Color, 1980, 87 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by William Lustig
Starring Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Gail Lawrence, Kelly Piper, Rita Montone, Tom Savini
Blue Underground (UHD, Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 4K/HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), 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)

Two Maniacyears after appearing Maniactogether in the absurd 1978 cult favorite Starcrash, scream queen Caroline Munro and wild man Joe Spinell joined forces again for a project that managed to startle even the most hardened horror fans. Created at the height of New York's reign as the ultimate sleazy cinema playground, Maniac proved to be a gory playground for FX groundbreaker Tom Savini and became a surprise hit despite being released unrated, a strategy that also paid off for Dawn of the Dead. Though it features no sex (or profanity, oddly enough), Maniac became a hot title for years in the debate about "gore porn" and encountered numerous censorship problems, with England not surprisingly banning it as a video nasty. Harrowing, nasty, and unforgettable, it's certainly not a film for all tastes but still delivers an awfully strong kick.

Plagued by flashbacks and violent nightmares, pathetic but frightening abuse victim Frank Zito (Spinell) spends most of his time in his squalid New York City 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.

ManiacThough 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 Maniac1960s. 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 Maniacthe 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 Maniacperpetual 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 1999 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 from 2001 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 covering everything from shooting without permits to the jovial nature on the set throughout the shoot. Additional extras include a documentary called "The Joe Spinell Story" (49m20s) (with Lustig, Munro, Jason Miller, and Robert Forster among the participants talking about the late actor), a Paul Wunder radio interview with the director, Savini, and Munro (19m11s), theatrical trailers, radio and TV spots, and the great promo film, "Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2" (7m24s), Maniacessentially 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 in 2010 for a more lavish edition as a two-disc set available on both Blu-ray and DVD. The HD transfer (touted as being from the negative, but more on that below) looked okay for a very low budget film shot on 16mm and blown up to 35; grain looks very film-like and less noisy than past editions, Maniacwhile the saturated colors pop through quite vividly. Unfortunately the black levels are very flat and pale, looking more like a milky gray and sapping out much-needed contrast and depth in the night scenes. 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. Four HD featurettes courtesy of Red Shirt Pictures kick off with "Anna and the Killer" (13m4s), an 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" (12m7s) 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 ManiacSembello and Dennis Matkosky whose Oscar-nominated song of the same name from Flashdance was rumored (by whom?) 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! Chattaway is also on hand for "Death Notes" (12m12s), an exploration of how the score evolved from his jazz Maniacbackground and went in some different directions than expected including its lyrical main theme. 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 (47m18s) from 1981 (in B&W), a 43-second 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 (13m13s), a 3-minute Munro TV interview (2m53s) about the film during a news show (with a scary Andrea Martin lookalike), the same show's goofy "Barf Bag Review Policy" (2m10s), a Grindhouse Film Festival Q&A (22m19s) at the New Beverly with Lustig and a surprise appearance by Dr. Sharon Mitchell, a still gallery, and a "Maniac Controversy" video rundown including Gene Siskel's outraged diatribe (complete with a wildly inaccurate attack on Silent Scream, which he clearly hasn't seen), 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?

In late 2018, Blue Underground gave the film a much-needed revisit complete with a handful of theatrical screenings to tout a new 4K scan of the recently uncovered original 16mm camera negative, which is a massive improvement over the prior source (which must have been a dupe neg). Everything is better here: color fidelity, detail, film grain, more image info, you name it. Interestingly, the car attack scene has now been adjusted so it's much darker and now feels like it's taking place in the middle of the night, whereas it looked far more boosted before. It's way creepier now. Audio options include DTS-HD 7.1 and 2.0 stereo, Spanish, French, Italian, and German (you haven't lived until you've heard a German-dubbed Joe Spinell), plus subtitles in English (SDH), Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Again the film comes with both audio commentaries (Lustig/Garroni and Lustig, Savini, Marinelli, and Walter); also on disc one are seven theatrical trailers (hard and soft U.S. versions, international, French, Italian, and German teaser and full trailer), nine TV spots, and four radio spots. Maniac

ManiacDisc two houses the rest of the video extras both old and new, divided up into three sections ("Featurettes," "Publicity," and "Controversy"). The featurettes area kicks off with a fantastic new reel of unseen outtakes (18m53s) with Lustig commentary, including a peek at the original intended opening titles, loads of great coverage of Times Square, very extended peeks at some of Savini's handiwork, and wild footage of the "victims" grinning and cutting up during their murder scenes. Also new is "Returning to the Scene of the Crime" (7m53s), with Lustig going talking about the "golden age of serial killers" and talking about some of the grisly real-life crimes similar to the film over new shots of some of the film's locations as they exist today. The older Red Shirt featurettes are also included ("Anna and the Killer," "The Death Dealer," "Death Notes," "Maniac Men"), plus "The Joe Spinell Story" and the "Mr. Robbie" promo reel. In the publicity section you get the Wunder radio interview, Movie Madness episode, Cannes appearance, Joe Franklin segment, Munro news interview, barf bag policy, Grindhouse Festival Q&A, and still gallery. Finally the controversy section ports over the same one from the earlier disc with coverage from L.A. (Channel 7 and Channel 11 News plus Tomorrow Show, Chicago's Channel 2 News with Siskel, Philadelphia (Channel 10, Channel 3, and Channel 6 News), Newsbeat, Midnight Blue, and the essential "Gallery of Outrage." The limited three-disc edition with a 3D lenticular slipcover (to show off at family holidays, of course) also comes with a CD soundtrack and an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Michael Gingold, who chats an intriguing path from the film's early days (with Dario Argento's tangential involvement and the announced casting of Jason Miller) through the production and the ill-fated attempts to follow up on its success.

It was probably inevitable that Blue Underground would get around to revisiting this one on UHD pretty early on, and indeed this marked their first foray into the format in 2020 (tied with Lucio Fulci's Zombie). As expected, it's a two-disc set with the bonus Blu-ray included in its entirely; the UHD features the same extras and audio configuration as the Blu-ray, with the 7.1 Dolby Atmos track really filling up the room with that creepy Chattaway score. The history of 16mm horror on UHD has actually been quite respectable so far with titles like The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and this one lives up to expectations by offering a nice upgrade with a significant boost in color depth (those occasional gorgeous purples in particular). It definitely isn't the "prettiest" 4K presentation around for obvious reasons given the intended aesthetic, but aspects like film grain and shadow delineation really get a nice uptick here and add to the eerie ambiance of the film itself.


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Updated review on May 8, 2020