Maniac (1980)

A psychopathic man goes on a killing and mutilation spree in New York City.

VHS release pictured: 1996, Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Starring: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munroe, Abigail Clayton | Director: William Lustig

Maniac: VHS of the Month Review

by Sam Rakestraw

* * * SPOILERS * * *

"Oh, that's a crazy one," my dad had that to say when I opened the package from eBay and revealed the VHS box of Joe Spinell and William Lustig's psychological slasher gorefest Maniac. "Yeah, he's from Rocky and The Godfather and he scalps people!" But Maniac goes so much further than that. Joe Spinell pretty much thought up, produced, and completed this film by himself with the help of Lustig who had been his friend in showbusiness for about five years at that point. Maniac was in the middle of Spinell's career and toward the beginning of Lustig's, who actually used to be a porno director. He had even used the profits from some of his movies to finance Maniac --special thanks to all the sex workers and crew involved.

Right off the bat, Spinell wanted to do a realistic approach to a serial killer and apply it to the now-mainstream slasher formula. He embodies trauma, psychosis, and disregard for human life as New York serial killer Frank Zito. The whole movie is told from his point of view with him nearly in every shot. If he isn't in a shot or nowhere to be seen, then someone is in danger. We're so immersed in Frank's world that we don't even get his victims' names –all we have to go by is what they were doing before they met their end. As a result of being abused as a child, Frank has a fixation on finding and keeping beauty preserved in an otherwise ugly world. What better way to do that than kill women and steal their hair and put it on mannequins? With Tom Savini on special effects and in a victim role, you can't go wrong with this slasher flick that clearly has heart put into it and not just a desire to scare the audience.

That is really all there is to summarize about Maniac. Frank Zito is a serial killer and we see the chronicles of what may or may not be his final days. The best way to describe Maniac is a combination of May and Joker, so those who really enjoy seeing a character with a lonely nature trapped in a dark mental space of their own making that gets worse over time as bodies pile up can really get down with it. Of course, the best part of Maniac are the kill scenes –they're pretty much all it has going for it to avoid being completely boring. Frank's methods of victim selection are frighteningly realistic. His first victim that we see is a prostitute (Rita Motone) –completely random and she just picked the wrong guy to pick up. Then he stalks a couple (Tom Savini and Hyla Marrow) leaving a disco the next night and shoots them up with a shotgun when they go to a make-out point. The next night, he sees a nurse (Kelly Piper) getting off her shift and stalks her through the subway in what is a very suspenseful and on-edge scene before running her through.

We finally get some names with Anna (Caroline Munro) and Rita (Abigail Clayton). Anna is a photographer and Rita is one of her models. Frank exhibits another notable serial killer trait as he talks completely normally when conversing with Anna about conserving beauty and art. Some of the most messed-up serial killers had a way with words and charisma. Funny enough, Abigail Clayton is a porn actress. Perhaps she appeared in one of Lustig's pictures. Frank kills Rita in her home in what is the most intimate kill of the movie as he calls her mother. He then takes Anna out on a date and they visit a cemetery where Frank's mom is buried. Frank is sent into a killing frenzy after apparently mourning the grave of a person he killed –another trait of some serial killers who understand that what they do is wrong, but they can't help it. Anna actually gets out alive in true final girl fashion as Frank stumbles home. This can more or less be the climax of the film, if not then what comes next is. Frank suffers absolutely horrifying visions. First, his zombie mom rises from the grave and attacks him. After he runs home, his mannequins come to life and goddamn rip his head off –really, they do. The police show up the next morning and that turns out to clearly not be the case. I haven't seen an ending of that magnitude since May.

When he's not having Rocky collect from people behind on their loans or taking out someone for the Corleone family, Joe Spinell wanted to be known as the guy scalping New Yorkers. He actually did his research on serial killers, being a topic he was fascinated by. He read newspapers, talked to psychologists, and looked at case studies. Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy had been arrested before filming started, so there was plenty of new information on serial killers coming out. As a footnote, Milwaukee was experiencing their Frank Zito at the moment with Jeffery Dahmer at the time of the film's release. Spinell wrote a story about people like this that are out there and why they are the way they are and do what they do. And for the most part, it's because wires got crossed in their brains that put the urge in them, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time is what makes their victims. Serial killers aren't usually out for revenge like the slasher formula would have us to believe.

The production of Maniac was especially small with a budget of around $350,000. You think they were going to pay the astronomical New York filming fees? The guerilla filming of Maniac is no mystery or obscure film trivia. Even that shotgun scene, which could've been done in any other dark area, was shot in the actual location –that's dedication. The shotgun scene was also Tom Savini's idea along with having Frank scalp women as his serial killer calling card. He already had a perfect mold of his head just ready to be exploded and filled with fake gore, so he was given the victim role. This was huge for Lustig and Spinell because they were huge Dawn of The Dead fans. That scene was also based on another serial killer that had been caught prior to filming, David Berkowitz.

Maniac was a win for Spinell and Lustig as it would gross $10,000,000 on that budget and go on to be one of Spinell's most memorable movies. Several, like my dad, still recall Frank Zito's gory killing spree today. Some feel they just witness gratuitous violence while others see past all the stabbing and tearing and see what Spinell was trying to get at –people like this are out there. Lustig also produced the 2012 remake with Elijah Wood as Frank Zito which is really faithful to Spinell's original story.

Our Maniac VHS release from Anchor Bay in the 90s is unique because of the fold-out cover. It's a beautiful dedication that Lustig wrote for Spinell. Spinell had died in 1989 and it was unfortunate because they actually had a sequel planned. This VHS is actually the special edition packed with bonus features after the movie like all the different theatrical trailers, commercials, a deleted extended scene of the date killings, and even promotional footage for the sequel. It truly was all going to happen. Lustig would go on to enjoy a career as a B-movie director in the 80s with films like the Maniac Cop series (no relation). That picture you see on July 4 on the calendar? That's from his 1996 movie Uncle Sam. This is a very sweet VHS, and I don't mean that it looks cool –I mean the dedication genuinely makes it wholesome despite such a dark subject manner. Joe Spinell, what a legend.