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.