My Kinda Horror: Maniac

The Big Apple has always been fertile ground for moviemakers.  From The Jazz Singer, The Long Weekend, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to the films of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, they have been our tour guide, delving deep into the people and boroughs of this concrete jungle.

There’s a unique flavour to films set in New York City.  It’s the perfect setting for studies of loneliness and of madness: a labyrinth of steel, concrete and grime, of urban and moral decay, bizarre characters, sleazy motels, menacing subways and, of course, death.

New York City has been a popular setting for horror movies over the years, but one movie stands alone as perhaps the most violent and notorious of all the NY horror films; a dark, depressing movie totally devoid of humour and chock-full of graphic scalpings and exploding heads.

Yes, I’m talking about that charming piece of cinematic sleaze – Maniac.

Released in 1980 and starring the great character-actor Joe Spinell (most famous for his bit-roles in The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Rocky), Maniac is the story of Frank Zito, a killer with a Norman Bates-like mother fixation who prowls the streets of New York, killing people (mostly women) by way of strangulation, garroting, throat slicing, or, when pressed for time, shotgun.  He then scalps the bodies, takes the scalps home and nails them to his collection of mannequins.  The slim story has Frank meeting a beautiful photographer, Anna (played by Caroline Munro).  The two have a brief relationship, but his mania completely takes over and he loses what little sanity he had left when, during a stopover at his dear mother’s grave, he tries to kill Anna.  She manages to escape, Frank goes home, and in a sickening orgy of blood, kills himself during a bizarre nightmare/fantasy in which his mannequins come to life – in the form of his victims – to stab, bludgeon and ultimately rip his head from his body.

Frank’s sorry life has finally come to an end – or has it???

On paper Maniac sounds like every other stalk-and-slash fest that ran amok during the early eighties.  Sure, it does have elements of a slasher movie – particularly the pre-credit sequence in which a young couple are killed on the beach by an unknown assailant.  Here we have: an attractive young couple, the hint of sex, a mysterious person watching them (we get a few POV shots and some heavy breathing), and sudden, bloody attacks on the couple accompanied by harsh, dissident Halloween-like music.  It all looks and feels run-of-the-mill.

Immediately following the murder of the couple, we see a man (Frank) sitting up in bed, screaming in anguish, and the film hints that it may have been a dream.  If so, then it’s a clever way of starting the film.  We assume the killing of the couple did take place, so the opening sequence, if it is in Frank’s mind, is him remembering those two kills.  A novel way to kick off a study of a serial killer; pretend the movie is actually your standard slasher film.

Then again, I may just be reading too much into the movie, and the beginning was filmed as a means to an end.  If that’s the case, then those early scenes before the credits are pointless and don’t gel with the rest of the film, because the tone of the film changes once we’re in Frank’s apartment.  It ceases to be a Friday the 13th clone and becomes a character study.  We’re now in this man’s world – sordid, sad and lonely as it may be – and to emphasise this shift, a melancholy piece of music is played over the credits.  His gloomy and cluttered apartment is a reflection of his state of mind.  On the wall near his bed is a shrine to his departed mother (she died in a car crash some years ago): a framed photo complete with candles, as well as bits and pieces of bizarre artwork, like a plaster face mask and other handmade objects; there are even dolls sitting on a shelf.  It’s clear, before we’re told anything about this man, that he is seriously troubled – the scene where he sits on his bed gently rocking back and forth is indication enough that he is quite possibly insane.  It’s this attention to detail, coupled with the sparse, creepy music, which creates a very unsettling mood.  Already you can feel the sweat and grime from this hulking man; sense his pain and isolation, and it’s these scenes, and not the opening segment, which sets the mood and focus of the movie.

This feeling of gloom and decay carries into the next scene – one of the film’s most infamous – and introduces an element that is synonymous with Maniac: brutal, realistic and unflinching violence.  The scene is also a good example of what’s good about the film, and what isn’t.

In it, Frank picks up a hooker and they go up to a dingy hotel room.  The hooker does some modeling for him, they kiss a little (the writers, wisely, have Frank tell the hooker to leave her clothes on when she begins to undress – this isn’t about sex).  Suddenly Frank flies into a rage, strangles her, then proceeds to scalp the dead woman.  This is the point where you’ll either stay and watch the rest of the film (undoubtedly with a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach), or turn off the video or DVD and storm out, disgusted, in disbelief how anyone could want to sit through such a repugnant film.  I can understand both reactions; this scene is truly horrible, and not just because of the graphic gore effects.

