{Blu-ray Review} Murder and Mayhem in Maniac

“There’s no way you can possess someone forever.”

 Courtesy of Magnum Motion Pictures

At the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City—so this must have been back in 2012—I was on a panel about horror films. I don’t remember the names of everyone else who was on that panel with me, but one of them was someone who had worked in the makeup or special effects or something department of the then-unreleased 2012 remake of Maniac starring Elijah Wood.

Intrigued by what my panel-mate had to say about the making of the film, as well as its gimmick that the entire movie was shot literally from the killer’s POV, I watched the 2012 version when it came out and remember liking it well enough. Until the new Blue Underground Blu-ray arrived in my mailbox, that is as close as I had ever come to William Lustig’s (in)famous 1980 original.

As Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, I am straining the edges of my beat in reviewing Maniac. With the exception of one brief nightmare sequence near the end of the film (in which Tom Savini gets to really go to town), there is nothing spectral about Maniac’s thrills, and while the titular killer is certainly a monster, after his fashion, he is by no means the squamous, too-many-eyeballs kind that is my usual bailiwick.

In fact, while Maniac is well-positioned to be an early-era slasher film, coming out in the U.S. less than a year after Tom Savini had also provided gore effects to the original Friday the 13th, it’s really as much a character study as it is a horror flick.

From a story by Joe Spinell, who also plays Frank Zito, the film’s titular Maniac, in what is probably a career-defining performance—impressive, for a guy whose filmography also includes stuff like Rocky, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and others—Maniac lacks most of the usual horror movie beats.

There is no real “hero” in this film, no real “final girl.” According to the booklet by Michael Gingold that accompanies the Blue Underground release, there was originally a subplot about a detective—a role that was to have been played by The Exorcist’s Jason Miller—but it was left on the cutting room floor for budget reasons.

The result is a movie that is all about the eponymous Maniac. From the film’s earliest, voyeuristic scenes, we are in his shoes more than those of his victims.

We see him commit his vicious crimes, but we also see how those crimes haunt him, hear his own internal monologue, a running conversation between himself and an imagined version of his abusive (and now dead) mother, both in his own voice. Playing Zito, Spinell goes from lethargic to jittery to pop-eyed, sweaty, teeth-bared murder without warning. It is a chilling performance, and a powerful one.

 Courtesy of Magnum Motion Pictures

Helping Spinell along is the score by composer Jay Chattaway, which, as with the Blue Underground release of Zombie, is included as a CD bonus disc with the Blu-ray.

In the booklet that accompanies the film, Lustig talks about how he tried to convince Chattaway to ape the sound of Goblin, but Chattaway chose to “ignore everything I had spoken to him about, and create music that he thought was correct for the movie. It turned out to be brilliant, because what he did was, instead of playing the horror of the character, he played empathy for him.”

In 2018, we may question whether or not we really need or want a movie that empathizes with a serial killer who brutalizes women. After all, there’s no subtext whatsoever in Maniac’s psychosexual themes. By scalping his victims and nailing their bloody hair to mannequins, Zito literally transforms them into objects that he can control.

In 1981, when the film hit U.S. theaters, however, that decision to focus on the killer, and the killer’s humanity, helped Maniac to stand out in a field crowded with incipient slasher flicks and Italian giallo films.

Not that Maniac is a movie untouched by the shadow of giallo. According to that same booklet, Maniac was originally going to be produced by Dario Argento, with Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s frequent collaborator and wife at the time, set to star in the role that ultimately went to Caroline Munro.

As much as Maniac is a movie about a killer, it is also about a specific time and place—or the idea of that time and place. It is an ugly world, one in which beauty exists only as islands amid refuse—mannequins in store windows, fashion shoots in a photographer’s loft.

Point-of-view shots are often through grimy windshields; tracking shots pan across piles of garbage, all underscored by infrequent reminders that this is yet another horror film that takes place shortly before Christmas.

Frank Zito may be the film’s main character, but its other most important character is the New York City in which it takes place. One of its earliest shots is of a billboard that says, “N.Y., you don’t know what love is.” This is not the sunny Rome of giallo films; this is the gritty New York of grindhouse theaters—the kind of place where the movies that influenced it would be playing.  Grab your own copy and tell us what you think.