After seeing the trailer for the remake of Maniac, which you can read a little about and watch the trailer for here, I felt the need to do a review of the original just to help get some excitement out of my system.
The setting is New York. The nights are dark and there’s a constant sense of fear in the minds of the city’s inhabitants. There’s a killer on the loose and only we can see who it is: Joe Spinnell AKA Frank Zito. At 1 minute 40 seconds we witness his first murder when he cuts the throat of a young girl awaiting her lover’s return as she lies on a dark beach. Her boyfriend gets his when he returns, complete with twitching foot spasm. Frank then wakes up in his bed, screaming and rocking back and forth like a madman – it was all a dream! It is clear to us that even after about 3 minutes of film, that Frank Zito has got some rather pressing mental health issues.
He then strolls out onto the NY streets, dressed in a big coat with upturned collars, hat and sunglasses – he really makes no effort to make himself look like anything other than what he is. He picks up a cute hooker and makes her pose for him. “Like this?” she says, before he strangles then scalps her. Frank returns to his none-too-charming place of residence and places the said scalp on one of his many mannequins.
There you have the first 15 minutes of Maniac. His room is horrible – everything about it is there for the sole purpose of giving you the creeps and making you feel uneasy. Along with the mannequins with scalp blood running down their faces is a collection of dolls, some of which are imprisoned in birdcages. The soundtrack often features a Frank Zito voiceover, mumbling gibberish in an “I’m sorry, mum, I’m sorry” kind of way – this is obviously attempting to let us inside his head but is just annoying after a while. It does however inform us that his mother subjected him to abuse when he was a child, and therefore he’s killing women because they remind him of her…oh, that’s alright then – it’s his dear old mum’s fault after all!
At 27 minutes and 45 seconds we are treated to what is probably the gore-hounds’ highlight of the entire film: The Tom Savini Head Explosion! Tom is necking with a chick like a regular Casanova in the back seat of his car on a deserted roadside. His lady soon notices that there’s someone outside the car and demands they leave. When Savini turns on the main beam car lights we watch as Zito approaches the car with a shotgun, jumps onto the bonnet (hood!) and in slow motion pulls the barrel around to the windscreen, and BAM! Savini’s head explodes as Savini’s head should explode – I’m sure he made an extra effort to make this head explosion something special. Done entirely in slo-mo, the head literally falls apart, brains splattered all over his lady friend in the passenger seat, then he shoots her too. This is probably the best-looking head explosion you will ever see – give that man Savini a big box of chocolates and a new moustache comb! Just for the record, Savini’s character’s official name in Maniac is – get this – Disco Boy.
Frank Zito is one sweaty-looking bastard. His entire demeanour is disgusting and filthy. The problem I have with this film involves trying to work out why someone like Spinnell would write a film like this. He didn’t just play the main role here – he was deeply involved in the production from start to finish. The ‘Brooklyn Ball-Breaker’ had never actually starred in a picture before Maniac. He played many smaller characters in films, and has hovered around in the background of many a great film. He is probably remembered best for being in the first 2 Rocky films, playing Tony Gazzo, the lone shark who employs Rocky. He also had an uncredited part in the Godfather – his first film role. Other films he appeared in include Taxi Driver, The Godfather 2, The Big Wednesday, Cruising, Nighthawks…the list goes on…and on.
Spinelli had an incredible presence on film and was very aware of it. He was a total pot-head alcoholic and apparently his performance in Maniac is “100 proof”. In order to prepare for shooting, he would go without sleep and get inebriated in order to give himself the right appearance as Zito. This makes total sense when you see him on film. Basically, this is Spinnell’s film. His sick baby. His Zito character is obsessed with preservation – this becomes apparent when he ‘befriends’ Caroline Munro, who plays a hip fashion photographer. He quizzes her on the philosophy of how photographs preserve moments in history, and tells her she shouldn’t sell her work because of this. Spinnell clearly had this character’s motivations and inner psyche worked out to a T – this is pretty scary in itself although I am reliably informed that he was actually a nice regular kinda guy!
Zito’s downward spiral of murderous insanity escalates steadily towards the film’s climax, which is the most disturbing scene in the entire film – and that is saying something! Zito, having clearly lost his mind after Caroline Munro’s character escapes, sees all his mannequins come to life. They turn their heads to look at him before walking slowly towards him, talking to him (“like this?”) before they tear him apart with his own weapons and then pull and twist and turn his head until it comes clean off. It’s a disturbingly brilliant finale, and something you’re not likely to forget, ever.
In my opinion this is one of the best representations of a serial killer, whether that’s a good or bad thing is another thing. But just for the record, I consider it a very good thing. I’m a little demented like that. Frank Zito is one of the most realistic serial killers in cinematic history and what makes this movie truly disturbing certainly isn’t the gore and violence, it’s the psychological factors. It might not click with you right away, but later on or upon a second viewing things will really start sinking under your flesh and crawl around inside you, infecting your system with an incredibly high level of discomfort. Frank Zito is many things. He’s depraved, he’s sick, he’s fucking mental but he’s also a very sad individual, someone who you can tell struggles with being so psychologically damaged. He’s so broken and at times it’s hard not to feel bad for him.
Maniac, like so many other horror movies throughout the years, was a labour of love and had an initial budget of $48,000. Lustig and Spinnell deserve credit for battling against the odds, like any independent filmmaking teams who deliver the goods do. Tom Savini’s gore effects are first-rate and could not be more convincing.
What it comes down to is a matter of taste and whether this particular piece of work is going to suit your palate. Those female groups who protested outside theatres which showed Maniac actually had a point. It IS sick. It IS depraved, but due mostly to Spinnell’s presence, there’s nothing quite like it.
I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to keep you.