All right class, take your seats. It's time for roll call: Bruce Campbell? Tom Atkins? Laurene Landon? Richard Roundtree? Robert Z'Dar? Robert Z'Dar? Unfortunately, Robert is no longer with us, however, he and his contributions to cinema won't be forgotten. His film career spanned decades, mostly within the horror and action genres from the mid-’80s to as current as 2014. His most notable roles being Samurai Cop and of course Maniac Cop and its subsequent sequels.
Interesting how life takes you down a path that you don’t even see coming. Back in 2015 while at a friend's movie night, we were watching Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance and after the credits rolled, Maniac Cop popped up in the "suggestions" section. We knew that Robert was in Samurai Cop and we enjoyed his presence and personality there, so it didn’t take much convincing to give it a chance. Not to mention, with a title like Maniac Cop and a cool cast that includes Shaft and Ash from the Evil Dead series, we had to watch it. And then we watched the two sequels!
Maniac Cop is a movie I watch and recommend often, and with the movie turning 30 this year, I jumped at the chance to write about it as part of Daily Dead's Class of ’88 series. Directed by William Lustig (1980's Maniac, Maniac Cop 1-3) and written by Larry Cohen (The Stuff, It's Alive), Maniac Cop tells the story of Matthew Cordell (Robert Z'Dar), an NYPD officer sent to prison for abusing his authority as an officer, only to escape from Sing Sing Correctional Facility and continue his reign of terror on the citizens of New York City. With tensions at an all-time high, Lieutenant McCrae (Tom Atkins) was given the task of catching the murderer. Unfortunately for fellow police officer Jack (Bruce Campbell), he was framed as the "maniac cop" after his wife Ellen was killed shortly after she caught him at a motel in bed with Theresa (Laurene Landon), another officer. Jack spends the majority of the movie trying to clear his name and find the real culprit. Oh, and did I forget to mention that officer Cordell was killed in prison?!
Bruce Campbell and Laurene Landon are standouts with the rest of the cast pulling off very solid performances. Campbell's nuanced portrayal of the complicated hero, Jack, is a noteworthy portrayal—although it may seem more common now, back in 1988, it wasn't every day that the protagonist in a movie was not only a liar, but a cheater, as Jack continued to have a relationship with Theresa even after his wife was murdered, yet still pursued her killer.
When it comes to Theresa (Laurene Landon), she isn't relegated to the position of a sidekick to Jack or a damsel in distress just because she's the mistress. She is a police officer as well and definitely carries her own. There are many ways to be tough and there isn't anything wrong with being scared (I know I would be if I was looking for an undead killer cop), but she isn't written or played by Landon as someone who makes illogical decisions or is unable to defend herself (or at least make an attempt to do so). I also have to mention Lustig's casting of Richard Roundtree as Commissioner Pike. He's played one of the most notable blaxploitation characters, Shaft, and along with being a great actor, is well-versed in the hyperactive energy found in this genre, and his presence is needed for this movie.
Last, but certainly not least, is the unforgettable performance from Robert Z’Dar. There’s a reason why he was cast in over 50 movies, usually as the intimidating muscle. Much like another franchise that I enjoy immensely, Friday the 13th, the casting of the unstoppable force barreling down anyone in his path is crucial to the success of Maniac Cop, and I honestly can’t think of someone who could pull off a character like Cordell quite like Robert could and did. His height and stature, along with his hulking presence, are terrifying.
The cast does a great job elevating the story and the characters, but so does William Lustig. He made Vigilante in ’83 as well as the very controversial Maniac just eight years prior to this, which gave him a chance to build up an impressive film arsenal before taking on Maniac Cop. Staying on a shot or scene for longer than an audience is used to seeing, or shooting Cordell from behind as he walks down a dark alley to pursue someone all helps to add a sense of unease or dread to the film, but this is also a movie that has more to say beneath the surface.
Despite how much I enjoy Maniac Cop and understand its exploitative intentions, I also understand that the brutal violence towards innocent people is and should be jarring, especially since Cordell was an officer. Exploitation movies live in a world of excess and are often so over-the-top that the audience divorces the story from the real world, and it's often only after the movie has finished that we can really reflect on the moral of the story. I'm glad a movie like Maniac Cop exists. Its stance on police brutality and the violence on display should be upsetting. This behavior shouldn’t be seen as a normal part of our lives, and the exploitative nature of this movie is a perfect fit, as its hyperactive energy allows the viewer to relax and have fun with what they’re seeing while taking away something deeper for later. I hope this movie captures your heart like it did mine.
Be sure to check here all month long for more special features celebrating the Class of 1988!