Released in 1981. Maniac is one of the most well known horror films of all time. The bloody slasher occupies an odd space since it never became a franchise, doesn’t have an iconic villain, yet is still considered a cult classic. While it still has its share of graphic murders, the film also attempts to look more inside the mind of its titular killer. Pretty heady stuff for an early 80s horror movie.
Maniac is primarily known for two reasons. With credits including Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, and Creepshow, Tom Savini is a special effects master whose works have been featured in some of the most well known horror films of all time. One of his most well known and infamous scenes is a brutal shotgun killing in Maniac. The moment is bloody, violent, and will even shock modern audiences. It is one of Savini’s finest moments. (Savini also played the victim in the scene, showing true dedication.)
There is more to Maniac’s special effects that just one infamous scene, however. The movie is an absolute gore fest in which Savini’s skills take a much more realistic look that his work with zombies and unkillable killing machines. Savini would still be considered a legend if he never worked on Maniac, but the low budget film does show his versatility.
Maniac is also remembered for the Academy Award nominated song of the same name. The Michael Sembello penned tune is one of the most memorable parts of the iconic 1980s movie, Flashdance. Over the years, many have stated the song was originally written for the 1980 horror film.
A Limited Edition 3 Disc collection of Maniac was recently released by Blue Underground. The set includes interviews with many people who were instrumental in the production of the movie. Sembello is one of the many interviewed and addresses the subject of why he wrote the song. It turns out he did it write the song for the movie, though he was was inspired after watching it.
Maniac is closer to a giallo than a traditional horror film. Instead of highlighting creative kills, it is more of a character study of a killer. Similar to the Italian sub genre, the film almost plays out like a grisly detective story. Whereas other horror movies of the time paid lip service to providing motivation to their killers, Maniac attempted to get its audience to know its villain.
Maniac is much different from a traditional giallo, however. The Italian horror films mastered by the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are known for their lush colors and vibrant use of imagery. Maniac is the opposite. Taking place in Manhattan, Maniac is a dark and gritty movie. It revels in the shadows and seems to absorb color. The look matches its atmosphere and tone.
Another thing Maniac does differently is the focus is solely on the killer. It can even be argued the movie has no hero. There is a killer, there are victims, and there are the police. There are definitely some similarities to giallos (the killer is the product of an abusive childhood, for example), but the differences set it apart.
What prevents Maniac from being more of a mainstream classic is the pacing. Spending so much time with the killer is different and somewhat interesting but it also can be dark and tedious. Maniac is a classic example of something being a good idea in theory ruined by poor execution. (No pun intended.)
The highlight of Maniac may be the performance of Joe Spinell. Spinell plays Frank Zito, a seemingly normal person. Despite the fact he was abused by his prostitute mother, Spinell never plays Zito to get any sort of sympathy. Zito is the maniac of the film’s title, pure and simple. He would never garner a second glance yet is expertly portrayed as the embodiment of evil.
Maniac deservedly holds a special place in horror history. The movie is well known among horror aficionados due to its great special effects and its unique take on the genre. Film fans will know it for the infamous shotgun murder and Flashdance misinformation. Others may know it through the 2012 Elijah Wood remake starring Elijah Wood. Fitting for a movie that can only be truly enjoyed by genre fans.