Maniac (1980)


*. I have the two-disc special edition of this movie on DVD. That’s worth thinking about. Not that I have the special edition, but that a special edition even exists of such a film.
*. You may respond that the director, William Lustig, is also the CEO of Blue Underground, which is the label the special edition was put out under. I give Blue Underground a lot of credit for putting together some great special editions, but this is also Lustig’s baby.
*. But is this film that special? Perhaps not much, but a bit.
*. In the first place, it’s a totally derivative slasher film. Lustig’s initial idea was to make “Jaws on land.” Which sort of explains the opening scene on the beach. Frank Zito is a killing machine like Bruce the great white.
*. Oddly (or not) enough, Jaws was also the inspiration Sean Cunningham had for Friday the 13th. The killer in that film was imagined as a force of nature, a land shark destroying his victims.
*. Cunningham’s other main inspiration was Carpenter’s Halloween. Or, more properly, the success of Carpenter’s Halloween. Everyone wanted a piece of that action, hence the spate of films like this. Lustig, naturally, was no different, even taking co-star Caroline Munro out to see Carpenter’s movie to give her some idea of what he was after.
*. Another borrowing shared by Cunningham and Lustig (their movies were released the same year, but Friday the 13th was made first, as Tom Savini went from working on Friday to this film), comes at the end. Both movies wanted a Carrie rip-off, no matter how far-fetched it would be. You could be damn sure you were going to see hands exploding out of the ground (or the water, as the case may be).


*. Fans of the film usually point to things like the “guerilla” film style, the special effects by Savini, and the lead performance by Joe Spinell. Let’s look at these in order.
*. The ultra low-budget guerilla style wasn’t an aesthetic decision. Lustig had no money. The film’s “look” isn’t that distinctive. It looks like what every movie shot in 16 mm and blown up looks like: muddy and dark.
*. The gore effects are pretty good. I would single out the first scalping scene as the best. The shotgun blast is usually considered the highlight, but in fact this was pretty easy to do. It’s shot from behind so you’re just seeing a dummy head filled with goop being blown apart. The final decapitation is weak because Spinell’s head is obviously fake. They needed to cut that scene better to sell it.
*. I like Spinell, and think he’s great here. That is, however, a relative judgment. Spinell is one of the very few “real” actors to appear in one of these slasher films, where the killer usually wears a mask or is presented point-of-view giallo-style throughout most of the movie.
*. Spinell’s Frank Zito is also one of the few slashers to have much of a back story. I don’t think it matches up that well (where did the mannequin fetish come from?), and settles for a rather conventional mother fixation, but at least Spinell came by this honestly. The documentary on Spinell’s life included in the two-disc set shows him living at home with his mother, casting their relationship in a rather awkward light. His room actually looks more than a bit like Zito’s apartment, and apparently he was even known to have dressed up in his mother’s clothes in public. Weird guy.
*. As an aside, it still seems to me that Silent Night, Deadly Night doesn’t get the credit it deserves for presenting a slasher killer with a well developed and somewhat credible psychology. That’s not to say Silent Night, Deadly Night is a good movie, because it isn’t, but Billy’s madness is at least somewhat grounded.
*. There is, however, one big problem with Spinell in this role. He was not a handsome man. He’s entirely persuasive as a scary serial killer, especially when his slack and sweaty face fills the screen in a tortured rictus, but can we really believe he’d have a chance with Bond-girl Caroline Munro?


*. This is a huge credibility gap. A beautiful young professional woman immediately falls for a (let’s be frank) ugly, overweight, middle-aged man with no job. On one of the commentaries Lustig explains that the keys inside Zito’s apartment door were meant to indicate that he was the building superintendent, but that’s not going to get you far with a girl like Munro.
*. Kim Newman calls Zito one of “the most repulsive human beings imaginable . . . slobbish, sweaty, ugly and prone to horrible overacting.” He’s also emotionally stunted, plays with dolls and toy ray guns, and seems more interested in that teddy bear he gives to Munro than she is. And yet Munro can’t wait to go out with him!


*. In the featurette interview with Tom Savini he remarks on this disjunction and explains it by saying that even a complete troll can get any woman he wants if he makes her laugh. Which may be true, but Frank doesn’t evidence any sense of humour either. The mystery remains.
*. Lustig himself seems to recognize that the chemistry didn’t work, saying he disliked their scenes together. There’s even a long embarrassing silence on the commentary track throughout the dinner at the Italian restaurant. You can tell no one likes it. Was it Spinell’s fault? He did write the script and was the star. It was natural for him to want to have a beautiful female lead.
*. Real life is, of course, stranger than fiction. Caroline Munro did find Spinell a charismatic and attractive figure on their first meeting. But of course there was a lot more to Joe Spinell than there was to Frank Zito.
*. I like the subway scene, even if it is a bit of a stretch. There’s a big continuity error when the train pulls away and we see that the platform is full of people milling about. Then after the next cut it’s shown as being empty again. Admittedly, filming in the subway really was “guerilla” filmmaking. They didn’t have permission and had to shoot it when and how they could. But still, the effect is undermined.
*. Lustig goes off on a tear on one of the commentaries when he starts talking about how today’s horror movies are slicker but more generic than their predecessors in the ’70s. Say what you will about those early exploitation films, he tells us, they at least had a sense of style. I think this is generally true (Lustig singles out the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th for criticism), and it’s interesting to speculate on how that ’70s style might be best defined. Lustig specifically drops the names of Leone, Argento, and Bava as examples. All Italians. And Maniac is very much an Italian-American film. A coincidence?
*. I love Frank’s apartment, but unfortunately Lustig forgot the name of the artist who designed it. I wonder what the first serial killer apartment was that we saw decorated in all those pictures cut out of magazines (pictures that we see again on the wall of Spinell’s room in the documentary on his life). The art work is also bizarre, with the doll in the birdcage and the Born Without a Mother statue being particularly creepy.


*. Do you think Frank might have glued the scalps to the mannequins rather than hammering them on with plastic tacks? The tacks sort of spoil the effect.
*. The coda is awful. Of course they had to have the clichéd “he’s not dead yet!” moment in case they wanted to make a sequel. But actually the entire ending is silly. The cops break in and see the evidence of what appears to be an act of hari-kari, but then they just tuck their guns back in their belts and . . . go away. No need to look around. Let’s just leave.
*. I guess the cops were tipped off by Anna to go check out Frank, but if so they took their sweet time. Otherwise I don’t see why they’d be breaking into his apartment at all.
*. So . . . is it a special movie? It was interesting listening to composer Jay Chattaway talk about the independence he had working on such a film, especially as compared to working on bigger productions. But it’s an odd thing: while in theory a low budget should give producers more creative freedom, more of a license to indulge a personal vision, most of these films were even more focused on the bottom line and more genre-specific and conventional than the movies being made by the big studios. Like Cunningham in Friday the 13th, Ludwig basically just wanted to ride on the coattails of the incredible success of Halloween. But he got lucky by teaming up with Spinell and Savini, and then enjoyed a bit of the success scandal brings when the backlash against slasher films made him a target. I’d call it better than average for the genre, with just enough that’s quirky and, yes, special about it to be worth seeing. If only once.


2 thoughts on “Maniac (1980)

  1. Downwego

    I knew Joe, and I don’t think you really give him much credit in this review, which comes across as snide and “look at how clever I am”.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Don’t know why you would get the idea I don’t give any credit to Spinell. To quote from my notes: “I like Spinell, and think he’s great here.”


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