William Lustig's Maniac is a brilliant slasher film; one that William Friedkin called not just "a great film", but, "one of the scariest films of all time." Now, Mr. Friedkin's comments – not always a pillar of reliance (see: Jade) – are quite a shock to those who think Maniac is nothing more than a gratuitous, misogynistic splatter fest. The film is so much more: it's a 42nd Street Cinema version of Taxi Driver; a film that deserves more credit than just its superb gore effects by make-up maven Tom Savini (who lays claim the film's most infamous death). Lustig's direction is top notch even despite some splotchy pacing, there is a chase scene in the film that is rather intense; Joe Spinell's portrayal of Frank Zito, the homicidal killer with obvious woman problems, paints a portrait of a disturbed serial killer almost as unnerving as Michael Rooker's in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; and that ending…what an ending…it totally squashes all of the N.O.W. complaints about the movie, and, especially when compared to drek like Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper, it's clear from the ending that Spinell and Lustig were not interested in glorifying the murders of these women, but in how these murders haunt the killer…showing (in a dream sequence) that they (the murders of the women) are literally eating him alive.
The film opens with Frank Zito (Spinell, who also wrote the screenplay), a man who is quite systematically slaughtering women as he struggles with his own demons – primarily those of his childhood, and his being raised by an abusive mother. Isn't that how it always goes? But Maniac – quite surprisingly – isn't schlocky like, say, Pieces; rather, it is a jolt to the expectations a jaded horror fan like me has when watching a movie that on the surface seems like nothing more than just your ordinary slasher.
What elevates the film is Lustig and Spinell's decision to follow Zito through every single moment of his nights killing these women (and sometimes men). Again, it reminded me of McNaughton's chilling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in that it's unrelenting. Oh, not so much because of its violence – although the film is infamous for one of the most famous Savini-conceived head explosions in the history of horror films – but because it is so savagely unflinching in its approach of this character. Zito dons clothing not at all unlike what Vietnam War veterans were wearing at the time. It's a bit of context that Lustig doesn't explicitly reveal, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think that Zito, like Travis Bickle, was a Vietnam War veteran and he's struggling to cope with reality – a mixture of his own demons from his past and the demons from the war. Much like Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer released just a year before Maniac, here you have a film that follows – quite uncomfortably – closely a person whose last remaining thread of sanity is about to break before our eyes, and both William Lustig and Abel Ferrara found New York City to be the perfect backdrop to display their morbid tales, and one can't help but think of the Vietnam veteran context throughout both films.
In addition to Martin Scorsese and Paul Schroder's obvious influence on the characters of The Driller Killer and Maniac , the two lesser films (in comparison to Taxi Driver) also share a similar tone. There's nothing tongue-in-cheek here, nothing at all sardonic or preachy or heavy handed: they're simply unflinching portrayals of evil. All three films are also quite visceral in their violence (yes, even Scorsese's film), but perhaps none more than Maniac, a film that boasts some of the best work Tom Savini has ever done.
One of the film's most famous scenes is when Zito follows a couple (the male being played by Tom Savini) just coming out of an all night disco club. As the couple proceeds to dabble in the usual slasher goings-on in a parked car that gets people killed, the woman begins to have second thoughts as she sees Zito standing in front of their car (yup, that would do it). And in a horrifying instant Zito jumps up on the hood of the car and proceeds to shoot the man point blank with a shotgun, creating one of Savini's most famous head explosions. It's quite a shocking scene, and it's probably the only time, aside from the end, that the film feels like a standard slasher as Lustig slows the scene down a notch below slo-mo, and dwells on the gravitas Savini often approaches his gore effects with. You can tell that perhaps more than any other effect, this was the one Savini was most proud of.
The ending is quite the visceral jolt, too, as Zito continues to murder women, even a modeling agent that he sort of begins to have feelings for (although every now and then we're treated to heavy-panting POV of Zito looking at his future victims and mumbling disturbing things to himself), and at the end of it all looks around his room which is littered with creepy as hell mannequins. As he begins to weep and scream on his bed – his nightmares catching up with him – the mannequins turn into his victims, and in an inspired bit by Spinell and Lustig the women begin devouring Zito. It's a gruesome scene, but one that clearly put the film on a whole other level than something like New York Ripper.
Now, why do I keep bringing up Lucio Fulci's piece of tripe? Because Maniac was famous for infuriating the women's right group N.O.W., who picketed the film and probably gave the film better publicity than Lustig and his producers could afford. The film was a hit despite the protests, and I'd like to think that's because fans of the film saw what the film really was, and that it was in no way glorifying its violence towards women. Yes, the film is brutal and unrelenting, and yes the victims are women; however, they're not victims because they're independent or displaying their sexual freedom or power; they're being murdered by Zito because he has a complex with women. It's that simple. Maniac is certainly less offensive than something The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, and it's certainly nowhere near the misogynistic pile of shit that Fulci's New York Ripper was, which had such disdain for women that it sickens me to even think back on the film. The ending of Maniac clearly shows that this is not a person who is doing this because he wants to or even that he has to…Lustig and Spinell offer no easy answers as to why Zito does what he does, but it obviously tortures him to no end, as evident by the final scene in which he is literally eaten alive by his past crimes. Yes, there's no denying that the character Frank Zito, due to the abuse of his mother, hates women, but the filmmakers don't, and that's what differentiates Maniac with the aforementioned Fulci film.
Spinell was so distraught by N.O.W.'s protesting of the film that he wrote up a script as a rebuttal; the sequel was apparently about Zito, who turns out to be a children's show host, murdering abusive parents. Spinell died shortly after filming began, however, and the movie remains unfinished. William Lustig would follow this up with Maniac Cop (a nice piece of violent exploitation, but nothing to write home about), and films like Vengence and Uncle Sam, which are extremely forgettable films (I know I've seen them both, but I can't remember a damn thing about either of them). Savini of course would continue to refine his skill of slicing and cutting and blowing people's heads off with films like The Prowler and The Burning. Spinell was a great character actor of the 70's and 80's having bit roles in both Godfather films, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, Rocky, and Nighthawks. But Maniac gave him a venue to be a lead actor. He was brutish, yet had an everyman quality (that is, inner city New York everyman) that made it easy to see why he was such a perfect choice for Frank Zito (who also had to rely on his "everyman" looks). He was right at home in these New York roles, and after Maniac he continued to act in bit parts in various genres. I haven't seen enough of Spinell's work to know what kind of actor he consistently was, but his performance as Frank Zito is hypnotizing. He's basically on screen the entire film, and he does a great job of making Zito has loathsome character, but a character that we're actually intrigued enough by that we wonder what plagues a guy like that, and why he is the way he is. It's a high wire act, a performance like this, and Spinell executes it brilliantly. I can think of only a handful of performances where an actor has portrayed a serial killer this effectively.
Now, the ending suggests that Zito's demons will not catch up with him and that he will continue to kill and the police in New York will continue to be baffled by the string of murders. And I suppose that this is where N.O.W. took offence: Zito does indeed live at the end of the film. The fact that such a monster lives on is an unnerving thing to think about, but that's what horror films are meant to do, and had the film gone the simple slasher route (where a Final Girl is responsible for killing him) then the film would lose a lot of its punch. Maniac isn't an easy film to get through, and Spinell's amazing performance (it's essentially a one man show) is beyond disturbing, but it's a horror experience that does everything a horror movie should do, and it's certainly one of the best slasher to be released during the early 80's, and one of the better horror films I've ever seen.