Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #92
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: March 6, 1981
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 87 minutes
Director: William Lustig
Producer: William Lustig
Screenplay: C. A Rosenberg, Joe Spinell
Special Effects: Tom Savini, Rob Bottin (uncredited)
Cinematography: Robert Lindsay
Score: Jay Chattaway
Editing: Larry Marinelli
Studio: Magnum Motion Pictures
Distributors: Blue Underground, Anchor Bay Entertainment, Media Home Entertainment
Stars: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton, Kelly Piper, Rita Montone, Tom Savini, Hyla Marrow, James L. Brewster, Linda Lee Walter, Tracie Evans, Sharon Mitchell
Suggested Audio Candy
 Jay Chattaway “Main Theme”
 Don Armando’s 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band “Goin’ To a Showdown”
New York wasn’t the safest place to hang out during the eighties. Crime rates were escalating, a crack epidemic was steadily worsening, and the streets were no longer considered safe. William Lustig’s Maniac arrived at the turn of the decade and, it’s fair to say, not everyone was on-board with the director’s portrayal of the seedier side of The Big Apple or his main protagonist, the deeply troubled Frank Zito. Maniac tells Frank’s story and, love him or loathe him, he is one helluva fascinating case study.
It has to be said that Frank possesses a face for radio. Pitted and weathered, his features tell their own tale of mental anguish and self-loathing. Who better than the great Joe Spinell to play an overweight Vietnam veteran marinating in his own piss, sweat and vomit in the poky squalor of the New York apartment he runs. Perhaps I’m being a touch harsh on poor Frank as, most of the time, he just keeps himself to himself. His tenants have no reason to quibble either as he can never be accused of negligence. Locking himself away night after night, he works tirelessly beautifying his assemblage of dolled-up stiffs. Now that’s dedication.
For as much as Frank enjoys spending time with his muted muses, naturally he gets a little twitchy for some real human interaction from time to time and it is here that he gathers his props. Donning hunting jacket and beanie hat, he prowls the seedy back streets searching for his next unsuspecting victim. Once located, his reprisal is swift and unremitting; a trophy is taken from any female prey, soon destined to furnish the heads of his plastic perversions. Before anybody goes crying misogyny, he isn’t necessarily fussy on the gender of his quarry although male scalps just don’t make quite as fetching hairpieces.
Things begin to look up for Frank after a chance meeting with beautiful and talented fashion photographer Anna D’Antoni (Caroline Munro) in a nearby park. They began to spend time together and, against all reasonable odds, a budding romance begins to blossom. All the while Frank is continuing with his outdoor exploits including one of her models at a photo shoot she invites him along to. It must take a Herculean effort for Frank to show restraint around Anna as he is clearly attracted to both her stunning looks and the membrane sitting beneath that luscious fleshy scalp but their friendship seems too important to jeopardize.
Eventually Frank can contain himself no longer and he really knows how to woo a girl, coming on a tad strong in possibly the least romantic setting imaginable – his dead mother’s graveside. Despite his dubious seduction technique, the relationship between Frank and Anna is actually rather sweetly observed and both leads excel in their roles. However, this is Spinell’s show through and through and the most honest observations play out behind closed doors as he wrestles with his fast-spiraling mental anguish.
There isn’t a solitary second when it doesn’t feel like he is in the moment and his performance is so utterly natural that we can’t help but root for Frank, despite his questionable moonlighting pursuits. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anybody else filling his loafers. The moment he eventually relinquishes his already tenuous grip on reality and his own works of art turn against him, we are treated to one of the most memorably savage displays of debauchery ever captured on celluloid.
Maniac was never actually submitted to the BBFC for classification; possibly a shrewd move considering its vitriolic treatment of the fairer sex in particular. This was clearly not the time for pieces of art like this and Lucio Fulci’s similarly brutal The New York Ripper to prance around flagrantly before the censors and audiences wouldn’t be prepared for this kind of bastardized splatter for some years to come. Over thirty years on, this once unpalatable slab of insight into a scarred mind is regarded with fondness and adulation and quite rightly so. Bloodthirsty it unquestionably is but Lustig also cranks up the tension to unbearable levels on numerous occasions, matching every drop of blood spilled with creeping dread.
Lustig’s film has been available for some time in its entirety via his very own Blue Underground label. And with Franck Khalfoun’s recent remake garnering the right kind of response it appears the tides have changed for Maniac. It remains one of the most repugnant and, in-turn, fascinating portrayals of over-spilling mental frailty yet seen and is every bit as vital as the sickening fluff systematically spewing out of Tinseltown. Talking of which, Michael Sembello’s namesake track from Flashdance was originally recorded for use here as the title song and the mental image of Spinell jogging on the spot in stonewashed denim à la Kevin Bacon is way beyond priceless.
As for the infamous close-range shotgun-through-windshield head mutilation, it offers up some of Tom Savini’s most handsome practical splatter and there’s a story behind it too. The SFX maestro couldn’t resist the urge to blow apart his own head case thus had the distinct privilege of pulling the trigger. He had to hustle though as the crew didn’t possess the necessary permits to shoot in that location, giving them around an hour to film the entire scene before ducking back into the New York shadows, no doubt laughing mischievously at what they had just achieved. Meanwhile, the headless dummy was dumped into East River in the trunk of the car. The scene went on to gain its own notoriety, especially given any parallels to the Son of Sam murders of 1976. This is Guerrilla filmmaking at its finest Grueheads.
Maniac was clearly a labor of love for all involved and all pockets were emptied in an attempt to gather sufficient funds until British producer Judd Hamilton fronted $200k on the condition that his wife play the role of Anna. I’m sure glad he stepped up as the outcome was one of the finer exploitation flicks of its era and Lustig’s film remains every bit as vital over three decades on. Spinell was desperate to reprise his role as Frank Zito but sadly passed away just as its sequel Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie approached pre-production. It’s a crying shame that his dogged obsession didn’t come to fruition but I like to think that everyone’s favorite wise guy is looking down from the great movie house in the sky with a tumbler of bourbon and a cuban cigar, surrounded by mannequins. I can safely say that there will never be another Joe Spinell. Salut.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: It’s not hard to understand why Maniac caused a stir. Numerous sadistic stabbings, a particularly vicious wire-throttling which nigh-on displaces the victim’s head, razor-administered scalping, grisly dismemberment and, of course, that infamous head gag. Lustig’s film has all of the above and is still as caustic now as it was back in 1980, thanks to Savini’s wonderfully messy SFX work. There’s even a little harmless nudity thrown in for good measure.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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