William Lustig’s Maniac is just one of those films that will always court controversy. Whether it’s under attack for its graphic, realistic murder scenes, the misogyny in the film, or even its controversial poster (original prints have the killer’s bulge in his pants given full prominence), the film has had a bullseye on its back going on nearly forty years now, which admittedly is no small feat in a genre filled to the brim with controversial titles. The main problem that some folks have with the movie is the blunt, brutal way Lustig approaches the subject matter. They see it as morally reprehensible, they see it as a film with little to no redeeming quality in it, and frankly, they’re right.
Our lead is a killer who travels through a crapsack world that’s seemingly devoid of law enforcement, at least until the film’s final moments, so there’s no plot pressure to have him get caught (and by the looks of the ending, he isn’t). Maniac is a despicable, disgusting film, so the film’s critics are not entirely off-base. It’s a grimy, nasty, mean-spirited film, the kind of movie that seems like it was shot on celluloid strips made of cigarette ashes. It’s like it wandered out of the primordial ooze and transformed into a film. But this is where Maniac’s power lies. This is why Maniac is a great horror movie, one that I finally, truly appreciate after seeing it on the big screen.
Not so surprisingly, as technology marches on, we’re apt to revisit older titles to give them a remaster and unleash them into the 20th century, with films such as Suspiria getting gorgeous restorations and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer getting its own 4K upgrade in 2016. Personally, the grungy look of films like Maniac shouldn’t need a new coat of paint, as their dirty, unhinged look is part and parcel of their inherent charm. However, I was fortunate enough to see Blue Underground’s 4K restoration at Fantastic Fest and let me tell you: it’s extremely gorgeous. It’s the absolute best presentation of Maniac you could hope for. Every single drip of sweat, droplet of blood, and smear of graffiti is presented in loving detail I’ve never noticed Frank’s nose smashed up against the car window in the Verrazano Bridge sequence! William Lustig was on hand at Fantastic Fest to give an introduction, and he told us the painstaking process to get Maniac the 4K restoration it deserves.
Apparently, they thought 2K would be the peak of its digital presentation, until producer Andrew W. Garroni found a box with the original camera negative under Maniac’s initial title On the Run (the title they used to apply for permits). The 4K restoration was hand-restored with a process that took 500 hours, and boy, does it show! Lustig’s Q&A after the show was equally impressive and frankly, it could’ve gone on for hours. From informing us that he was too young to see the XXX films he cut his teeth on prior to Maniac, to calling out the inauthenticity of HBO’s The Deuce (“100% bullshit”), to the fact that Tom Savini worked on the film in New York to avoid going back to Pennsylvania because of a recent breakup. If anything, it offers the image of Savini on the floor of Lustig’s office, listening to Lionel Richie and sobbing profusely.
The film is a character study, albeit one that almost exists in a nightmarish vacuum for its first act or so, coldly following Frank Zito, played with sweaty, teeth-gritting efficiency by Joe Spinell, as he kills indiscriminately day in and day out, only returning to his hovel to stitch the scalps of his female victims to storefront mannequins. Towards the film’s middle, it starts to blossom into a romance-lite film with Frank finding a small relationship with a photographer named Anna, played with effervescence by Caroline Munro. This is a nice contrast to the cold cruelty in the film’s first act and the supernatural frights stored in the latter half. The last act is full bore nightmare fuel, especially in its final scenes, when the mannequins that Frank hangs his scalp trophies on come to life and mutilate him until he’s deader than a doornail, or so we’re led to believe. It’s quite an interesting way to end your film, shocking and succinct, but puzzling enough to leave your audiences off their guard. I personally liken it to the ending of Black Christmas. “Oh, the killer isn’t dead? Perhaps he’s waiting outside for you!” Interestingly, it’s an ending that was done earlier in Don’t Go In The House, made a few months before Maniac and featuring a similar plot, save for the way the killer dispatches his victims (in that film, he sets them on fire).