This scene – like most of the film – works so horribly well because of its authenticity.  There are details in this scene that a standard slasher film just would not think to include.  For instance, just after Frank has strangled the hooker, he runs into the bathroom and throws up.  There is a sense of remorse, of disgust at what he has just done.  He feels compelled to kill, but, as we see throughout the movie, does so supposedly against the will of his moral self.  Like a lot of serial killers, he blames other people and painful events in his life for his actions.  He makes himself think that he doesn’t really want to kill, is made to by an outside force; in this case, it’s Frank’s mother.  Who, we learn, was not only a slut and cared more about her many suitors than little Frank, but locked Frank in the closet for punishment, which, we assume, contributed to Frank becoming the sadistic madman of the movie.

But Frank’s a little more complex than that.  Like Norman in Psycho, Frank has conflicting feelings about his mother .  He misses her, possibly even kills women that resemble her so he can, in effect, keep her alive; yet another part of him despises her, her sordid way of making a living and how she treated him when he was young (during the strangulation of the hooker, there is a brief moment where the hooker’s face turns into Frank’s mum, an indication of where the cause of his murderous anger stems from).

There’s an inherent seediness to this scene – it takes place in a dingy hotel room somewhere near Times Square – but what raises it to grisly heights, aside from the gore effects, is the low-budget grain and overall murky quality that permeates the scene, as it does the entire film.  That, and the sweaty, slobbish, brutish presence of Joe Spinell.

Which brings me to the strongest point of the film, as well as the weakest – the acting.

Joe Spinell is outstanding as the psycho-killer momma’s boy.  This movie was his pet project – he not only stars in the movie, but is co-writer – and he apparently researched heavily into serial killers for it (judging by the setting, and in particular the shotgun scene, I bet he read up on David Berkowitz a.k.a. Son of Sam).  Spinell is Frank Zito, and he’s at once pathetic and grotesque, scary and repulsive.  He makes you believe is really is a sadistic killer, groaning with lust one moment, crying with guilt and remorse the next.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the film’s actors.  They range from mediocre (Caroline Munro), to the downright laughable (the other hooker outside the Times Square hotel and the young couple at the beginning, for example).  Being a low-budget horror flick, this is excusable, however, like the keystone cops in The Last House On the Left, the amateurish acting does occasionally kill the mood of the film, which is a shame, considering the film is supposed to be a serious character study.

Of course, the other ‘star’ of the film is Tom Savini’s effects.

Savini is legendary among hardcore horror fans.  He is responsible for the remarkable effects in films such as Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and The Burning.  He’s also an actor and a stuntman (with small roles in Dawn, Martin and Knightriders – all Romero films – as well as in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and, yes, even Maniac).

His effects in Maniac are quite possibly his most extreme, and coupled with the starkness of the film, his most notorious.

I was spared the bloody extent of the effects when I first watched Maniac, around fifteen years ago.  Like a lot of hardcore horror movies at my local video store, the gore scenes in Maniac were heavily cut.  I knew that I was watching a censored version of the film the very first night I watched it, because I had seen Scream Greats Volume 1, a documentary about Savini and his movie effects.  In it, they show scenes from his various films, including a few of the more famous gore scenes from Maniac, like the first scalping of the hooker in the hotel room.  The scene in Scream Greats was brutal, bloody and lengthy; the copy I had from the video store only showed the knife running across her forehead, and that was it.

It was the same with all the effects in the film – each one was heavily cut, so up until a few years ago when Anchor Bay brought out the special edition video (this was before DVD really took off), I had yet to see Savini’s remarkable talents on full display, complete and in context to the movie.

The scalping of the hooker in the Times Square hotel is quite possibly the hardest scene to watch.  The camera never flinches as the killer first runs his knife across her forehead, then, a bloody incision running the length of her forehead, her scalp is slowly pulled off, revealing her glistening cranium.  Revolting, to be sure, but an incredible piece of movie effects.

Probably the most talked about scene in the film is where Savini blows up his own head.  Ranking right up there with such infamous head explosion scenes as the ones in Dawn of the Dead and Scanners, the scene has Savini playing a guy who picks up an attractive woman in a disco.  He drives her to a secluded spot near the Verranzano Bridge, where they start making out, and just as they’re getting hot and heavy, the woman sees a man spying on them through the back window (Frank Zito).  She gets spooked, tells the man she wants to leave, and in a chillingly effective shot, as the man turns on the car’s headlights, they are startled by the stranger standing in front of the car.  He jumps onto the car’s hood, raises a shotgun at the man, and in an explosion of epic proportions, blasts the man’s head to movie infamy.

