MANIAC has been re-released on DVD, from Blue Underground, with new features since I wrote this review for Icons of Fright. I don’t have it yet, but I intend to pick it up. It’s also on Netflix Instant. If you have a strong stomach, give it a look.
Of the thousands of horror movies I’ve seen, amid all that blood and gore, there are only a few horror movies that have actually made me sick to my stomach. Takashi Miike’s AUDITION is one that made me want to throw up. But my greatest example of puke-inducing cinema is Joe Spinell’s masterpiece, the profoundly disturbing and stomach turning MANIAC.
When MANIAC came out in 1980, I was only 8, so I don’t remember the controversy surrounding it. But the film acted as a flashpoint on a number of topics: child abuse, movie violence and most importantly, misogyny. The movie tells the story of Frank Zito, one of the creepiest characters in all of film. Zito’s nightly activities involve him killing, maiming and scalping women all over New York City. He nails the scalps to mannequins in his apartment, where he dresses in boxers and a winged baseball cap, and holds one sided conversations with his dead mother. Spinell’s performance is genuinely creepy; the personality tics with which he embellishes Zito paint a picture of a terribly abused, unhinged man who now seeks revenge on women. It’s a sad portrait, and Spinell, a character actor for most of his career, gives the performance of a lifetime. I don’t want to go as far as saying he elicits sympathy- after all, as the title character, he is a cruel maniac who has no sense of remorse or sympathy for his victims- but it’s easy to see just why he is what he has become, a sadistic man in a nasty world.
If ever a movie relied on atmosphere to disturb, repel and nauseate an audience, this is it. The music, director William Lustig’s lurid photography and the use of the city at night all create a sleazy mood that would discourage one from walking the street of New York. It works, and perhaps the film would not have generated so much controversy, had it not been so effective at what it does. But the violence, mostly against women, is what had women’s groups up in arms. Special effects artist Tom Savini creates murders that are not only grotesque, but come across as real. In his entire catalogue, this may be his nastiest, most explicit gore, and given he worked on DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD, that’s saying something. His effects here appear so real, in fact, that it was as if I were watching an actual snuff film instead of a horror movie.
Too real for me, and too graphic against women for advocate groups to swallow. But to dismiss the film is a mistake. The controversy surrounding MANIAC raises questions, ones that should be explored: is it acceptable to make a morally offensive movie if the filmmakers are tackling issues such as child abuse? Is the violence truly gratuitous if Spinell is using it as an engine to drive home a point? Is exploitation filmmaking valid? The women who rabidly suggested boycotting MANIAC appear never to have asked these questions of the film industry or themselves. Instead, they blindly attacked the film. What a shame they took this tact, instead of bringing about real debate.
With the release of this DVD, Anchor Bay did much to correct the damage done. The first feature worth looking at is the 49 minute documentary on Joe Spinell. Through interviews with a large number of his colleagues, friends and his sister, Spinell comes across as a genuinely unique, yet disturbed character. Here was a generous and kind man who would help Sly Stallone in his early career, yet spend all the budget of a film on alcohol and women. Despite all his flaws, all the people in this documentary really loved Spinell. A nice accompaniment to the documentary is the film commentary; it includes director Bill Lustig, Savini, the film’s editor and Spinell’s assistant/buddy. The commentary is thorough, and addresses the woes of low budget filmmaking, the special effects, shooting in New York City (often without permits) and Spinell himself. There’s a 15 minute radio interview in which Spinell takes offense to the way women’s group approached the picture, as well as various theatrical and radio ads for the film. But my favorite feature of all is the Gallery of Outrage, in which various film critics and one country’s film board slam MANIAC for its graphic content. It’s intriguing, and altogether sad, to see how critics can go on a pulpit and become moral advocates instead of mere movie reviewers.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, my local video store had a VHS copy of MANIAC on the shelf. I remember being terrified by the cover’s image of a man with a bloody knife in one hand, a decapitated head in the other, and a bulging erection. The tagline “I Warned You Not to Go Out Tonight” completed my terror perfectly. I bought this DVD when it first came out; I watched it that night with a friend and almost threw up, more than once. I’m glad I bought it though. The point of any horror movie should be to horrify, not merely to disturb. Once I got past the graphic content and realized that a Maniac like this could exist, this movie worked as a powerful example of what horror can accomplish.