To refer to “Maniac” (1980) as a creation of director William Lustig seems only partially accurate. Sure, Lustig developed the idea of a serial killer named Frank Zito who prowls the streets of New York, scalping his unfortunate female victims, but it was veteran character actor Joe Spinell who elevated “Maniac” from just another gross-out slasher to a magnificently disturbing classic.
Spinell, who later signed autographs “Maniac” Spinell, contributed financial backing as well as story input to the production, but even if he hadn’t, his performance is one that makes the movie a fully-realized creation of the most sinister corners of the actor’s mind. Surely, in preparation for his masterful role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger must have studied Spinell’s work. Frank is never entirely quiet or still, instead pacing around or rocking back and forth, perpetually traumatized by his own evil. He doesn’t chase his victims, but rather stalks them slowly, dragging his massive, unkempt bulk through the dark deserted city night. Frank sniffs them out, all the while wheezing and growling. Practically the only time we hear him speak is when he is in dialogue with himself, pleading with the dark side to stop, constantly asking himself why, why, why does he do these things?
Like Ledger’s mutilated, steam-punk Joker, Spinell’s maniac is completely feral, and yet “Maniac,” manages to humanize him. Yes, there is some half-baked explanation of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother and yes, there are the head-scratching scenes where he acts normal with a beautiful photographer he (implausibly) goes out with. Narrative explanation isn’t necessary. By seeing him alone in the house of horrors that is his apartment, or watching the suffering in his eyes as he stares at female mannequins we see that he is no hyperbolic embodiment of evil, but just another deeply damaged person with an especially brutal way of acting out.
Story-wise, “Maniac” lacks the complex examination of the human condition of other cult-horror, such as “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” or “Dawn of the Dead,” but like these low-budget gems, it’s fascinating from a craft perspective. Without the resources of a mainstream movie, Lustig and legendary special effects man, Tom Savini were forced to innovate and nothing is more fun than coming up with ways to make brain fragments out of bananas, or blood with corn syrup and food coloring. Not only that, the crew was confronted with an inability to pay for permits to film in the city, so they had to do it on the sly, with limited takes. Lustig comes away with some beautiful shots despite, or perhaps because of, these limitations. In “Maniac’s” most infamous scene, Frank attacks two lovers parked in a spot overlooking the Verrazano Bridge with a shotgun. Without a permit, they had to shoot the scene illegally. With a get-away car waiting and only one shot to get the scene right, a sense of urgency permeates the finished cut. It is perhaps the actors knowing that they could be busted that adds that extra tension to the performance.
Lots of people hate watching gore on screen and one can hardly blame them. There’s probably something wrong with getting pleasure watching someones guts splattered all over the frame. I think it’s important to confront terror; I don’t think of it as desensitizing myself to violence, rather I think of it as disarming the terrifying parts of life. The most disturbing horror films remind us that psychopathy is a real thing and not only that, it’s something that all of us can identify with—after all, insanity is just a few ticks down from the anxiety or depression so many of us experience. A guy like Frank might decorate his apartment with blood-stained mannequins wearing the scalps of his victims while you or I simply snap at a waitress who took a few minutes too long to refill out coffee. Both these behaviors come from the caverns buried deep inside, and the blood and brains we find so repulsive might not look so different from what’s down there.