Maniac (1980)

Of the many first generation Slashers that arrived in 1980, none are more sleazy, vile, and disgusting than Bill Lustig's MANIAC. Critically despised for being the depraved filth that it is, MANIAC has never-the-less gained a notorious cult following amongst Slasher fans for its subversive tone and gruesome gore. Murderous madman Frank Zito hits the streets of New York City in search of his next victims, mainly women who remind him of his abusive mother. Frank returns home to place the scalps of the women on the various mannequins that decorate his dingy apartment, making sure that they will never leave him again... MANIAC never tries to rise above its roots in the 42nd Street theaters; in fact, it embraces them. There is no protagonist in MANIAC, only a series of victims that exist only to be killed off as horrifically and painfully as possible. In reality, there is hardly even a tangible plot line. So why has it remained, where others have fallen into obscurity?

Two things separate MANIAC from the average low-budget Slasher films of its kind. The first is the creepy and terrifying performance put forth by Joe Spinell in the lead. He displays a surprising amount of pathos throughout his psychotic ramblings, and the audience truly believes him in the role of the deranged killer. No one wants to meet up with Frank Zito in a dark alleyway. The second, of course, would have to be Tom Savini's incredible special effects work on the film. This is Savini in his finest hour. The make-up work in MANIAC looks so authentic that it could easily be mistaken for a snuff film. What director Bill Lustig may lack in refinement, he more than makes up for in gritty realism as he brings out the sordid underbelly of early 80's New York. MANIAC cannot be judged against genre standards like ROSEMARY'S BABY or FRANKENSTEIN. It fits into an era of filmmaking where reckless abandon and shock value were the name of the game, and where filmmakers like Abel Ferrara, Wes Craven, and Bill Lustig could establish themselves by pushing the limits of acceptability and moral decency.

Rating: 6/10.
Gore: 8/10.

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  1. I think part of the reason it has endured is that it has a tremendous feeling of authenticity, not just in terms of Spinell's performance but also in its use of locations and in its dialogue.
    Whereas a film like The Toolbox Murders is obviously a movie, with no links to reality at all, this seems to come at you live from the streets.
    I've watched it a couple of times now, and I do think there is a kind of weird sincerity about it that transcends the exploitation content. And Spinell was such a fascinating guy, as well as a really good actor... And Caroline Munro's in it...

  2. Having Munro in a film always helps, yeah.

    The biggest selling point for the film is Spinelli, bar none.

    The film is a lot more of a psychological thriller as well, putting you up close and personal with the killer a lot. That's also why films like it and 'Peeping Tom' were so controversial in their day.

  3. Agreed gentlemen, MANIAC is far more unsettling than most other Slashers of the time, because it is real. Every moment feels authentic, and one could make the case that the lack of a central storyline strengthens that case even further. I don't remember Berkowitz or Bundy strictly adhering to character development and form.