Maniac (1980)

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Frank Zito is a man with many problems. He was horribly abused as a child, he suffers hallucinations, but most importantly he’s a psychotic serial killer who kills and mutilates women, scalps them, then nails their hair to mannequins and dresses them in his victims clothes. I probably should have opened with that…

Anyway, Frank has just made the acquaintance of local New York photographer Anna D’Antoni. Surprisingly, his first instinct isn’t to relieve her of her hair, but instead to take her to dinner. But meeting Anna in no way helps Frank to repress his violent urges and it’s only a matter of time before the unsuspecting photographer ends up in his crosshairs.

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After watching The Last Horror Film and seeing how well Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro worked together, I thought I’d see how they fared in their other horror movie outing. Unlike Last Horror Film, which was interspersed with moments of amusing levity, Maniac is a straight-up slasher with plenty of gore and a lot of depravity. In short, it’s a much different film.

Maniac_3A lot different.

As opposed to The Last Horror Film, here Joe Spinell’s character, Frank Zito, is far from a relatable  or empathetic figure. In Horror Film, Spinell’s character was almost like a caricature of an obsessed fan, a little sinister, yes, but also just goofy enough to feel more pathetic than threatening. But here he plays a straight-up…well, maniac. Frank is damn near terrifying. He talks to himself, hallucinates, whimpers and growls as he stalks women, and slaughters indiscriminately, all in some twisted attempt to ‘capture’ their beauty and keep it with him forever. 

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Maniac_5Tha-… That’s not actually how any of that works, Frank.

But those only seem to be the traits that come out at night. During the day he can almost come across as endearing. He takes Anna out to dinner where they have a rather pleasant, though stilted, conversation, and he even shows up at her work to bring her a gift. As far as she’s concerned he’s a polite, sweet (though kinda scruffy) guy who she can talk to about art. So the dichotomy of personalities are portrayed in a very similar way to how a lot of real-life serial killers behave, which really makes the film feel like less of a slasher and more of a sort of character study of a very, very disturbed individual, and Spinell does an admirable job of pulling it all off.

Munro, meanwhile, as she did in The Last Horror Film, perfectly fills the role of innocent, though not helpless, potential victim. It’s a shame she wasn’t in more similar roles, as I feel she would have likely made an excellent ‘Scream Queen.’

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Maniac_7I love a woman who knows how to utilize a well placed shovel.

The thing the film is best known for is probably the gore. Which makes sense, as the effects and makeup were done by the great Tom Savini. As soon as I saw his name in the opening credits I expected great things, and Savini did not disappoint. He’s in good form in this low-budget affair, bringing plenty of blood and guts to make everything look shockingly believable. When Frank starts to cut away at the scalps, you can actually see the skin separating from the skull. When he shoots someone in the head, you see the head explode (in gory slow motion, no less). It’s all very bloody and in your face, and though there are a couple of cheap effects thrown in there, most of the gore and violence is all pretty visceral and impressive. Which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, as Savini also has a small role in the film as well.

Maniac_8Well, for the most part it’s impressive.

Maniac_9Of course he saved the best work of the film for his own character… I don’t blame him.

Because the filmmakers were working on a minimalist budget (aka: they were cheap) Maniac was filmed ‘guerilla style’, meaning that they didn’t acquire any permits to shoot any of the scenes located outside. As a result, all of the scenes, even shots that take place out in the bright sunlight, have a sort of grittiness to them, which actually meshes pretty well with the overall dark tone of the film and is a nice mirror to it’s main character’s own gritty, inner darkness. But it’s still amusing to know that the filmmakers had to shoot many of their best scenes extremely quickly so that they wouldn’t get caught by the police. I’m sure toting around that bayonet and shotgun, props or not, wouldn’t have gone over very well.

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Maniac_11I’m also impressed they managed to find an empty subway station, middle of the night or not.

Maniac is an entertaining, though not flawless, slasher. It’s got some good acting and some great effects, but the pacing is sort of haphazard and the movie loses a bit of it’s steam towards the end. Not that there’s really much plot to follow along with. Most of the movie is just watching Frank as he sadistically murders random people. It really is his movie. We don’t get a sense that there are any cops trying to find him. There are no dogged news reporters trying to track him down. The closest thing we have to a secondary character is Anna, and even she’s only in a couple of scenes. The movie is mostly just Frank and his killings and his crazy delusions (and dialogue). Admittingly, being forced to watch a man do little more than kill people makes the film feel a little sadistic, and it’s sometimes hard to watch, but Spinell’s excellent portrayal of a crazed killer manages to hold the viewer’s interest, and the work of Tom Savini should keep most of the gore hounds quite happy. It’s the type of movie that’s only going to appeal to a select crowd, but the crowd it appeals to should be pretty damn pleased with the filmmakers efforts.

Maniac is available on a variety of streaming services, either for free or to rent.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

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