Upon its release in 1980 (on Christmas Day, no less), the slasher classic Maniac, directed by William Lustig, was outright panned. Perhaps I’m being coy: It was charged on and seized as if it were the kingdom of a medieval conqueror who had raised a hellish army whose mission it was to do nothing but massacre the innocent, defile women, feed on the leftover flesh, and quench their thirst with the puddles of excess blood. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel very nearly issued a fatwa in the name of cinema, imploring viewers of Sneak Previews to boycott the film and deeming it unwatchable and vacuously cruel. Feminist groups nationwide went into an epic tizzy over the film’s grotesque depiction of women’s deaths in studio lofts, seedy motel rooms, and on subway platforms throughout Manhattan. New York City parents, taking their kids along with them to see First Family and passing by the poster with a woman’s decapitated head gripped in one hand and a bloody knife in the other, wrote letters to local politicians and newspapers, made irate phone calls to radio stations, and screamed their heads off at PTA meetings.
What was the result of this red tide of pure, unhinged vehemence? Maniac, which cost all of $350,000 to produce and wasn’t screened for the MPAA in fear of a dreaded X rating, grossed somewhere north of six million during its limited New York City run and went onto receive a Saturn Award nomination for Best Low-Budget Film from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. For most filmmakers this would be no big thing, but for Lustig, who had previously directed The Violation of Claudia (something of a skin-flick classic), Maniac was a legitimate triumph and something to make a name out of. The story of Frank Zito (Joe Spinell), a lonely, Queens-born man who took to randomly slaughtering innocent women and their dates, may not have been pretty, but hey, it was a living.
An exploitative, grungy riff on Psycho, the film gleefully embraced its laughably bad production, rolling with countless incongruities, deplorable sound design, and performances that were, at best, stiff and awkward. This was even true of Spinell, who co-wrote the film’s script with C.A. Rosenberg and is present in nearly every shot of the film. Gushing with chunky, sanguine gore (thanks to the legend himself, Tom Savini), Maniac was nevertheless a haunting film as a whole; you could never quite shed the grime that it immersed you in. It was grizzly, unkempt, and unpredictable not only in its narrative, but from a technical standpoint. The film, in fact, has nearly no plot, with the arguable exception of a preposterous romance Zito attempts to spark with Anna, a photographer (Caroline Munro). But then it’s not much of a character study either, as nearly all of Zito’s scenes either involve him stabbing and scalping women, muttering to himself in his rancid apartment or hanging out with Anna.
It’d be tempting to go as far as to deem Maniac an avant-garde work, but its ends are not explorative nor is it in any way groundbreaking or, by standard definitions, “good.” Maniac simply exists as a wretched yet unforgettable succession of scenes meant to corrupt even the purest of minds, if you can help yourself from laughing uncontrollably at its overwhelming amount of inconsistencies. It’s an oddity even among oddities, if for no other reason than it was marginally successful. Lustig would go on to direct the far less successful Vigilante and, afterward, the generally unwatchable Maniac Cop series, and Spinell, a close friend of Sylvestor Stallone and Francis Ford Coppola, went on to have a healthy acting career until his untimely death in 1989. Both would have their successes, but Maniac remains the work that the two men became characterized by—the blemish they couldn’t get rid of even if they wanted to.
Blue Underground, which currently has director William Lustig as its CEO, has been a reliable source for revamping cult films with impeccable visual clarity, but Maniac is a singular failure in its 1080p image restoration. This, obviously, has something to do with the 16mm film used and it's not easy deciphering where the problems are with the print or the restoration. Regardless, the colors are dull and flat, blacks are miserably pale with little saturation, and the detailing is generally mediocre when not downright terrible. Calling it watchable is generous. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 lossless soundtrack, on the other hand, is generally very precise and clear. The atmosphere noise in certain scenes—the murder of the couple in the car stands out—is extremely effective and the score rings out wonderfully.
The 30th Anniversary Edition of Maniac comes packed to the brim with extras of nearly every focus. Five featurettes explore the songwriting, score, special effects, and two stars of the film to give an idea of the communal way the film came together. The commentaries, featuring much of the technical department including co-producer Andrew W. Garroni and Editor Lorenzo Marinelli, are humorous but not very insightful overall; you wish they would talk more about the merits of low-budget filmmaking and DIY aesthetics. The promo reel for the proposed sequel is interesting, if not lacking to whet the appetite. Most fascinating, however, is the collection of negative press and publicity, which includes segments from several different nightly news segments. Theatrical trailers, TV spots, and radio spots are also included.
The release of this low-budget slasher classic and uniquely ugly horror experience on Blu-ray may be somewhat counterintuitive, considering its poor visuals, but it doesn't make it any less welcome.