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Maniac (1980): Blue Underground’s 4K Release

Blue Underground have released a stellar new 4K disc of William Lustig’s cult classic slasher, Maniac. The movie stars character actor Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, an Italian-American serial killer residing in New York City who murders and scalps young women.  The film projects a sense of grim desolation from the opening frames which, with the moaning of the title character rumbling on the soundtrack, also immediately pull the viewer into the POV of the maniac himself. In the first sequence the titular maniac—and protagonist—Zito slices open the throat of a woman lying on the beach while her boyfriend is off scavenging for firewood. This is the opening salvo in a pitiless first half that almost entirely consists of our lead stalking, slaughtering, and scalping assorted victims. 

A down-and-dirty, guerilla style of cinema verité imbrues every frame with the unglamorous reality of street-level New York City. In several sequences Lustig skillfully builds some genuine tension. A sequence with Zito stalking a nurse through a deserted and closed down subway station is particularly nail biting, and ends with a stinger worthy of a John Carpenter flick. 

The makeup effects by Tom Savini are bloody and convincing. The scalping of one victim borders on being unwatchable. Another standout effects moment is the unexpected appearance of a corpse, clawing up through the ground in a Plague of the Zombies-style moment. And the bizarre, hallucinatory finale unexpectedly anticipates Savini’s effects for the Romero zombie epics. 

Injecting a much-needed albeit brief sense of normalcy, Caroline Munro plays photographer Anna, who takes a picture of Zito in a park. Zito tracks her down and asks her for a date. He speaks to her of photographs as a way to preserve the subject forever, and Anna only takes photos of women, so in a sense they are connected in trying to conserve representatives of the female gender. 

As unrelentingly grim as the movie is, it is nevertheless at heart a character study, albeit of one of the most unpleasant characters in the genre. “Why did you make me do that?”, Zito says to the body of a prostitute he has just strangled to death. In voiceovers we hear Zito talking to the mannequin in his bed, to the head of which he nails the scalps of his victims. Other figurines dot his grubby apartment, making this and Tourist Trap singular riffs on the “mannequin horror” subgenre. Another scene has Zito moaning piteously as he stares at department store dummies in a window display. 

It gradually becomes obvious that Zito is searching for his mother in his victims. And further, that his mother was a prostitute who frequently left him alone. “Why did you need those other men?…there were so many men,” he says to another woman he has tied up. Pathetically channeling the abandonment of a child, he says “I’m going to keep you, so you never go away”, followed by sobbing “Mommy….” as he hugs her, after stabbing and before scalping her. It’s a horrible and wretched moment, and if it doesn’t render the killer sympathetic, it at least paints him as a recognizably human monster and not a faceless engine of slaughter. 

Joe Spinell is creepy and convincing as the screwed-up killer. Spinell’s first screen credit was as Wili Cicci in Coppola’s The Godfather. He is credited as Executive Producer and co-writer on Maniac and apparently wrote all the interior monologue dialogue, essentially building up the entire character himself. His creative commitment to Maniac is impressive. 

Maniac marked the directorial debut of filmmaker William Lustig, who is perhaps best known for his Maniac Cop trilogy (which may be reinvented as a tv series with Nicolas Winding Refn sharing creative duties with Lustig). Lustig hails from the Bronx, is the nephew of boxer Jake LaMotta, and also CEO of the wonderful Blue Underground, the label that released this disc and does such a terrific job presenting high quality versions of cult genre films. The film was remade in 2012, with Lustig as producer and starring Elijah Wood. 

Maniac was budgeted at $1 million and was shot entirely on location in New York City over twenty-six days. Like Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) the use of actual urban spaces adds immeasurably to the authentic texture of the film, heightening the horror and giving a tangible sense of inner-city decay and corruption. The filmmakers rushed to complete it in time to screen at the Cannes Film Festival where a midnight showing was scheduled for May 1980. (I must admit that the thought of a Cannes screening of this uninviting and graphic exploitation film is somewhat amusing.) It was released stateside on January 30, 1981. The film’s US distributor, Analysis Film Releasing Corporation, did not submit the film for rating by the MPAA, assuming it would get an “X” rating which at that time was associated in the mind of the public with pornography. And so Analysis slapped their own “For Adults Only” designation on the film. 

