“You have the right to remain silent. Forever!” With this memorable tagline, Maniac Cop duly mirandizes its audience, which is more than can be said for the subject of the film’s opening set piece, Cassie Philips (Jill Gatsby), an innocent barkeep going home from work, who encounters the eponymous character while on the run from a couple of would-be muggers through the strangely deserted mean streets of Greenwich Village. Glimpsing the figure of a beat cop standing in the shadows, Cassie lets out a grateful “thank God” and runs toward him expecting, as New York’s Finest has always promised, to be protected and served. Instead, she’s rattled and throttled until her neck snaps. Director William Lustig and writer-producer Larry Cohen come up with a grim little thriller that’s occasionally leavened by flashes of Cohen’s trademark humor, as opposed to their 1997 collaboration Uncle Sam, an out-and-out satirical act of desecration that does for flag-waving American iconography what director Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life perpetrated on Ozzie and Harriet-style suburban conformism. Maniac Cop works best as a rebuttal witness to the seemingly endless stream of vigilante cop films that dominated the ‘70s and ‘80s, from the Dirty Harry films to the Lethal Weapon franchise, questioning the indiscriminant use of deadly force, and astutely illustrating the always precarious balance between the need to maintain a police presence and keeping up community relations. In the world of Maniac Cop, motivations are bound to be base, and its ostensible hero takes a header out a window fairly early in the game.
Inexplicably undead officer Matt Cordell (hulking Robert Z’Dar) goes rogue in a big way, killing his way through a slew of blameless bystanders, on his way up the food chain toward Police Commissioner Pike (Richard Roundtree) and Captain Ripley (exploitation mainstay William Smith), the men who sent the hotshot media darling up to Sing Sing on trumped-up (but clearly not inaccurate) charges of human rights violations, where he was soon shanked in the showers by a trio of crooks he’d put away, gored to death like a mad bull. Investigating the Cassie Philips case, Detective McCrae (Tom Atkins) decides the culprit is really a cop, and not just some nutcase dressed up like one, which is what his higher-ups choose to believe, so he recruits a TV reporter friend to publicize the case. In one of Cohen’s most acid-edged lines, he advises her, “Make it bigger than AIDS. It’s the only way to get City Hall off their asses.” Lo and behold, ensuing media coverage that hangs the titular moniker on the spree killer only pours gasoline on the rising flames of public mistrust. In an ironic reversal, a stranded motorist busts a cap in a helpful officer’s head. A news segment seen on the TV at McCrae’s favorite watering hole, gives vent to varieties of public indignation. One interviewee, an old man played by George “Buck” Flower (who made a cameo in every one of John Carpenter’s ‘80s films), puts it perfectly: “They respected cops in my day, otherwise they hit you in the head with their billy. Nowadays they gotta shoot you to get respect.”
A secondary plot involves Cordell’s former flame, Sally Noland (Sheree North), framing beat cop Jack Forrest (jut-jawed horror icon Bruce Campbell) for the murders. Forrest’s odyssey to prove his innocence and Cordell’s bid for vengeance collide during the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, also the site for a key scene in Larry Cohen’s earlier God Told Me To, when a patrolman (Andy Kaufman in one of his first roles) goes berserk and starts firing wildly into the crowd. The film climaxes in a wild crosstown paddy wagon ride that pits Forrest against Cordell and provides Campbell ample opportunity to display his comedic strong suit: getting tossed around like a limp rag doll to sublime effect. The wide open ending, true to many an exploitation-grade horror film, paved the way for two sequels.
The 1080p Blu-ray transfer is bright, clean, and clear, with little in the way of artifacts and healthy levels of grain, especially in its many nighttime scenes. Three separate audio tracks, two DTS-HD MA and one stereo, deliver the thunderclaps, gunshots, and Jay Chattaway's eerie lullaby- and synth-score with varying degrees of fullness. The 6.1 MA track is especially full-bodied.
What's here is solid, even intriguing, yet unfortunately the Blu-ray package lacks the audio commentary track available on Synapse Films's earlier DVD release that featured William Lustig, Larry Cohen, Bruce Campbell, and Chattaway. The affable Robert Z'Dar recounts his "Maniac Cop Memories," talking a little about his early career turning in comedic roles on TV show, before reminiscing at length about getting Maniac Cop's title role, his co-stars, and the film's legacy. Then there's a disturbing account of the widespread approval for Cordell's homicidal spree among law enforcement types across the country, and the admission that Z'Dar and Laurene Landon had a more than cordial relationship, cleverly constructed by inserting a few of Landon's lines from the film in among Z'Dar's rather evasive confession. "Out the Window with Tom Atkins" likewise affords Atkins the opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane. Atkins recalls "the odd" Lustig sending him a VHS copy of the film shortly after its release with "Not for Distribution" taking up the bottom half of the picture, admits Maniac Cop isn't his favorite among his films, giving the nod instead to Night of the Creeps, and expresses admiration for Campbell's sartorial preferences. Also included are additional scenes shot for Japanese TV that flesh out the official response coming from "New York's Fighting Mayor" Jerry Killium (Ken Lerner), including Cordell's ultimate revenge, which takes place immediately after his dip in the East River, the scene that ends the theatrical cut.
Synapse Films gives Maniac Cop a righteous Blu-ray upgrade, capturing the grit and grime of Ed Koch's New York in all its 1080p prime.