When people talk about serial-killer films, certain movies invariably pop up. Naturally, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer tops that list as being the most "realistic" and psychologically accurate portrayal, and certainly The Silence of the Lambs works quite well as a police-procedural on the subject (not to mention the exemplary, if a tad overrated, performances). Well, for my money, Bill Lustig's Maniac should rank up there with the proverbial "big dogs" of serial cinema. Despite an uneven tone, and a few missteps in the plot and characterization department (more on those faults later), Maniac is quite possibly the most graphically harrowing cinematic portrayal of the last days of a serial killer ever. That's a lot to live up to, but luckily, Maniac just works. While this review will concentrate on Anchor Bay's excellent, but now out of print "Special Edition" from a few years ago, it should serve as a review of Blue Underground's (a company owned and operated chiefly by William Lustig himself) reissue, due in stores in February 2007, which is identical. Before I dive in, though, let me dispel a nasty rumor: supposedly, Tom Savini "disowned" the film Maniac...for which he performed the numerous special effects...as being "too grim" or "too gory". There has been much speculation about this issue, and frankly, I think I have finally uncovered the beginnings of it. In his influential book "The Official Splatter Movie Guide", John McCarty talks about how Savini disavowed Maniac. I've personally asked Mr. Savini about this issue on more than one occasion, and I've seen his comments on the matter in at least one printed interview (notably, in Paul J. Brown & Nigel J. Burrell's 1997 book "Savini: The Wizard of Gore"), and I think it's safe to state for the record that Tom Savini never said any such thing about Maniac. In fact, he not only has reasonably fond memories of his involvement with the film's production, but he also tends to think (rightly) that his effects in the film are among the best of his career. So, now that that's out of the way...permanently, I hope...we can move on to the film itself.
Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is one hell of a strange, scary dude. He lives in a shabby rathole apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood in NYC, where his already unstable mindset is given free reign to grow progressively more disturbed. It seems that Frank is the victim of unspeakable (and mostly only hinted-at) childhood abuses at the hands of his mother (of course), leaving our hero with a bit of a grudge against women. So, he acts out by slicing, dicing, shooting, stabbing, strangling, and yes...scalping his prey. With each successive kill, Frank grows more and more detached from reality. When he meets a beautiful, swingin' fashion photographer (a stunningly gorgeous but wildly overused Caroline Munro), it seems at first as if Frank might have hit on his one chance at a "normal" relationship. It isn't meant to be, of course, and soon, he makes his psychotic moves on her as well. Naturally, she makes tracks away from him, leaving him all alone again. In this state, Frank makes his final descent into complete madness and utter depravity.
With such a simplistic...heck, even nonexistent...plot, Maniac isn't exactly a mind-bender along the lines of Fincher's Se7en or even the aforementioned Henry, but William Lustig's genius here is that he's able to make such a wildly successful and accurate portrait of the inner workings of the mind of a serial killer with such a bare-bones plot. Furthermore, the film compares more than favorably to the similarly-themed Taxi Driver. I know...I know...you're thinking I'm crazy ranking this mere grindhouse curiosity of an exploitation film up there with Scorcese's revered masterpiece. Who knows...maybe I'm the only one who thinks Maniac is that good. Ya' know what though? Fuck you. Maniac has all of the angst and outright cruelty of Taxi Driver, plus (arguably) Joe Spinell's performance here absolutely rivals Robert DeNiro's lauded portrayal of Travis Bickle. In fact, I'd contend that Spinell's role was the more difficult. Zito is such an inherently loathsome creature that it would have been damned near impossible for most thespians to inject any real sympathy into their characterization. But, that's precisely what Spinell has done here. Dammit, we actually feel sorry for this guy, as he's clearly the product of his upbringing, and not just some random freak. No, that doesn't make what he does right or even vaguely permissible, but it does make simply dismissing Zito as "just another nameless psycho" pretty much impossible. Trust me, you won't like Frank, but you'll feel for the guy, at least to a very tiny degree. That's some truly uncomfortable shit, right there.
Naturally, the weight of Maniac's success falls largely on the hulking shoulders of Joe Spinell. In the hands of a lesser (or merely less-committed) actor, the film simply would not have worked. Spinell turns in quite possibly the performance of his long (but sadly, not long enough) career as a highly respected character actor. His nuanced, ridiculously naturalistic work here is quite amazing, actually. What's more amazing is that there are (at least) three distinct "characters" lurking behind the basic "Frank Zito" character; there's the "primary" or day-to-day Frank that lurks in the gray zone somewhere between normalcy and insanity, then there's the "secondary" Frank that slides between various personae (his mother, himself as a pre-adolescent child, a bizarre "hairdresser" character, a "normal" or "well-adjusted" version of himself, and others...but often at the same time), and finally the "tertiary" Frank who is the purely evil and insatiable murderer. It's this version of Frank that is by far the dominant one, until the final act of the film, when various other aspects of the "secondary" Frank emerge (including apparitions of several of his victims) and tear him to pieces (as graphic as this scene is, it's largely symbolic...the guy literally implodes under the weight of his own mania).