The stunning transfer on this Blue Underground UHD disc showcases Maniac appropriately as a grainy, handmade grindhouse flick, the grit of the location shooting embodied in the screen. The picture is never overly sharp, smeared with film grain, scuzzy and sordid, perfectly preserved in 4K amber. This disc is almost an act of film preservation, not merely home entertainment. It’s reference quality for how to appropriately present a low-budget genre film of this vintage. 

The 4K disc has two audio commentaries, one by William Lustig and producer Andrew. W. Garroni, and the second by William Lustig, Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli and Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter. The second commentary is the livelier of the two tracks, with four participants gleefully sharing stories about the making of the film, though both are worth listening to. There are also theatrical trailers, and TV and radio spots. 

There is a second disc, a blu ray, with the following special features:

  • MANIAC Outtakes — Fascinating lost 16mm footage, recently discovered, that has not been seen since 1980. The outtakes are in amazing shape. 
  • Returning to the Scene of the Crime with William Lustig (8 mins) — The director returns to some of the locations and tells some behind the scenes tales. 
  • Anna and the Killer: Interview with Star Caroline Munro (13 mins) 
  • The Death Dealer: Interview with Special Make-Up Effects Artist Tom Savini (12 mins) — In which we find out that Savini was paid $5000 for his f/x work. 
  • Dark Notes: Interview with Composer Jay Chattaway (12 mins) — Flute, strings, and bell make up the rather haunting main theme. Jazz musician Chattaway briefly talks about his career, its connections with a hit re-recording of the Rocky theme, and his involvement in writing the score for Maniac, his first soundtrack credit. 
  • Maniac Men: Interview with Songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky (11 mins) — A short piece on the rumour that the song “Maniac” from Fame (1980) was originally written for Lustig’s movie. 
  • The Joe Spinell Story (49 mins) — A documentary on Spinell’s career. 
  • Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2 Promo Reel (7 mins) 
  • MANIAC Publicity — An assortment of interviews and publicity appearances. 
  • MANIAC Controversy — Contemporary news stories produced about the movie that showcase the discussions about censorship and violence against women, etc. that Maniac’s initial release spawned. A fascinating time capsule assortment of some rather hysterical items. One story from Chicago is reported by Gene Siskel who actually muses, with appropriately furrowed brow, if the innovation of showing scenes from Maniac on a video screen outside the theatre where it’s playing legally counts as disturbing the peace.  

Blue Underground continue to do the work of the gods, gifting us hungry genre fans gorgeous versions of cult films that are probably better looking than their original theatrical releases. This one’s a must have. 

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About Paul Sparrow-Clarke

A child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was born in Caerleon, Wales, where I spent my formative years. The ubiquitous ghost stories of the region piqued my interest in horror at an early age and from there I gravitated to books on horror films, with Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films, Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, and Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream being particularly influential. With the help of these books, I became an “expert” on screen terror far before I was allowed to see any of the films on the telly. I moved to Alberta, Canada in 1981, and the culture shock (and the cold winters) did nothing to dim my interest in genre cinema. Here I discovered Fangoria magazine, VHS tapes, and the fact that my tall height was a ticket to sneaking into Restricted movies in the theatre. Thus began a banquet of terror treats that continues to this day, though I no longer fear being asked for ID at the box office. I have worked as a retailer, cinema usher, invertebrate zoology technician, map cataloguer, bureaucrat, teacher, freelance business/technical writer, and now earn my keep in university administration. I have previously written about genre cinema for Her Majesty’s Secret Servant and We Belong Dead magazines and books, and I’ve hosted public film screenings and co-hosted film podcasts.

2 comments

  1. This movie is classic 80’s exploitation sleaze the remake wasn’t anywhere close to the creepiness or as disturbing as the original

  2. Excellent article of a sometimes forgotten splatter classic. I met Caroline Munro at a comic con a few years ago and she signed my ‘Maniac’ blue underground Dvd in silver. She said even today she is still surprised at how horrific the movie actually is and how proud of it she is also.

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