The film courts notoriety because of its graphic special effects, and boy, they are a doozy. I still remember the first time that I saw Tom Savini’s epic shotgun head explosion, done with a fake head and real ammunition (“A crime,” Lustig admitted in the Q&A that followed the screening. “We fired real ammunition at the highway.”), a scene displayed lovingly in Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare—coincidentally the moment that so offended film critic Gene Siskel that he reportedly walked out on the feature. The rest of the effects are nauseatingly gruesome—scalpings, slit throats, and bayonet impalements are the buffet of killings that occur and they still stay shocking through each and every scene. I also enjoy the score by Lustig’s regular collaborator, Jay Chattaway. It’s a veiny, throbby score that fits the grisly aesthetic of the film.
You would think with a film as gory as Maniac that there wouldn’t be any scares to be had; after all, it’s all mostly done in a matter-of-fact fashion. But there are two stellar set pieces where Frank is stalking his victims that are chock-full of suspense. The first is the subway “chase” scene when Frank hunts a nurse (played by Kelly Piper—the mother in Rawhead Rex), and the way Lustig shoots the scene had my guts in knots. We know that Frank is going to catch her and kill her, but Lustig plays the scene for maximum tension so that you worry less about “how” Frank will kill her, but “when” he’ll pop up to do it. The second is a prolonged sequence when Frank stalks one of Anna’s model friends in her apartment with the sound of thunder backing every single nerve-shredding moment.
The primary question of Maniac that most people will address when talking about the film is its misogyny. Is Maniac an overtly misogynistic film? It’s not really up to me to answer that kind of question. I cannot claim to know the fear that women must feel when they’re walking home alone at night or living in their homes alone at night. There was a fascinating video going around about the release of Maniac and in it, news reporters were interviewing men and women about the film’s release and its controversy, and the majority of women outright stated that they are petrified of this film because guys like Frank exist in our world, whether we like it or not. Even more insightful is a young teenage boy stating that if he were a woman, he’d be petrified.
As it is in real life, these women in Maniac are simply going about their daily lives before Frank swaggers in with his deadly weapons to kill them for his hang-ups. This is the mirror being held up to the ugly, brutal, and unfair part of society. Women do not deserve to be the trigger for men’s sociopathy, but they are far too often relegated to that disgusting facet. In Frank’s case, he kills because of the systematic abuse he received at the hands of his mother. This trauma is old hat for most killers, ranging from the titular character in the aforementioned Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Norman Bates in Psycho, and the aforementioned flamethrower flambé psycho in Don’t Go in the House. Yes, our killer murders women (and men, but far less) repeatedly in increasingly graphic ways, and I suppose the argument could be made that if Frank isn’t throwing misogynistic slurs towards his victims, then he cannot be misogynistic. This is inaccurate.
By victim shaming them, (“I warned you not to go out tonight!”) even as he’s killing them, he is transferring his hang-ups on to them (“This is your fault.”). Even the critically acclaimed, and I would argue grislier Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer wades into the rotten cesspool of misogyny (Henry targets two prostitutes earlier in the film), and it leaves me wondering what the true difference between Maniac and Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Kill is—they’re both character studies anchored by electric performances, taking similar matter-of-fact brutality head-on. One just aims for the arthouse aesthetic while the other aims for grindhouse-level thrills. To that point, I see no misogynistic agenda behind the scenes (but again, I’m not the right person to declare that it’s not misogynistic), but the only thing I see in Maniac is the aspiration to make some dough and scare the bits out of an unsuspecting audience. The film is not misogynistic, but Frank Zito is.
Is Maniac’s controversy warranted? Absolutely. It’s an ugly, repellent, grimy snapshot of madness, one that’s horrifyingly relevant in a world that shows how little respect women are given, and how women are treated by brutal, psychotic men. And that’s its point! I’d argue that all of its grease and blood and grimness work in its favor. It’s startlingly powerful—perhaps too powerful. William Lustig created a potent poison alternative to the safe, vanilla horror that was invading cinemas at the time of its release. Alongside Joe Spinell and Tom Savini, Lustig fired the starter gun for a crimson flood of splatter celluloid. Maniac is just as stark, just as effective, just as blunt as a shotgun blast to a disco boy’s face, even nearly forty years after it stunned audiences on 42nd Street.
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