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The Stalking Of Rita: Looking Back at ‘Maniac’ (1980)

“I told you not to go out tonight, didn’t I?”

Poor Frank. He’s a broken and stammering psychological mess of a man, deeply troubled by his childhood abuse. As a child, his mother was a mean hooker who used to lock him in the closet while she turned tricks and if he was bad she burned him with cigarettes. She loved those men and their money more than she ever did her own son. Just how’s a sweet and innocent child to recover? 

“Kill them, Kill them all! That’s how!”

In 1980, death was secretly stalking the women on the streets of NYC in the shape of a wounded man played by Joe Spinell. Frank Zito (named as a nod to Joseph Zito, the director of The Prowler (1981), a friend to director William Lustig and make-up effects maestro Tom Savini) is on the loose and he is killing young women with numerous big sharp implements (a typical phallic penetration metaphor for his own sexual inadequacies) then taking their scalps as trophies.

There is something about Maniac (1980) that separates itself from most others of its genre, there is a sleazy hyperrealism, a particular emphasis on mood and ambience and ultra real violence that I believe makes it stand out from the sea of slice’n’dice titles released in the ‘80s. Often labelled as a “stalk and slash” film, instead Maniac is a member of a sub, sub genre which distinguishes itself from the Friday The 13th and Halloween franchises by giving its killer exaggerated character traits making him more than just a faceless lunatic wielding a knife. Also, the film did not rely on anything supernatural or have a gothic setting to distance the viewer from the horror unfolding on the screen. Maniac was one of the first widely distributed movies to address the horror that can exist in an everyday man and Joe Spinell’s portrait of Frank was firmly rooted in reality making it all the more terrifying to watch. Don’t be mistaken, this film is not a copy and paste from any number of cheap horror movies from the ‘80s — the golden era of horror.

Although originally considered an exploitation film, Maniac has since attained a cult following, always provoking a big reaction from its audience — both negative and positive. Some viewers describe the film as mean spirited, deeply demoralising to women and downright depraved, Theatre Du Grand Guignol revived for the cinematic audiences of the eighties perhaps? I think if you dig a little deeper there is a lot more to the film than what most outraged critics perceived. It’s interesting to note at this point that one of the writers on the movie, C.A Rosenberg, is a woman who worked closely with Spinell and Lustig on developing the script.

Beyond the graphic violence the whole film centres on a young boy who was abused by his mother. Are monsters born or are they created? In the first ten minutes of the film Frank opens his shirt and bares us his scars. Some are superficial and some are deep throbbing wounds barely able to heal. He wants the viewer to know “I’ve been hurt”. He lets us step into his world as an outsider viewing his apartment where the walls are scattered with evidence of hidden trauma. He has crafted a stage of childhood abuse for anyone who dares to step in and take a peek. The only control in Frank’s life is that of his dead mother who is still very much alive in Frank’s apartment and his own mind. Her image takes centre stage on a wall surrounded by candles; she is equally worshipped and despised.

Frank’s only sexual encounter we view is with a hooker. He doesn’t take his clothes off and instead dry humps. This is reminiscent of young teenagers innocently exploring for the first time — but it also gives you an insight into Frank’s stunted maturity and growth as a man. When he finally kills her, the hookers face morphs into his mothers and then back again repeatedly as he slowly strangles the life out of her. In the final 15 minutes of the movie we view the women coming back to life to seek their revenge on Frank by brutally tearing him apart but ultimately this ravaged empty man takes his own life in a room littered with evidence of childhood abuse. Monsters sometimes create monsters, not unlike the fable and cherished story of Frankenstein.

Maniac 1980

The grimy, squalid underbelly of New York, filled with sleazy trashy locales and the dirty dilapidated apartment buildings, are brilliantly exploited and plays as a feature character in this film — similarly as they did in 1976’s Taxi Driver. We get a really good feel of 42nd street — nicknamed the “sleaziest block in America” — in its glory days. Well known for its thriving sex and drug trade, its streets are dotted with peep shows and cinemas showing horror movies around the clock. I took note as a young innocent 14-year-old watching Maniac for the first time — never, EVER go to NYC for you will surely die!

The infamous and very much talked about shotgun scene is still just as impressive today as it was on my very first viewing. Frank runs up onto the car bonnet, the film slows down, he rears his shotgun toward the man in the car (Savini). The head exploding on impact had my young impressionable mind racing with thoughts and I felt sure this must be real. Have I somehow stumbled across some weird snuff footage? How else could it look so realistic? Tom Savini. That’s how!

Maniac has some of the most awesome graphic violence that ‘80s horror ever produced all thanks to Savini — the “King of Splatter”. He is also beloved for his great work on Creepshow (1982), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Prowler (1981) to name but a few. In my opinion Maniac contains some of the most realistic and unrestrained gore FX and quite possibly the best up until the time of its release. It was Savini’s outstanding contribution to Maniac that worked as the perfect entry point to the movie for most horror fans. His effects elevated the film into something memorable — and have allowed the film to stand the test of time and gain new cult followers.

Maniac was one of the three collaborations between Spinell and co-star Caroline Munro, the other films being Star Crash (1978) and The Last Horror Film (1982). Munro had already earned her reputation as an English cult siren courtesy of her work on a number of Hammer and James Bond films including Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). She was not Lustig’s first choice for the role of photographer, Anna D’Antoni. He had originally wanted Dario Argento’s then-wife, actress Daria Nicolodi, for the part, but she was unable to travel to New York for filming because she was appearing in Argento’s Inferno (1980) in Italy.

