MANIAC – The Blu Review
Throughout the course of history an occasional film has been singled out as being particularly controversial. As far back as the silent era you had films like The Birth of a Nation, which drew widespread protests for its content. Frankenstein was another early film which had to be cut before being shown at theaters (ironically, upon its first re-release; the film played totally uncut in 1931). There are plenty of others as well. Think about The Last Temptation of Christ, Last Tango in Paris, A Clockwork Orange. Then there’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, Cannibal Holocaust, and The Passion of the Christ. The list is endless. In early 1981, when Maniac was released to theaters, it too, was met with huge controversy. News reports ran nightly upon the release of the film in various cities. It was picketed, protested, cut, censored, and outright banned in parts of the world. Most critics roasted the film for its depiction of violence as well as what many perceived as a pervasive misogynistic atmosphere throughout the film. Nowadays, however, Maniac is considered a cult classic as well as a grim, gory, and highly effective low-budget slasher film.
The story isn’t particularly different from the hundred other slasher films you can think of: a loner who lives on the fringes of society and who was abused and traumatized as a youngster has grown up to become a serial killer. Joe Spinell, who most people will remember as the loan shark with a heart of gold in Rocky and Rocky II, stars as Frank Zito, the titular maniac. Aside from the aforementioned films, Spinell had bit parts in many prestige pictures such as The Godfather and The Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Brubaker, and Cruising, and supporting or starring roles in B-movies such as Vigilante and The Last Horror Film. He spent the rest of his career trying to mount a sequel to Maniac, which never came to fruition.
Spinell had the perfect look for many of the sleazy characters he portrayed, including Frank Zito in Maniac. It’s not difficult to imagine this overweight, acne-scarred, greasy-haired man living on the fringe. His look, particularly in this film, would make one want to cross the street if he approached you on the sidewalk. In fact, the one part of the film I could never buy was the fact that the gorgeous Caroline Munro would give this man the time of day, much less go on a date with him. Zito is a loner, very quiet, but with very Puritanical beliefs, instilled in him by years of systematic abuse by his mother. Spinell, as Zito, plays the role extremely well. He is extremely awkward in public, though he at least is able to “copy” normal behavior from years of observation. But back home in his apartment is where the crazy literally comes out. This is a man who is clearly traumatized and has essentially snapped. It’s simply a matter of time before he is discovered. It’s a strong portrayal of madness and, though rarely a leading man, shows that Spinell had the chops, if not the Hollywood good looks, to play the lead. It’s a pity he didn’t have more opportunities to do so.
Caroline Munro co-stars with Spinell as Anna D’Antoni, a gorgeous fashion photographer who befriends Zito and his unusual collection of mannequins. The two hit it off and D’Antoni slowly begins to enjoy Zito’s company, going to dinner with him, even as his sexual angst continues to build and deaths begin to mount. Munro came to prominence in the early 1970’s for her British thrillers, including the Dr. Phibes films, Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Dracula, A.D. 1972. She went on to star in At the Earth’s Core and support in The Spy Who Loved Me. She was already a bit of a scream queen for genre fans before Maniac hit. Munro is a decent actress and terribly easy on the eyes, so it’s always nice to see her on the screen. She is still active in film today.
Aside from Spinell’s performance and Munro’s good looks, the real star of the film—and its reason for being—is the special gore effects by no less than Tom Savini. Savini was early in his career and his star was on the rise, though his biggest and best years were still ahead of him. He had already made a name for himself by creating the effects for the surprise hit Dawn of the Dead and the years 1980 and 1981 were big years for him as he created effects for some of the biggest horror hits of the time, including Friday the 13th, The Burning, and The Prowler, each of these films also suffering from the censor’s scissors due to the graphic effects they contained.
But of all the films listed, perhaps Maniac was the most controversial as it had always been intended to challenge the audience with its violence and the distribution company had no qualms releasing it without a rating, but with a warning of the graphic content—something the distributors had also done for Dawn of the Dead as well as Zombie, both of which were smash hits. The difference, however, with the living dead films compared to Maniac was that the other films were clearly fantasies with no basis in reality. Serial killers, such as the one portrayed in Maniac, were a deadly serious business. So, while the zombie films had their share of detractors, everyone understood these films were meant to entertain. Maniac had at least some basis in reality and the violence it portrayed was outrageously gory yet realistic in its depiction. The film is filled with gruesome deaths as well as clinically-detailed scalpings of some of the victims. Additionally, there is a shotgun blast to the head effect which some call one of the most gruesome effects ever filmed. To describe Maniac as violent is like describing a hurricane as “windy.”
William Lustig, the director of Maniac, comes from an exploitation background. His first films were adult films during the porn chic era of the 1970’s, followed by Maniac and several other exploitation films such as Vigilante, Maniac Cop, and Uncle Sam. So the success of Maniac wasn’t a first-time director fluke. Lustig knew exactly what he was doing. But being an independent filmmaker is a tough business, so Lustig also got in on the ground floor of DVD production and distribution when he started the cult video label Blue Underground. It was a smart decision, as he knew he had immediate product since he owned the films he directed. And, just like the exploitation king Lustig is, he knows how to milk that product. I would imagine Maniac is one of Blue Underground’s most popular films and I don’t think it’s been out of release since the company was founded.
Blue Underground has released several versions of the film on DVD as well as on Blu-Ray, including a really nice initial pressing that featured two audio commentaries and numerous extras as well as a 2016 30th Anniversary Edition with even more special features. And now, Blue Underground has released a brand new version of the film, the 3-disc Limited Edition Blu-Ray, which includes all the special features from the previous editions, plus a few new extras as well.
First off, the film has undergone a restoration in 4K from the original 16MM camera negative, so it really looks and sounds fantastic, almost as if it was a new film being released on Blu-Ray for its initial run. I doubt the film will ever look this sharp, so if you have an older copy, this is the one to get. The extra features run for hours and cover every aspect of the film, and they are all fascinating. But if you have an older Blu-Ray copy of the film then you already have almost all of these features anyhow, so what else is new to these discs? First, we have 19 minutes of outtakes from the film, with commentary by Lustig himself. There is also a very short, 8-minute segment with Lustig visiting the original locations for the film, called “Returning to the Scene of the Crime.” Of those, the outtakes were more entertaining, at least for me. But the real standout addition, other than the 4K scan, is the inclusion of a third disc, the 16-track film soundtrack. I’m a fan of movie soundtracks so the inclusion of this disc sealed the deal for me. However, if you aren’t into soundtracks, there isn’t much new to offer on this version, other than the new 4K scan which is, admittedly, extremely nice. The film also comes with a very nice lenticular cover as well.
Ultimately, the choice is yours as to whether or not to spring for another release of this film. However, if you decide to take the plunge, you can order this package by going to blue-underground.com or Amazon.