Combustible Celluloid
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With: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Gail Lawrence, Kelly Piper, Rita Montone, Tom Savini, Hyla Marrow
Written by: C.A. Rosenberg, Joe Spinell, based on a story by Joe Spinell
Directed by: William Lustig
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 88
Date: 01/30/1981

Maniac (1980)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Wigging Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Character actor Joe Spinell co-wrote and co-produced this gruesome little thriller, creating a nasty lead role for himself as creepy serial killer Frank Zito. Triggered by his own prostitute mother, he targets beautiful women who seem too "available," kills them, scalps them, and pins their hair to mannequins he keeps in his grimy apartment. A beautiful photographer, Anna D'Antoni ("Bond girl" Caroline Munro) snaps his picture in Central Park. He shows up at her place, having snuck a look at her address on her gear bag, and despite how icky he looks, she somehow thinks he's neat and invites him in. This gives him access to her models, and more murders.

Maniac was the feature directing debut of William Lustig (after a couple of 1970s porn films), and though it's about as grungy as a film can get, it feels like a professional job, with a brisk flow and a hard, gritty, urban look and feel; it's set at Christmas time, so the occasional decoration and the chilly weather contribute to the atmosphere. Most unique at the time was the point-of-view focus on the killer, placing us uncomfortably into his universe, and highlighting the clash between his horrid little existence and the world of glamour and fashion. Spinell's look — his bug eyes, his shabby hair and receding hairline, and his short, chubby, schlubbiness — make this close-up look all the more squirmy and uncomfortable. But, of course, it's a peek at something alien and fascinating nonetheless.

Makeup master Tom Savini plays "Disco Boy," a potential victim, in one scene. A remake was produced in 2012, taking the first-person point-of-view idea a little father. Lustig went on to make the first two Maniac Cop films, though they are not connected to this one.

Blue Underground released Maniac on a superb, brand-new deluxe Blu-ray in 2018, boasting a 4K restoration. Despite the film's low-budget look, the transfer and audio are miraculous. There are three discs and tons of extras: two commentary tracks, trailers and promo materials, new and vintage featurettes, interviews, a look at the outraged and negative response the film received, and even a soundtrack CD. (Jay Chattaway's brilliantly jittery electronic score is still a masterpiece.) The weirdest featurette has to be an interview with musicians Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky about whether or not their famous song "Maniac" — which appeared in the 1983 movie Flashdance — is connected to this movie.

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