Aside from John Carpenter's 'Halloween,' William Lustig's 'Maniac' is one of the best and most noteworthy examples of the slasher film. Released during the heyday of the genre's most successful years, the exploitation feature is pretty much like any other — a psychopath on a murdering spree, killing victims in a variety of graphically violent methods. But 'Maniac' stands out for being genuinely creepy and downright disturbing, and it's not only due to some very explicit imagery, the one area the movie is arguably best known for thanks to the gory wizardry of horror legend Tom Savini. The low-budget flick is actually good for turning genre convention on its head and trying a new, much scarier angle.
Movies of this caliber and type typically place the spotlight on a character that eventually turns into the story's hero, most often female. And the bad guy is regularly a masked lunatic — an unknown and distant assailant despite customary POV shots. In 'Maniac,' Lustig does the interesting thing of having the killer be the plot's focal point. We are actually made to spend time with the madman, to get all close and personal, discovering his various quirks, his personal lifestyle and the state of his mental illness. We never actually learn of his reasoning for horribly and viciously murdering women, but we can piece the mystery together over the course of the story. And as we get deeper, the more chilling it becomes.
Working as a super at an apartment complex in New York City, Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) decorates his small room with brightly painted walls, children's toys, plenty of light, and pictures of beautiful women. His home may be colorful and distinctive, but his mind is dark and severely fractured. Several mannequins adorned with the clothes and scalps of his victims share his confined space, naked pictures interestingly have certain body parts cut out, and Frank often talks as if someone else were in the room with him. When he makes friends with a lovely photographer, Anna (Caroline Munro, 'Starcrash'), we wonder about his intentions and wait anxiously to see when and how he will reveal himself to her.
This entire thing creates a bizarre and unnerving experience because as the story unfolds, we are both horrified and disgusted by the man as well as weirdly sympathetic to the nutcase. He clearly has mommy issues which require some intensely severe therapy, and in the case of Frank, a lobotomy would be a humane start. The whole picture rests on the performance of Spinell ('Rocky,' 'The Last Horror Film'), who also surprisingly wrote the script. Better known as a character actor, he demonstrates he can carry a film and is immensely talented with his portrayal of the mentally disturbed killer. It's unfortunate that a sequel to 'Maniac' was never completed before his death — only a short film, made the year before his passing, exists and shows Frank Zito drinking and killing a cook.
'Maniac' remains a memorable exploitation movie primarily for its graphic and amazingly life-like depictions of violence. The special effects are recognized as some of Tom Savini's best — the scene with the shotgun at point-blank range stands as one of the most shocking and sickening moments caught on celluloid, the scene which made Gene Siskel walk out. But the most effective aspect of the cult slasher film is its unique story, a telling that brings attention to an area in genre convention that was mostly ignored before. With Joe Spinell's utterly convincing and marvelous performance as Frank Zito, 'Maniac' lives on as a finest example of the subgenre, revealing what the basic story structure is capable of.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Blue Underground brings William Lustig's 'Maniac' to Blu-ray as a two-disc 30th Anniversary Edition. The first disc is a Region Free, BD50 with the main feature and some supplements while the second is a DVD-5 containing the rest of the special features. Both are housed on opposing panels in the normal blue keepcase. At startup, viewers are taken straight to the main menu.
If not for the fact that Blue Underground has a strong track record for giving forgotten, low-budget gems respectable treatment on Blu-ray, one would be quick to judge the picture quality of 'Maniac' as one of the worst available. But in all honesty, the movie looks the best it probably ever will. Originally filmed on Super 16, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) is terribly soft and far from anything remotely close to high-def standards.
Details and textures are generally blurry, and shadow delineation appears mostly like a hazy, muffled mess. Contrast is drab and boring while blacks look like clouded, dark-gray blobs. Colors are decent, especially reds, but overall, they feel rather dull and lifeless. Film grain also has mysteriously vanished.
All things considered, the cult slasher flick could be worse, but HD expectations make this transfer a sub-par release.
In the audio department, 'Maniac' turns out to be a winner, with a very nice and involving DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Most impressive are the numerous discrete effects filling the rear soundscape and surrounding the listener with the sounds of a bustling city. Surprisingly, these moments don't feel forced or artificial and actually quite engaging. The musical score also bleeds lightly into the background, but it works best in the front soundstage, spreading across the three channels with ease and good balance. Dialogue reproduction is precise and intelligible, making every word of Frank Zito perfectly clear and creepy. The mid-range is accurate and very well-defined with an unexpectedly strong low end which gives the movie notable depth and weight.
Overall, William Lustig's exploitation classic sounds great on Blu-ray.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'Maniac,' Blue Underground offers a large assortment of supplements, sure to keep fans busy for a while. Most are from previous releases, but the collection mirrors its anniversary DVD counterpart.
The movie that caused a wave of controversy when it was released in 1980, William Lustig's 'Maniac,' is now talked about as a great slasher flick at the height of the genre's popularity. Often remembered for Tom Savini's amazingly realistic depictions of violence, the film should also be rightly remembered for its genuinely creepy story and Joe Spinell's remarkable performance as Frank Zito. The Blu-ray comes with the best-looking presentation of the movie, but it unfortunately cannot compare to other catalog releases. In the audio and supplement department, the 30th Anniversary Edition is a winner, making this a worthwhile purchase for fans of the cult exploitation feature and of the genre.