interested in being nothing more than a friend to Zito (maybe even the mother-like figure he needs), who wants 2 shelter this damaged soul, ignoring completely his ugly looks.
I love this movie, but the thing I can't believe they left in was the ending.It defies plausibility and it seems out of place, ALMOST throwing this serious, thrilling and dark character study into the pile of garbage, run of the mill slashers of that era.It does hurt the end result, though.Makes it a flawed movie.
Im on the fence with this blu-ray.On one hand the clarity seems better, but on the other brings up lots of grain.The new extras are tempting...What 2 do???
Sounds like the video leaves alot to be improved upon, lacking fine detail that HD was made for. I find it hard to believe a better transfer wasn't possible. Those HD screen shots look bad. Was a must-own now I think I'll pass on it.
Nice review though.
Munro is playing the Cybill Shepherd part from Taxi Driver, implausibly nice to an odd, uncharacteristic man, but ultimately forgotten about as the maniac succumbs to his own demons. I can't entirely take her scenes seriously, since it's clear Lustig cut and pasted a lot of scenes and ideas (the grave scene from Carrie, the credits from Halloween, etc.) from other influential films to him at the time, and this one just seems to be using the Taxi Driver template.
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