Maniac (1980) LE Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a deeply disturbed man, haunted by the traumas of unspeakable childhood abuse. When these horrific memories begin to scream inside his mind, Frank prowls the seedy streets of New York City to stalk and slaughter innocent young women. Now, Frank has begun a relationship with a beautiful photographer (Caroline Munro), yet his vile compulsions remain. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
In the wake of the Manson Family murders, American-made serial killers became a media sensation, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Jack the Ripper’s murder spree at the turn of the previous century. Of particular note was an unassuming, honorably discharged vet named David Berkowitz, who held the city of New York hostage with a .44 caliber revolver in the summer of 1977. Convinced that his neighbor’s dog was ordering him to kill, the self-christened ‘Son of Sam’ shot six people to death and wounded another seven. Post-Berkowitz, New York also saw a measurable increase in criminal violence and became a popular hub for urban horror stories. Films like Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943), Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) painted the upper echelons of the city as corrupt, untrustworthy, and cursed by strange and banal evils. But these European-born directors gave only thier outsider view of haunted, upper-middle class boroughs – the more truthful horror was found below the bedeviled high rises in the blood, sweat, and tears that were staining the city’s streets.
With directors like Winner and Sam Peckinpah setting the pace for vigilante violence, others began painting similarly oppressive moral conditions with the utmost grit and intensity. The watershed moment for this era of the anti-vigilante was probably Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), in which Robert De Niro portrays a lonely Vietnam vet who obsessively mistakes his frustration and prejudices for heroism and murders three people. Scorsese’s film helped inspire a new brand of New York Gothic that manifested most malevolently in the form of independently-produced, nihilistic portraits of reclusive serial killers, as seen in Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979), Dennis Donnelly’s Toolbox Murders (1978), and Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock (1986). Taking his cues from Taxi Driver, Kent Bateman’s Headless Eyes (1971), and a number of imported Italian horror/exploitation movies, William Lustig made his highly controversial (non-porno) debut with Maniac (1980) and cemented the tradition of redirecting the oppressive grindhouse district towards the horror genre.
Often miscategorized as an entry in the early slasher cycle (which certainly didn’t hurt its box office chances) Maniac is the quintessential example of this type of filmmaking in that it is an amateur, low-budget production that prioritizes depictions of graphic violence, oppressive environments, and emotional anguish over storytelling, drama, or traditional character development. It’s hardly categorizable as a ‘good movie’ on any technical levels – aside from perhaps Tom Savini’s then-state-of-the-art special effects – nor does it break any new ground in the realms of somber serial killer cinema. But, in many ways, its lack of proper structure and Lustig’s lack of practice behind the camera goes a long way towards creating an authentically scummy, suffocating atmosphere. Furthermore, the combination of lead actor Joe Spinell’s effortlessly slimey performance and his almost nonsensically patchy screenplay (co-written with C.A. Rosenberg) lends a deranged air of unpredictability, as if it was written by and is starring an actual maniac. This was obviously a passion project for the famed character actor, who had appeared in many of the ‘70s most important films, most recognizable as a henchman in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and as the personnel officer who hires De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, and the fact that he cast himself as a brutish, greasy, lonely murderer of women is telling, to say the least. Unlike the cartoonish slashers that it is mistaken for, Maniac’s irrationality and believable depiction late ‘70s New York City makes it feel genuinely dangerous.
Considering that this film was the debut of one William Lustig and that same Lustig also runs a company called Blue Underground and that before that he worked with Anchor Bay, it’s no surprise that Maniac has had semi-regular, unrated home video releases over the past couple of decades. In North America alone this runs a gamut from Media’s VHS, to Elite Entertainment’s VHS/Laserdisc/DVD versions, and Anchor Bay’s special edition DVD. Blue Underground put out the first Blu-ray in 30th Anniversary 2-disc and single disc editions. This 1080p transfer was remastered from the original negative. Based on the original material’s purposefully rough condition and 16mm basis, I had assumed that this better-than-anamorphic-but-still-not-great image was about as good as the movie could ever look. I was skeptical that this new, limited edition 4K remaster could be a worthy upgrade, but I suppose I underestimated the potential of the supposedly new original camera negative.
I’m sorry to say that I seem to have lost my original comparison caps, so you’re going to have to use your imagination or head over to caps-a-holic to see their (honestly superior) caps.
The new scan juices considerable detail from the material without depleting natural grain or oversharpening any edges. It is quite grainy, as any 16mm release from 1980 would be, but the size and shape looks accurate. While both transfers are cropped at 1.85:1, there is considerably more information on the bottom of the new disc’s frame and this helps the compositions appear more balanced (honestly, you’d think the film’s director would’ve noticed the issue when he supervised the first transfer). I think the aspect I most underestimated was how much of a difference new color-timing could make. Even if there hadn’t been an uptick in detail and the framing hadn’t been corrected, the deeper, purer blacks and vibrant hues are impressive. The old transfer’s blacks were either brown or greenish and, more problematically, contrast levels were flat, leaving any underlit sequence muddy. Until someone releases the fully uncompressed 4K remaster on UHD, this is the best version of Maniac you’re going to find.