The theatrical movie poster caused just as much if not more controversy than the film itself. That depraved over-bulging crotch and bloody scalp dripping blood down a faceless killer’s leg caused gasps of shock and stirred up complete outrage. When the film’s poster appeared on a billboard on the property of the R&B Custom Shop in West Hollywood, the owner was so disgusted by the violence displayed that she and several of her friends actually painted the billboard white. The Los Angeles Times refused to run ads for the film due to the graphic content of the artwork. They did however help sell tickets when they declared the film “without any redemption whatsoever”. 

Director William Lustig, best known for the Maniac Cop franchise (1988 – 1993), had previously worked as a pornographic filmmaker. He hired several porno actresses, such as Abigail Clayton, to play the victims and other minor female roles in Maniac. In his formative years he avidly watched a huge volume of lowbrow trashy exploitation films at numerous 42nd Street grindhouse theatres. It was there that a bond was formed over a mutual love of horror movies that Spinell and Lustig began to form the Maniac script.

Maniac 1980

One of Lustig’s friends suggested, ‘Why don’t you make Jaws — but on land?’ This innocent comment sparked the idea for Maniac — only the monster is out of the ocean and loose in NYC inside of Frank. Lustig later described the opening scene when Frank kills a romantic couple on the beach as his homage to Jaws.

The films score plays a pivotal role in Maniac. Lustig had originally wanted the prog-rock band GOBLIN, known for their fantastic work on the Italian horror movie Suspiria (1977), however they were also already booked on Argento’s latest, Inferno. It was then up to first-time composer Jay Chattaway — later known for his work on Maniac Cop (1988), Silver Bullet (1985) and Invasion U.S.A. (1985) — to create the harsh and grating soundtrack. His track ‘Hooker’s Heartbeat’ is a clash of electronic noise looped over and over creating a chilling desperate and almost industrial techno sound. The movie’s theme song is a mix of grunts, groans and sad lonely flutes along with a bluesy slide bass thrown in for good measure. The score not only adds to the movies disturbing nature it elevates it as it is just as relentless. Chattaway’s score also gave Frank a heart. It succeeded in creating empathy towards Frank. In comparison the complete opposite is true of Jaws, where you never feel sympathy towards the shark — only hate.

Maniac was filmed on a minuscule budget. In order to keep costs down many scenes were shot guerilla style sneaking shots in the dead of night. It is gritty, dark, horrifying and feels dirty to watch, with some parts photographed with a documentary aesthetic, allowing the viewer to at times see things through Frank’s twisted eyes as we follow his descent into madness. In the remake of Maniac (2012) the narrative is entirely from the killer’s perspective which allows you to feel like you’re right along for the whole terrifying ride and gives you an intimate if not uncomfortable view of Frank this time played by Elijah Wood.

Even though Joe Spinell had a long career as a character actor — appearing in such iconic films as Rocky, Taxi Driver (both 1976) and The Godfather (1972) — like it or not, Frank became his signature role. Maybe it was because Spinell did such extensive research on serial killers for the role, getting into the depraved minds of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and the Son of Sam that it made him so utterly and terrifyingly believable. Or maybe it was because of the very close and often strange relationship he had with his own mother. It has been stated by multiple friends within his close knit circle that Spinell’s relationship with his mother was often more like a marriage without the intimacy, than mother and son.

Whatever the reason the fact remains, Spinnell is Maniac and Maniac is Spinnell and thankfully he fully embraced it before his death in 1989, aged 52. Unfortunately the success of Maniac was also Spinell’s demise as it established him as an in-demand bona fide cult actor and subsequently afforded him the money to purchase more drugs and alcohol to feed his already raging addictions. Sadly his famous New York delivery was now often slightly slurred by drink and drugs and when his beloved mother died, the wheels came off completely. As his health declined, still mourning his mother’s death along with hurting for money, sadly, depression took a firm grip. Spinell made a last-ditch attempt to relaunch his career with Maniac II: Mr. Robbie (1986). Unfortunately Spinell died before shooting could commence.

Maniac

Lustig didn’t set out to be confrontational, instead he wanted to make the ultimate horror film on a budget of $48,000. Perhaps he achieved his goal, after all Maniac has managed to outlast all of the controversy and negative comments. As this article goes to print a new 4k master is being created by Lustig from the recently found original 16mm film elements and with a limited edition 3-D lenticular slipcover no less.

Lustig, Spinell and Savini — that infamous trio — produced a depraved sleaze fest of grimy psychological proportions which still works today just as well as it did 38 years ago. The film’s grittiness, its dark disturbing nature and overall nightmarish vibe is the perfect balance of atmosphere and brutal violence which will most likely never be equalled. Maniac proudly stands as the ultimate twisted classic.

About Cherease Kingdon

Cherease Kingdon fell in love with movies at a very early age, back when you could still go to your local milk bar (Australia's version of a convenience store) to hire a video nasty before they were all banned. She was introduced to a variety of different genres and devoured everything she could get her hands on. With happy memories of sneaking out of bed to quietly sit behind the sofa watching whatever very "grow-up film" her parents deemed "unfit", Cherease dived into two early loves: horror films and made for TV movies. She also developed a morbid fascination with 90s erotic thrillers. Obsessed with collecting vintage movie novelisations, interested in subcultures and loving all things Giallo, Cherease has been researching movies in one way or another all her life - so why not put it to good use and start writing?

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