MANIAC (US Media tape
4 stars   Cheese Rating: 25% Dairylea Lite!


directed by: William Lustig
starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Gail Lawrence, Kelly Piper, Rita Montone, Tom Savini

(back of video blurb):
       ""Maniac" provides ultimate satisfaction to even the most hardened fans of horrific gore!

       This hair-raising film traces the grim steps of a maniac killer as he stalks New York City streets randomly searching for his prey. After ritually murdering and graphically scalping his victims, he takes their hair and clothes to his lair which he shares with his grotesque collection of mannequins which he costumes with his grisly trophies."

choice dialogue:

"My boyfriend's gonna kill me if I don't get home soon!"

slash with panache?

       (review by The Blue Iris)

       After viewing this film for the first time, I thought of the things we Italians have to be proud of: our Art (and I include "Little Joe" Dallesandro in this category), our cuisine, and our contributions to world cinema--namely guts, gore, and lots of blood (insert "tomato sauce" joke here. Very funny.) Just look at the names of the masters of horror--Bava, Argento, Romero, Savini, Soavi, and Fulci. (I realize the last name on the list is much disputed, but I'll give him the credit he deserves. I've sworn off showering with the door Joe Spinell makes short work on one of his rare male victims...unlocked or vacationing on tropical islands since watching ZOMBIE (1980).) I'm honored that I come from the same culture that has created some of the most realistic depictions of murderous psychos and the undead ever caught on film. I realize we're not the only culture to have produced horror movies, but we seem to have developed our own inimitable style. I can safely add another name to this list: the late Joe Spinell (Spagnuolo to the paisans out there...)

       In MANIAC, Joe plays the title character of the film. I hesitate to even call this a slasher, because it's so much deeper than a typical slasher film. It's not quite straight giallo either, as the mystery of the film isn't "who" is committing the murders--we find that out by the opening credits. The mystery is really "why". It's also very intelligently written and terrifying. These guys obviously did their homework. They've set onto celluloid one of the most realistic portrayals of a serial killer one can ever hope to see. That's not to say it doesn't have its moments of pure mozzarella...this WAS 1980. But it's also one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen--period. Spinell's portrayal of Frank Zito is a refreshingly non-comical depiction of someone who's totally out of his skull, but still can hold it together enough to wander amongst the rest of us sane folk in order to find his next victim. The character he's created IS the guy our mothers worry about us running into as we head off to college or live alone for the first time. He's the guy we worry about finding hiding behind our doors when we come home late at night. The situations in the film are largely the stuff of urban legend, but, as Joe said about his character, "guys like this really exist."

       This is a film that plays on women's fears of living alone that, for better or worse, shows the consequences of not using our heads when out in the real world. Many of the women in the film truly defy description--we like to think we're not that dumb, but after Another victim of the MANIAC!witnessing the actions of some of the characters, well, let's just say they all get the Darwin Award for 1980. Like the nurse who, while standing outside of the hospital where they both work, tells her friend how scared she is that there's a maniac loose on the streets of New York and then proceeds to refuse a ride home! It's easy to say "What an idiot!" (I did) but it proves the universal point that, until the guy's got his hands on you, it's really easy to say, "That'll never happen to me". We assume people like Frank live "somewhere else", when the reality is he could be living right next door. The women make more dumb mistakes too...such as Anna (Caroline Munro), who invites Frank, a complete stranger, into her apartment after he shows up at her apartment. He seems amicable enough, but he is still a stranger, and she should have known better. The persona of the pleasant, charismatic, trustworthy "guy-next-door" is much more important than the actual character of the guy. (A lesson we may have only been familiar with after the Ted Bundy murders) She stupidly invites him in, even though she lives alone and has no idea who he really is. Again, we want to say "Don't let him in!", but only because we're privy to his true nature. Anna presumes he's harmless. Living life as a total paranoid is counterproductive and lends itself to its own psychological problems, but she obviously isn't familiar with the work of Tom Savini.