As it had been before, Maniac is presented in 7.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. Despite the tiny budget and 16mm roots, Lustig did, in fact, spring for a stereo mix when the film was first released and took advantage of the multi-channel format via a few cityscape sequences and Jay Chattaway’s largely anti-melodic, synth and guitar/bass score. That said, I’ve never been clear as to if the version of that stereo mix that has been made available since Elite’s Laserdisc/DVD was the same as the one first heard in theaters back in 1980. The clarity, ranges, and directional qualities of this track and the remixed 7.1 version (an update of Elite’s 5.1 and the re-release DVD’s DTS-ES 6.1 tracks) are awfully similar. To that token, you might as well watch the film with the 7.1 engaged, just for the sake of the discrete center channel and better bass. Drops in clarity and odd volume changes might be a side effect of trying to transform old analogue tracks into crisp and shiny digital ones, but they’re just as likely an artefact of ADR and budgetary constraints. My only real complaint is that the music regularly overwhelms the dialogue – a problem I’ve had with the film since the first time I saw it on VHS tape.
Commentary with director William Lustig with co-producer Andrew W, Garroni – This first archival track is the newer and more well-packed of the two. The director and co-producer work well together as they break down the ins & outs of this extremely independent production and share amusing anecdotes.
Commentary with Lustig, makeup effects artist Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Joe Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter – The second archival track is faster and looser than its predecessor, thanks in large part to Savini’s charming ability to remember every single detail of every single movie he’s ever worked on. There is some overlap between the tracks, but Lustig is acting as more of a moderator here, ensuring that the other participants have a chance to say their piece. Unfortunately, there are some long silent stretches, as well.
Trailers, TV spots, radio spots
Disc 2 Extras:
Outtakes (18:53, HD) – The first of the two new extras is a newly discovered outtake reel that is hosted by Lustig via commentary. This raw, open-matte footage is in good condition, includes a couple of bloopers, and doubles as an archival record of NYC’s 42nd Ave in the late ‘70s.
Returning to the Scene of the Crime (7:53, HD) – The second new extra is a then-and-now location visit that is also hosted by Lustig.
Anna and the Killer (13:04, HD) – Actress Caroline Munro discusses the film and how she became involved with it.
The Death Dealer (12:07, HD) – Savini breaks down his special effects tricks and this starmaking era in his career.
Dark Notes (12:12, HD) – Composer Jay Chattaway recalls composing the film’s delicate and disturbing themes.
Maniac Men (10:35, HD) – This final interview is one of the most interesting; it features Lustig and songwriters Michael Sembello & Dennis Matkosky, who talk about their song “Maniac,” which appeared in Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance (1983). There were rumours that the song was originally written [i]for[/i] Lustig’s film, but the truth is that Sembello/Matkosky were merely slightly inspired by the movie.
The Joe Spinell Story (49:19, SD) – This documentary, which covers Spinell’s career from beginning to end, was directed by David Gregory and originally included on the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD.
Mr. Robbie: Maniac 2 promo reel (7:24, HD) – This short subject was meant to sell a Maniac pseudo sequel/remake of Larry G. Brown’s An Eye for An Eye (aka: The Psychopath, 1975) to producers. It stars Spinell as an emotionally tortured, alcoholic television host clown (shades of John Wayne Gacy) who plots to murders a child abusing chef. It was directed by Combat Shock filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo.
Paul Wunder radio interview with William Lustig, Joe Spinell and actress Caroline Munro (19:11, HD still)
William Lustig on Movie Madness (47:18, SD) – Excerpts from a 1981 public access call-in show.
Joe Spinell at Cannes (0:44, SD)
Joe Spinell on [i]The Joe Franklin Show[/i] (13:12, SD)
Caroline Munro TV Interview (2:54, SD)
Barf bag review policy (2:10, SD)
Grindhouse Film Festival 2010 Q&A with William Lustig, Andrew Garroni, and Sharon Mitchell (22:19)
Controversy – This section features a selection of (mostly contentious) news clips, clippings, and specials from the film’s problematic 1980 release:
Los Angeles (7:49, HD, play all option) – Channel 7 News 3/6/81 11:00pm, Channel 11 News 3/6/81 10:30pm, NBC Tomorrow Show 3/10/81
Chicago – Channel 2 News 2/3/81 10:00pm (2:13)
Philadelphia (3:27, SD, play all option) – Channel 10 News 3/2/81 11:00pm, Channel 3 News 3/3/81 6:00pm, Channel 3 News 3/3/81 11:00pm, Channel 6 News 3/3/81 5:30pm
Newsbeat (21:11, SD, play all option) – Violent Movies, Movie Violence
Midnight Blue (6:33, SD, play all option) – Al Goldstein rants against violent movies, Al Goldstein mutilates his love doll
Gallery of Outrage – Various newspaper reviews
Disc 3 (CD):
Maniac original motion picture soundtrack by Jay Chattaway
Again, the images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray quality. Check out the caps-a-holic link.