Afterwards, as the woman is cowering in the passenger seat, body splattered with blood and brain, the killer walks around the car and coldly aims the gun at her and shoots her, too.  However, we’re spared her death.  We only hear the gunshot.

This is a device that the film’s director and co-producer William Lustig uses to great effect throughout the movie: he never shows us the same death twice.  Like later in the film when Frank scalps another woman, we aren’t shown a repeat of the earlier scalping; we don’t need to.  We’ve seen it before, and I think most people would agree – once is more than enough.  Instead, we see the scalping from the woman’s POV: as Frank slices her head, blood runs down the screen, just as if we the viewer were the ones being scalped.

The other major effects work in the film is the climax, when Frank is torn apart by his victims.  This, while extremely nasty and bloody, is the least unsettling – as least for me.  For one, the killing is being done to the killer himself – he’s no innocent victim.  Also, we can’t help but wonder – is this really some kind of sick fantasy on Frank’s part?  Is he punishing himself in the most appropriate way he sees fit?  But the primary reason why this scene isn’t as hard to watch as some of the other gore scenes, is because it’s a nightmare, it isn’t real, and this lends a surreal quality to the film that hitherto didn’t exist (the whole climax of the film – including the scene where Frank is grabbed by his dead mother while kneeling over her grave – runs into the supernatural).  Still, Savini gives us a brutal knife in the guts, an arm chopped off, and most spectacularly, Frank’s head savagely ripped from his neck (there’s even a cameo by a headless Pamela Voorhees).

Savini, apparently, has distanced himself from this film, claiming that, although it contains some of his best and most realistic gore effects, the movie is just too depressing and sleazy.

Well, he’s definitely right about that.  Maniac is a very depressing movie and it is ultra sleazy, but for me, that’s why the film works.  I can’t say that I enjoy the film, but it is a look into the world of a serial killer, so enjoyment shouldn’t be a major factor while watching such a movie.  Apart from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I believe Maniac is the most authentic film dealing with the realities of the serial murderer.  For the most part, they aren’t the charming, highly intelligent Hannibal Lecter-types.  They’re boringly normal, able to hide their monstrous personalities well enough to survive the day-to-day.

One of the major criticisms of the film is Frank and Anna’s relationship.  Most people just can’t believe that a beautiful, talented woman could be interested in a man like Frank Zito.  I admit, it is hard to swallow.  Frank’s neither charming, nor attractive.  But I think the filmmakers are trying to make a few points with this unlikely scenario: the obvious one is their mutual devotion to their art (or in Frank’s case ‘art’).  They both long to capture the beauty of the human form – Anna in her photography, Frank in his quest to preserve his mother by dressing his mannequins in the clothes and scalps of his victims.  It’s this unique bond that attracts them to one another.  Perhaps Anna sees something of an artist in Frank (he does tell her that he’s a painter when they first meet), that despite his less than attractive appearance, she finds appealing.

The other point I get from this relationship is the idea that outwardly serial killers can be as normal as you or I, be your next door neighbour; that they can be especially clever at hiding their true selves, even to the point of attracting beautiful photographers.  Still, maybe the filmmakers should have chosen an actress not quite as striking as Caroline Munro to make the whole relationship idea more believable.

Aside from the generally weak acting and some dubious character motivation, the movie’s other major flaw is its script.  Much of the dialogue is corny and cliched and there’s not much of a story to go along with the gritty atmosphere and gruesome effects.  I see the film as a character study, not necessarily a plot-driven film, yet even character studies need to have a decent story for the film to truly work (Taxi Driver is a good example).  Unfortunately, Maniac neither has a strong story, nor is it a particularly good character study.  It skates way too lightly over Frank’s past.  Apart from a few cheesy voiceovers, we’re not told much about his past – only the bare minimum for the film to make any sense.  The actual character of Frank is interesting – thanks in no small part to Joe Spinell. For instance, there’s a chilling scene in which Frank is sitting in his dim apartment.  He puts on a baseball cap with wings on either side and then picks up a laser gun toy and starts playing with it.  This suggests a lot about his frame of mind, that really he never developed beyond the mental capacity of a boy; that, even as an adult he longs for the happy childhood he never received.  He then goes on to play a music box, the tinkling tune playing while he shoots a real gun at a target, still wearing the silly hat.  Unfortunately there’s not enough of these scenes, or enough development of his background for the character of Frank Zito to fully come alive.  Like the scene near the beginning of the film.  As a topless Frank looks into the mirror he fingers some scars on his chest: are these from a stint in Vietnam, or are they the visible scars of his traumatic childhood?  Imagination is a wonderful thing, but we at least need some hint of what caused the scars for Frank to be a truly rounded character.