       Mr. Savini did the makeup and special effects on this film, as well as a (very brief, but memorable) cameo. I was truly amazed at the realism they were able to achieve with what looked like a fairly small budget. The murder, and subsequent scalping, of each victim is authentic looking and intense. His cameo, making out with a beautiful blonde bimbo (naturally!) before getting the world's fastest facial, compliments of a high-powered rifle that is, once seen, never forgotten!

       Of course, the number of scenes that will stick in your head are plentiful. The structure of the film is similar to the style of Fulci, in that it seemed to be a series of lavishly designed set pieces strung together with a rather vague plotline, in this case, the "romance" with Anna the photographer. But when he's not busy wooing the beautiful Brit Munro, he's either busy arguing with the demons in his head Spinnel prepares for a show-stopping his bizarrely decorated apartment or dispatching with various men and women (mostly women) in hideous ways. The character of the "maniac" takes pleasure in tormenting several of his victims before doing them in. In a genre that is criticized for being "misogynistic", well, I can't really defend this film in that it does give the critics plenty of ammunition. Unfortunately, it IS realistic, and there ARE serial killers all over the world. Frank kills the women, as we find out later on in the film, as some sort of revenge against his dead mother, who abandoned him often as a child and abused him to "give" herself to strange men. By killing these women--among them a prostitute, a model, and a nurse--he has possessed them in a way no one else can--he is the sole murderer and they are now his. He also thinks he's doing them a favor, now they will always remain young and beautiful to those who remember them. (Don't expect this kind of deep thinking in SPLATTER UNIVERSITY (1984)). The means in which he commits the murders are a bit obvious too--he uses a rifle, a sword, and a knife, among other things. (Can't get much more phallic than if he'd just beaten one over the head with a vibrator. Perhaps that would have been in MANIAC 2, but sadly, Joe Spinell died before the film could be completed).

       Now then, I did say that there were some gloriously cheesy moments to lighten the near constant gore and grim environment:

       Part of the macabre decorations in the maniac's apartment are a collection of dolls, but the centerpieces of the film are the mannequins he keeps, covered in "blood" and which he dresses in the clothes of his victims--including their severed scalps. Strong Some kind of divine justice...message there--he also has several nudie pictures on the wall with the "dirty" parts torn out. But basically, if you want to up the creepiness factor, add mannequins. Everything from the episode of The Twilight Zone to Tourist Trap has used mannequins to memorable effect. And the final hallucinatory climax in Frank's apartment involving the mannequins is nothing short of chilling. Just in case you missed the point, there is a rather lengthy scene in the middle of the film when we visit Anna's apartment and see a modeling session underway. The clothes and the makeup are definitely of that time, but the real reason to watch is the howler of a background song--something about "I'll meet you at the showdown"--that I hope was a reference to a night club of some sort and not an invitation to reenact the old West. Anyway, the song seems to go on infinitely too long, but is actually a breath of fresh air after the relentless carnage and hysteria.

       One scene that I think sums up the message of the movie (and I believe this actually had one), is a helicopter shot of New York City at night while a reporter gives details of the latest killings discovered in the area. It's a huge vista of people--strangers--who must keep going about their business, despite the faceless and nameless menace that might be living right next door. Even though the filmmakers take their time building up the tension and torment of the victims and then shoot each murder with an unflinching lens, up-close, the only thing I think they're guilty of is making us women think a little before we decide to walk home by ourselves at night when we have a ride offered, or accepting strange men into our homes. Not exactly bad advice, is it? Anyone who sees this movie and ISN'T disturbed by it, well, let me know where you live. I'll be sure to move somewhere far, far away.

BODYCOUNT 7  bodycount!   female:5 / male:2

       1) Female has throat slit
       2) Male garroted form behind
       3) Female strangled
       4) Male's head blown off!
       5) Female's head blown off (off-screen)
       6) Female impaled on short sword
       7) Female stabbed in chest

Can you name the three genre stars who were originally slated to appear in William Lustig's ultra-violence fest?

Click here to find out who they were- and see some proof!

(Hints: one was married to a famous Italian film director and another was best known for battling evil with a cross...)