None of this is to say, of course, that Maniac is pure "art". All of the fine intentions in the world (mostly on the part of Spinell, one suspects...he was a guy who always wanted to truly own a characterization to the extent that he owns Frank Zito) can't obscure the fact that this is, at its roots, a low-budget schlocker. Slamming this fact home again and again are a few very specific elements. First, there's Bill Lustig's casting of a vast array of small-time porn actors in most of the film's secondary roles. While this might have well had more to do with budgetary constraints, I suspect that Lustig was just working with the pool of talent to which he had most convenient access. After all, before Maniac, Lustig was just another 42nd Street hack cranking out skin flicks (and Bill, if you're reading this, no offense is intended). Secondly, Tom Savini's admittedly near-perfect effects work keeps Maniac squarely in the realm of splattersploitation. All of that said, there's no doubt in my mind that everyone involved was truly "in deep" with this production. Lustig managed to craft something that was far greater than the sum of its parts, though, and credit should be given to Lustig for having the courage (and just plain good sense) to insert some quieter scenes of Frank during his less violent and more "vulnerable" moments. Then, there's Savini's effects work. Aside from the whole "did he or didn't he disown Maniac" issue (dispelled above), huge kudos are due Mr. Savini for his brutal, realistic work in Maniac; certainly, the film wouldn't be the same without 'em.
A special note must be made here regarding Jay Chattaway's absolutely amazing score for Maniac. For my money, this score is one of the finest non-traditional (which is to say "non-orchestral") scores of the era. The haunting main theme with its subtly tinkling synthesizers and eerie fretless bass work, in particular, is a standout. All around, it's just beautiful, and not enough can be (or has been) said about the importance of Chattaway's music to the success of Maniac.
OK...one more thing before I move on to the technical side of this review. I'm going to go out on a limb and state, for the record, that there is one element in Maniac that simply does not work. Furthermore, that element (at times) comes dangerously close to derailing all of the tension and realism that makes Maniac such a wonder to behold. That element is Caroline Munro. Now, don't get me wrong...the woman is damned nice looking, and she's not a bad actress by any stretch of the imagination. But, by and large, her role in Maniac (and the entire subplot surrounding her role) is completely unnecessary to the film. Without the benefit of the commentary track on this disc, which pretty much confirms this, it's evident that Ms. Munro's role was significantly expanded when she signed on. Seems she was too much of a "name" to just have a walk-on or "cameo" role, so the scenes containing her character (and her interactions with Frank) were padded to a ludicrous degree. So, out of the fuckin' blue, here comes this pretty gal, who not only seems to be attracted to Frank (which in and of itself is ludicrous), but agrees to "date" him. All of this, ostensibly, shows that Frank has a more confident, self-assured side, but honestly, it's all too unbelievable, and the scenes stick out like a sore thumb. I digress.
The DVD I'm reviewing here is the now OOP 2001 Anchor Bay release. Blue Underground (owned by Bill Lustig, of course) has now picked up (and rightly so) Maniac for re-release. The Blue Underground release is, as far as I can tell, completely identical to the OOP Anchor Bay release, so if you missed that one, here's your chance to pick it up under a different label. The transfer and sound are wonderful..."THX Certified"...so if you've only seen Maniac on VHS, then this will be a treat for the eyes and ears. Sure, the 5.1 Surround Sound and DTS sound options might seem like overkill (the sound and effects themselves are not terribly dynamic), but Jay Chattaway's wonderful score really sparkles under the multi-speaker, digitally enhanced treatment. The special features are plentiful and great: a radio interview with Bill Lustig and the two stars (Spinell and Munro), a 49 minute documentary about Spinell's life called (appropriately enough) THe Joe Spinell Story, various trailers and TV spots, radio advertisements, a huge still gallery, "talent bios", and various audio language options. The real crown jewel of these awesome features, though, is the commentary track featuring Bill Lustig, Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Joe Spinell's personal assistant Luke Walker. This commentary track is one of the better commentaries I've heard on a DVD release. Everyone on board seems to really want to be there, and they're clearly having a ball reminiscing about their involvement with Maniac. All told, even though this isn't labeled (nor is the Blue Underground reissue) as a "special edition", it lives up to that moniker more than most DVD releases these days. Naturally, Bill Lustig supervised the Anchor Bay release as well as the Blue Underground reissue, so it was in his interest to make the best possible release that he could. Either edition (since they're identical) is pretty much the "definitive" version of Maniac, and I can't imagine any other company coming along and usurping these releases with some sort of cash-grabbing "extra super special uber mega edition" or something. Now get your butts out there and buy it!