“Maniac”: A Potent, Torturous Illustration Of Madness Evoking Evil

As unwashed grindhouse cinema goes, it doesn’t get more odorous or potent as William Lustig’s Maniac. The torturous brainchild of writer-actor Joe Spinell, this nightmarish 1980 slasher gets under the skin like few other horror movies before or since.

While Maniac’s prevailing winds might give us Henry: Portrait of the Serial Killer, a more interesting dissection of the bloodthirsty psychopath, we should not be distracted from William Lustig’s film’s innate qualities. The brainchild of writer-actor-producer Joe Spinell, this exploitative piece of grindhouse filth mixes the red-smeared grime of a squalid, feral existence with some delightfully autumnal sun-kissed shots of a late 1970s New York City. The film’s highly infrequent moments of natural beauty (typified by the appearance of English actress Caroline Munro) are knowingly at odds with the film’s bleak and bloody depiction of torture, mutilation and death.

Maniac is unrelenting in the way it grabs its audience by the throat and refuses to relinquish its rusty iron grasp. While its superfluous gore and thinly plotted portrayal of madness might titillate, frustrate and concern in equal measure, never breaking new ground or wholly satisfying, director Lustig and actor Spinell (as the “maniac”) create a force of destructive nature that unquestionably buries under the skin and bites away like an infestation of bugs in the epidermis. That’s due entirely to the film benefiting from, rather than losing out to, its ultra low budget production. It gets a gritty, dirty, used-tissue aesthetic, while Lustig’s handheld and low angled shots add an uneasy nightmarish quality to proceedings.

This terrifically frames Spinell’s jittery, certifiable performance as the crazed Frank Zito. There’s nothing unique or subtle about his portrayal, it’s simply a man whose psyche has been broken, where his emotional turmoil has completely greyed-out any semblance of “right” and “wrong”. Yet, he maintains a calculated calmness before the destructive storm that cools the blood before it is spilt. When we eventually see him return to some sort of normalcy in his pursuit of the beautiful photographer Anna D’Antoni (Munro), the imbalanced nature of his moral compass really comes to the fore. The monster is truly unleashed.

As well as make-up effects auteur Tom Savini looking after the film’s graphic depiction of human mutilation including his starring role in Maniac’s most notorious scene, the film manages to pack plenty of tension into its prolonged sequences of murder. Indeed, one such scene, an agonising pursuit of a nurse in a subway station, is a clear high point and as good as anything witnessed in more formidable slashers of the period such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Friday The 13th.

Maniac will divide audiences; not so much into love-hate camps, more those who appreciate its unsettling illustration of madness evoking evil and those that loathe its very existence. It’s violent, gory, cheaply made and exploitative. Meanwhile, the systematic scalping of Zito’s victims and the episodic nature of the narrative is tortuous rather than thrilling, and the total lack of humour ensures there is no respite. Yet, with our antagonist firmly in our eye line, Lustig and Spinell give us a hypnotically troubling portrait of a serial killer before John McNaughton explored the theme six years later with his literally titled effort. As unwashed grindhouse cinema goes, it doesn’t get more odorous than this…or as potent.

maniac, film review, four stars

Written by Dan Stephens

Directed by: William Lustig
Written by: C. A. Rosenberg, Joe Spinell
Starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro
Released: 1980 / Genre: Horror
Country: USA / IMDB

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Discover More:
“Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer” Challenges Us To Readdress Our Reaction To Screen Violence | Top 10 Slasher Films | Top 10 Films Of Joe Spinell

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Fantastic piece about Maniac, Dan. I remember seeing this movie as a kid and it terrified me then. It was the kind of film that you seen on the bottom shelf in the horror section at your local video store and you just had to pick it up. Thanks for the piece and I’m probably going to end up watching it again tonight.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      It’s a film that sticks with you. Not one I’ll be returning to many times but as a genre piece, one of the more notable efforts.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    Bizarre movie to be sure, and one that must go down in the annals of American cinema history as a genuine oddity. Just why Spinell, a competent character actor in his own right, chose this as his vehicle to lead role stardom is anyone’s guess. Sign of the times? The film also has a couple of interesting bit parts – ex porn actress-turned therapist Sharon Mitchell plays a nurse (not the one who gets knifed), while Randy Jurgenson, who played a cop in Friedkin’s The French Connection and later turned up as the assassin who (presumably off screen after the credits) kills Roy Scheider in Sorcerer, is one of the NY detectives who breaks into Frank’s apartment at the end of the movie after he has been ripped apart by the avenging mannequins. Then there’s Savini – a truly talented human being who should one day get the lifetime achievement Oscar for his contribution to the evolution of modern entertainment. And isn’t it funny that the feminists hated it because of the poster (the one at the start of this review, wherein the bulge in the killer’s pants has been blotted out by the military font catchline) as much as poor Spinell hated the poster itself. Of course this was all taken a step further when this image was recreated in the 2000s remake as some kind of visual “homage” to the original. Spinell is absolutely brutal in this – check the scene when he is whispering in the nurses ear as he sticks his knife in her back and through her chest. Indeed this moment was so brutal that it was trimmed in the early video release found in Australia. Funny, though, how a kind of similar scene remained intact almost 20 years later in a big commercial Hollywood release (Saving Private Ryan).

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      Dan Reply

      I must admit ignorance at the poster sans the blurb blotting out the antagonist’s “bulge”. I wasn’t aware. What a provocative image! I’m not surprised it caused a fuss.

      I think you’re right about it being a sign of the times why Spinell chose this as his personal “project”. It’s a strange choice indeed. I’m not sure it did him any favours. But at the very least it gives Spinell a stand out “moment” other actors of his ilk (perennial background players) don’t have.

  3. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Amazing recap there Mark…now I’m going to certainly have to watch it again!

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