Maniac is an Oedipean nightmare that unfolds on the sleaziest milieu imaginable. Joe Spinell’s raving portrayal of the psychologically tortured serial killer Frank Zito is horrifying. The frantic, grim, rambling camera work of Robert Lindsay is disorienting. The oodles of blood, courtesy of Tom Savini, dripping, spurting, and oozing are vomit-inducing. This depraved character study could be the greatest New York City sicko flick of them all. Hated by Gene Siskel, condemned by feminists of the early ’80s, it truly is a misunderstood must see.
Meet Frank Zito. He is an overweight, acne scarred madman who maintains an ongoing schizophrenic dialogue with himself and “preserves” beautiful women “forever” by adorning their severed scalps on mannequins. Frank spends most of his time talking to himself in his tiny studio apartment, which is decorated with dolls and an elaborate, candle-lit shrine to his mother. When Frank isn’t pacing about his four walls, he goes out into Manhattan and murders women. Be it by hunting rifle, switchblade, razor, or kitchen knife, Frank has the uncontrollable urge to keep up his scalp collection.
Frank gets involved with fashion photographer Anna D’Antoni (Caroline Munro). Passing himself off as an intellectually curious artist, he is able to secure a date with Anna. He pursues the facade enough to briefly immerse himself in a crowd of models, photographers, and artists. His urges, however, get the better of him. It doesn’t take Anna long to find out that Frank is 100% insane . . . and 100% intent on amputating her scalp from her skull. Frank, meanwhile, overwhelmed by the voices in his head and severe oedipus complex, begins to self-destruct. Does this mean Anna has a chance of escape?
Maniac was indeed a controversial film. It was violent enough and shocking enough to generate a considerable amount of public condemnation. Eleanor Smeal, president of the feminist organization N.O.W., exhorted: “All I can say is that when you talk about violence towards women and brutality, this [Maniac] just typifies it. I think that it is shocking and it contributes to the injury of women.” In Philadelphia, Women Organized Against Rape formed a picket line in front of theaters showing Maniac, calling for a boycott of Budco Theaters for running it. Gene Siskel announced on Sneak Previews that Maniac disgusted him so much that he walked out after the first 30 minutes. The LA Times refused to run the film’s promotional ad because Maniac “has no socially redeeming values whatsoever.” They claimed, “It is our duty to the community we serve not to encourage, even indirectly, such violence.”
What is so irksome about the censorship-happy condemnation Maniac received is that, out of everyone who denounced it, no one even saw the movie; except Gene Siskel, who saw the first half hour. They saw the grotesque movie poster and placed it in the same category as all the other “slasher with a knife” and “women in danger” films that were disturbingly turning over millions at the box office in the early ’80s. To these moral crusaders Maniac was no different than Friday the 13th. To them, it was the same old sickening plotless laundry list of impalements inflicted on “women.” As these people knew, from having made the effort to understand what they were criticizing by sitting down and watching these “women in danger” films, men never got killed in them.
In any case, Maniac is no Friday the 13th. It’s also no New Year’s Evil, Prom Night, Bloody Moon, I Know You’re Alone, Graduation Day, My Bloody Valentine, or The Burning. That’s what makes it great. The writers, C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell, realized the bland formula of “slasher with a knife” movies. In their own way they were critics of slasher movies themselves. That’s why they made a slasher movie from the sickeningly imminent perspective of the killer. They seemingly recognized the hollowness of the other masked maniacs hiding in the woods, and wanted a deadly villain that was a real character. Most of all they wanted to make an effective, shocking, and unique horror movie. Maniac is indeed scary and gets under your skin. The viewer, in touch with the raving mentality of a serial killer, is going to be disturbed and grossed out by this imminence. After spending 87 minutes with Frank, the last thing in the world you want to do is hurt anything. Sure, Maniac is exploitative and sickening, but to the extent that it is scary and unsettling. This is the whole point of horror. Horror, with certain exceptions like Night of the Living Dead, is generally apolitical. It usually doesn’t condone anything. It presents terrible situations from the safe distance of a movie screen under the assumption that fear is an admissible aesthetic category. It is entertainment, but is interesting insofar as it calls into question the paradox of how pain can be pleasurable. It works like hot sauce and S&M. You don’t have to be a misogynistic psychopath yourself to “enjoy” seeing the exploits of one from the safe distance of a movie screen.
You will be hard pressed to find a horror movie more inspired. Influences like Dario Argento, Steven Spielberg, and Bo Wilderberg flow in a cinematically fascinating synthesis of dark exploitation. The film’s use of color is reminiscent of Italian horror. Its grim companionship with Frank’s awful world adds a perfect element of sleaze. The whole movie seems enclosed in a nasty neon glow. Its unlicensed guerilla photography of the Taxi Driver era New York is also to be commended. The photography oscillates between a documentary style and perspectival aberration. There are also loads of effective slow motion scenes, most involving heavy gore. The score, composed by jazz musician Jay Chattaway, is a dirging synthfest that drips along with the blood wonderfully.
The major overarching virtue of Maniac is character actor Joe Spinell (Rocky, The Godfather). Having co-produced, co-written, and starred in it, Spinell, according to Leonard Maltin, “bears most of the blame for this claustrophobic, sickening film.” For Maltin, who rated Maniac a BOMB in his 2012 Movie Guide, it’s blame, but for the film’s devoted cult following it’s praise. Spinell gives us a harrowing character. Frank’s conversations with himself are frighteningly realistic. You see a man who looks as unhealthy as he acts in almost every frame. Unlike Michael Rooker, who would play a conceptually similar character six years later in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Spinell plays Frank Zito with a certain outlandishness. Maybe it’s his unnaturally violent eyes, or his adoring pillow talk with his mannequins, but his madness is over the top in a way that makes Maniac seem intelligently impressionistic.
There’s a cliche that applies to horror movies over 20 years old that were met with controversy upon their release: ‘it seems tame by today’s standards.’ Maniac is in no way tame by today’s standards. Tom Savini’s makeup effects are unbelievably nasty. The most notorious gore scene is when Tom Savini himself, in full disco garb, gets his head blown off by Frank. This is the single greatest head explosion in all movie history. Taken in slow-motion, blood, brains, and bone burst like one of Gallagher’s watermelons. Frank’s final self destruction scene is also wonderfully shocking and involves some terrific hallucinatory zombie-type creatures; one of them the corpse of his beloved mother. Tom Savini, still an emerging makeup artist, did some of his best work on Maniac.
Few films achieve the shock value that filmmakers set out to give it. Maniac is a rare gem in the depths it sinks to to produce shock. The movie is nasty, depressing, and gross. It’s also too powerful and inspired to really be a slasher flick. If it must be considered one, then it’s one of the all time best. See it.