Screen Reviews


directed by William Lustig

starring Joe Spinell, Carloline Munro, Tom Savini, Kelly Piper

Blue Underground

Maniac is not an easy movie. It isn’t a fun, jokey slasher movie, it is a brutal psychological character study of a serial killer. The film pulls no punches in its characterization of Frank Zito, the Maniac of the title. It was also a new high-water mark for on-screen gore created by FX makeup genius Tom Savini. The film is legendary with a nearly forty year following that has been rewarded. Maniac has been released on nearly, if not every home video format from the VHS Media Home Entertainment VHS through Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-Ray. The quality of the film’s presentation has improved greatly of time but nothing like this amazing 3 disc Blu-Ray from Blue Underground.

Maniac tells the story of serial killer Frank Zito who lives in a squalid basement apartment with a collection of female mannequins. The mannequins’ heads are adorned with the scalps from his victims collected during Zito’s nocturnal hunts. His hunting ground is New York City of the late 1970s a frightening, derelict hell-scape that elicits nearly as much fear as the killer stalking the streets. He talks to the mannequins after his kills and says “I told you not to go out tonight, didn’t I? Every time you go out, this kind of thing happens.” but it is left ambiguous if he is talking to his victims or to himself. The narrative has no arc, no B story, it is solely an exploration of Zito his demons and his crime. The exploration of the sexual and physical abuse he endured at the hands of his mother add context and explanation to the character. There were plans for a more conventional plot, but budget restraints forced the project to get leaner and the result is a film as bleak as Frank Zito’s existence. The film nailed the psychology of a serial killer when the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program was just beginning its research into profiling serial murderers.

The most frightening scene of the film is a long scene where Frank stalks a blonde nurse (Kelly Piper) through the streets and into the subway. When she invariably misses her train she is forced to retrace her steps back toward her stalker. She winds up hiding in a bathroom stall and her fear is palpable on the screen as her body convulses trying to hold in her screams. The bathroom scene is so influential that it has become a minor trope in horror films. The scene was homaged at least twice in 2018 in the reboot of Halloween and in Hell Fest.

The gore is a major part of the appeal of Maniac and it features some of the best work of horror FX master Tom Savini. On a minuscule budget he effectively pulls off multiple scalpings, slit throats, bayonets though the gut, and most memorably a shotgun blast to the head. The shotgun stunt features Tom Savini as both the victim and the murderer. Savini used himself for the shotgun blast victim and then he also appeared on screen as Frank Zito delivering the shotgun blast from the hood of a car through the windshield.

Character actor Joe Spinell makes the movie. He is the quintessential “that guy” character actor appearing in small memorable roles in movies like The Godfather, Rocky, and Taxi Driver. Maniac was his pet project and the role he was the most proud of. His performance is always dancing the line, threatening to spiral into camp and self parody. Taxi Driver-inspired scenes with Caroline Munro where Frank cleans up and puts on his nice guy facade are actually creepier than his creepy business because you can see through him, but the women around him cannot.

Two archive audio commentaries are included on the release. One with producer/director William Lustig, special make-up effects artist Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Joe Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter and another with producer/director William Lustig and producer Andrew W. Garroni. Both commentaries add a great deal of context to film and Lustig and company are full of great stories from the guerrilla film shoot. A number of interviews that have appeared on previous releases make their return along with newly releases outtakes and a new featurette Returning to the Scene of the Crime with William Lustig. The set also includes a CD of Maniac’s memorable soundtrack.

Clearly the film has never looked better, including when it was released theatrically. Maniac is vital film in the history of horror and grindhouse cinema and has been given a Blu-Ray release from Blue Underground that should be the envy of any film regardless of pedigree. The movie looks good for a forty year old micro budget sleaze production and looks amazing for one that was actually shot on 16mm. With films like Maniac that have had so many releases when a restoration like this one is release the inclusion of one of the old VHS transfers could make a fun extra to see how far the technology has come and to make us all thankful for what we now have.

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