Color, 1980, 88m.
Directed by William Lustig
Starring Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Gail Lawrence, Kelly Piper, Rita Montone, Tom Savini
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DTS7.1/DD5.1, Umbrella (Australia R0 PAL), Another World (Sweden R2 PAL), Anchor Bay (UK R0 PAL, US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Elite (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) / DD5.1
Plagued by flashbacks and violent nightmares, pathetic but frightening abuse victim Frank Zito (Spinell) spends most of his time in his squalid New York apartment filled with creepy mannequins. Occasionally he ventures out and seems like a fairly average guy, but he also tends to kill off random people including a pretty nurse he abducts from a restroom and an unlucky couple (whose male half is played by Savini) he ambushes in their car with a shotgun (the film's most justly celebrated splatter effect). A little bit of normalcy comes when he strikes up a friendship with fashion photographer Anna (Munro), but that may not be enough to keep him from descending deeper into homicidal mania.
Though most critics lumped Maniac with the popular slasher films which were taking over movie theaters at the time, it's really more of an extreme variation on violent roughies which had become drive-in and grindhouse staples since the 1960s. Other films like The Toolbox Murders and Driller Killer had already broken ground and faced the firing squad of an outraged populace with their brutal depictions of urban slaughter, but Maniac leaped forward considerably with its protracted, brutal set pieces including Savini's unflinching scalping effects that inspired the creepy, highly memorable poster art. Surprisingly, it's also quite well made; director William Lustig had cut his teeth working in various capacities on New York porn films (including the above average The Violation of Claudia) and even recruited a few familiar industry starlets like Gail Lawrence (aka adult actress Abigail Clayton) and Sharon Mitchell for some of the minor female roles. His style here effectively mixes gritty, dank visuals of the city's streets and subways (very similar to Cruising and Ms. 45) alternating with the interiors of Frank's apartment, whose searing primary colors owe an obvious debt to Argento and Bava. Though the role may be too repugnant for comfort, Spinell does an amazing job in the role (he also served as a writer and producer), and while a lot of genre fans were shocked to see the glamorous Munro in such a scuzzy film, she acquits herself very well with her limited screen time. Composer Jay Chattaway also got his start here with an excellent, atmospheric electronic score that paved the way for years working on all of the Star Trek spin-offs.
A perpetual home video favorite since the VHS days (at least in countries where it could be legally released), Maniac first appeared on DVD and laserdisc from Elite Entertainment in a grainy, underwhelming non-anamorphic transfer that at least looked better than the inscrutably muddy VHS versions. Controversially this "director's cut" dropped a lengthy dinner sequence with Spinell and Munro, but this has been reinstated for all subsequent discs. Anchor Bay's anamorphic reissue featured a much better transfer and added new extras to the Elite edition, with both versions carrying a very thorough and entertaining commentary track with Lustig, Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and assistant Luke Walter which covers everything from shooting without permits to the jovial nature on the set throughout the shoot. Additional extras included a 51-minute documentary called "The Joe Spinell Story" (with Lustig, Munro, Jason Miller, and Robert Forster among the participants talking about the late actor), a radio interview with the director, Savini, and Munro, theatrical trailers, radio and TV spots, and the great promo film, "Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2," essentially a sketch for a possible sequel directed by Combat Shock's Buddy Giovinazzo. Spinell is really great here, and it's a shame the actual feature never got to see the light of day.
Doing this already respectable edition one better, Lustig's own company, Blue Underground, got the chance to revisit Maniac for its most lavish edition yet as a two-disc edition available on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The new HD transfer from the original negative does the best job you could expect from a very low budget film shot on 16mm and blown up to 35; grain looks very film-like and less noisy than past editions, while the saturated colors pop through quite vividly. The film stock doesn't allow for deep blacks at all (the darkest it gets is sort of a milky gray) and or any sort of fine detail outside of close ups, but even a theatrical screening couldn't do any better. Traditional Blu-Ray nuts will find plenty to complain about here, but if you know what Maniac is supposed to look like, this is easily its sturdiest presentation to date. More genuinely impressive is the sound mix, especially the DTS 7.1 mix which mixes the original Dolby Stereo track into a jarring, effective soundscape that really bursts to life during the murders and hallucination scenes. All of the previous extras are carried over along with loads of new material, starting with a second commentary track with Lustig and co-producer Andrew W. Garroni. The many years since the last track have allowed a lot more observations to creep through, and while there's some minor overlap here and there, it's a very solid effort that starts off with an amusing notation about the opening scene's cinematic inspiration and then whirls through everything you could want to know about the production of the film. Three new HD featurettes courtesy of Red Shirt Pictures (who delivered the great extras on Night of the Creeps and The Stepfather, among others) kick off with "Anna and the Killer," a new interview with the still-lovely Munro. She talks about stepping in the weekend before shooting to replace Daria Nicolodi, her joyful relationship with Spinell, and her reaction to the finished product, which she regards very differently than its detractors. "The Death Dealer" features Savini talking about his work on the film, including having to shoot a dummy of himself in the face and chucking the demolished car in the Hudson River. By far the funniest extra in the entire set is "Maniac Men," a visit with songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky whose Oscar-nominated song of the same name from Flashdance was rumored to have originated with this film. Did it really begin as the theme song for a serial killer with far more brutal lyrics? Watch and find out... and make sure you watch it all the way through! The Blu-ray rounds out with the same promotional material like trailers, TV spots, and radio spots. The second disc (a standard def DVD in either version) contains "The Joe Spinell Story" along with a ton of extra goodies: the aforementioned radio interview, Lustig's 47-minute appearance on the public access show Movie Madness from 1981 (in B&W), a one-minute peek at Spinell at Cannes (where he shot the far more lighthearted third Spinell/Munro collaboration, The Last Horror Film), Spinell's appearance on The Joe Franklin Show, a 3-minute Murno TV interview about the film during a news show (with a scary Andrea Martin lookalike), the same show's goofy "Barf Bag Review Policy," a Grindhouse Film Festival Q&A with Lustig and two surprise cast members, a still gallery, and a "Maniac Controversy" video rundown including Gene Siskel's outraged diatribe, Midnight Blue's reaction, Philadelphia and Los Angeles critical reactions, two pieces on Newsbeat, and a "Gallery of Outrage" with some of the more colorful critical and civic barbs hurled during its release and a hilarious rejection notice from the Filipino censors ("Very bizarre! Take this picture somewhere else. Not in the Philippine - take it to Satan!"). Really, what else can you say?