When I got the opportunity to review Blue Underground’s Blu-ray release for William Lustig’s 1980 grindhouse slasher Maniac, I was intrigued, but also a bit nervous. I’d previously only ever seen the 2012 remake starring Elijah Wood, and it was a compelling, beautiful, but ultimately very bleak film. From what I’d heard about the original, it was just as bleak, but also purported to be significantly sleazier. The packaging for the Blu-ray certainly leans into the feel of exploitation cinema with loud artwork, splashy inserts, and a CD copy of the soundtrack that features a sweaty, wide-eyed Joe Spinell (our titular maniac) on the disc. With a total of three discs of content, I was bracing myself for a prolonged dive into some unpleasant material.
The film, after all, doesn’t market itself as the typical popcorn slasher one would see making a big surge in the early ’80s. While most films of the time focused on a group of would-be victims, Maniac shifts its focus to the villain, who in this case is Frank Zito (Spinell), a deeply troubled man dealing with trauma from his own abusive childhood while compulsively stalking and murdering those unfortunate enough to wander into his orbit.
While it’s true that the film feels dirty, rather than feeling exploitatively dirty, it just feels filthy in a very literal sense. The 4K restoration highlights every bead of sweat and smear of grime on the city and its residents as we navigate seedy hotel rooms, basement apartments, and dank subway bathrooms. But that’s kind of the point.
Lustig takes a snapshot of the New York that people would rather ignore, but he does so while daring the audience to connect with those they’d normally try to avoid. Frank is the primary focus, but Lustig spends some time with Frank’s victims to allow them to be human beings rather than just slasher fodder. Before Frank kills a prostitute early in the film, we get a few minutes of dialogue with her and a fellow sex worker talking shop and bemoaning the need to pay rent that week. A discussion between two nurses outside of a hospital where Frank lurks in the shadows gives not just a glimpse into their lives, but also into how Frank’s murders are affecting the cultural mindset of the city. And what’s interesting is that the nurses aren’t presented as being any more or less “important” than the prostitutes. Everyone in the city is just trying to get by, making it more tragic when Frank kills them.
Lustig and Spinell work a tricky balancing act by making Frank their focal point. If they make him too sympathetic, they run the risk of glorifying a serial killer, and if they make him too unlikeable, they risk making the movie unwatchable. By and large, I think the film is successful in not going too far one way or the other. The film caught a lot of flack when it was released for its treatment of women, and on one hand it should be noted that all but one of Frank’s victims is female and the gore (provided by effects guru Tom Savini) is graphic and brutal.
But while we’re certainly supposed to sympathize with Frank’s backstory as an abused child, he’s certainly no antihero whose kills we cheer on. Lustig’s script and Spinell’s performance weave in the toxic masculinity that permeates his psyche. He rambles to himself about “fancy girls” and becomes possessive even of the manikins he adorns with the scalps of his victims. He puts up a facade of normalcy to ingratiate himself with photographer Anna (Caroline Munro), even as he schemes to murder a model he meets at one of her photo shoots.
I will say that the scene where Frank captures, torments, and murders Anna’s friend Rita (Abigail Clayton) may be the one sequence that crosses a line. Where as the other deaths are sometimes shocking, this one seemed too cruel and sexualized in a film where sex hadn’t really been a factor until that point. For what it’s worth, during one of the Blu-ray commentaries (featuring Lustig, Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Spinell's assistant, Luke Walter), Lustig admits in hindsight that he took this scene too far, with Savini adding that there was an element of titillation in the scene that didn’t fit with the rest of the movie.
This bit of remorse contrasts with the rest of the special features that celebrate the film as a capsule of a New York long since gone and a filmmaking experience that everyone really seemed to enjoy. I got a real kick out of hearing Lustig and Savini reminisce about creating the infamous shotgun scene where Frank shoots a man (played by Savini himself) from point blank range, causing one of the all-time great head explosion gags. In the commentary, Savini marvels at his pre-nose job visage and recalls how they all had to rush away after they shot the effect as it was illegal to shoot a firearm in New York.
Part of why I love vintage horror movies is that they serve as a time capsule of the era in which they were produced, and the interviews all provide more context for the film. Lustig tours key shooting locations from the movie and ruminates about New York from when they were making the film while showing what it looks like today. During an in-depth interview with Caroline Munro, she notes that she attended the film’s premiere on the same day that the hostages were released in Iran. Even the trailers, TV ads, and radio spots provide context for how a movie like Maniac would be marketed to the masses in 1980.
As one would expect, there’s also a significant amount of time spent discussing Joe Spinell, whose own story seems just as compelling as his onscreen counterpart. Through the commentaries, interviews, and in-depth profile on Spinell, we get a picture of a man who worked on huge movies like The Godfather, helped kickstart Sylvester Stallone’s career, and seems admired by a slew of character actors who worked with him during the ’70s and ’80s.
Overall, Blue Underground really gets it right in their approach to this release. I really enjoyed the film, but it’s certainly more compelling than it is fun. So, to have the bonus features take a more laid-back, even nostalgic approach makes for a great complement to the film. If you’re a fan of Maniac, I highly recommend picking this one up.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5