What does work, however, is the film’s grim ambience and its totally unromantic look into the world of a serial killer.

Maniac was made before New York City – particularly the Times Square district – was cleaned up and made safe(er) for tourists and families.  A time when the city was seedy, dangerous, and dirty, and Maniac captures this pre-Giuliani Manhattan in all its sordid glory.  It’s the primary reason why most people cannot watch this film, or feel dirty after having watched it.  Tom Savini’s effects, as gruesome as they are, wouldn’t seem so repugnant if not for the film’s bleak atmosphere.  (The film is set around Christmas time, so there’s a coldness to the movie that suits the main character’s personality.  The use of fog and wind in particular help to create the bitter winter atmosphere).

There’s also a strong sense of loneliness, of isolation, reminiscent of the original Rocky.  Unlike the real New York City, the streets and subways are empty, totally devoid of life.  This is best exemplified in probably the film’s most suspenseful sequence, in which a pretty blonde nurse (Kelly Piper) is walking home at night after finishing a shift.  She sees a stranger lurking in the shadows, Frank Zito, and begins to walk faster, but she soon realises that the stranger is following her.  She hurries into the subway, in the hopes of losing him.  In one the few camera tricks in the film (for the most part the camera remains steady and naturalistic), we see a jumpy close-up of Frank walking down the subway steps, intercut with a jumpy close-up of the nurse’s horrified face.  After narrowly missing the train (don’t they always?), she’s forced to flee through the deserted station, Frank following, until she ends up hiding in a stall in a scummy subway bathroom.  Frank enters the bathroom, but leaves before he finds her, and she relaxes, thinking he has left for good.  Leaving the safety of the stall, she goes up to the bathroom sink, but suddenly Frank comes up behind her, grabs her around the throat and shoves a bayonet through her chest.

There’s nothing terribly original about the scene, but it’s the filmmaker’s use of space, silence and the utter emptiness of the streets and the grimy subway, which creates the tension.  This scene not only scared me the most the first time I watched the film, but it stayed with me long after the scalps had been scalped and the heads blown apart.

There are moments in the film that really resonate – both character wise, and in helping to create a sense of realism.  I’ve already mentioned Frank vomiting after murdering the Times Square hooker, but another quirk of Frank happens when he visits Anna in the studio.  He obviously has a thing for her, has even brought her some presents, but when she leans over and kisses him to thank him, he quickly, and none too discretely, wipes his cheek.  It’s a good example of Frank’s conflicting personality.

Another detail, one that is in many ways just as hard to watch as the scalping, is when Frank ties up Rita (one of the models), and after promising not to kill her he stabs her in the stomach.  Now, this is a painful scene, but what makes it that little more real and horrifying is the tear that you see running down her cheek after Frank has stabbed her – I imagine a very real result of the agony and her fear of knowing she is going to die.

It’s moments such as these that elevate the film above most early eighties slasher films.  I see it as a mid-point between films like Terror Train – fun, but empty and formulaic horror – and serious, intelligent dramas like Taxi Driver.

Most people would never call Maniac a good film, but what is it that makes a film good – is it the technical aspects, like acting, directing, story, camera (if this were the case, then Maniac would certainly be a bad film)?  Or does it hinge on how successful a film is on achieving what it set out to do: is a comedy, no matter how crudely made, funny?  Is an action film, no matter how implausible the script, thrilling?  If these are the hallmarks of a good film, then surely Maniac belongs in this category.  It’s ultimately the study of a serial killer and his private pain, and a slick film with big name actors and a glossy look just wouldn’t fit.  A serial killer’s world isn’t pretty, and neither is this movie.  A movie like Kiss the Girls is all well and good, but you don’t get a true feel of what a real serial killer’s world is like.  Like the filmmakers, we can’t truly know, of course, but a grimy, sweaty, ugly, violent, unapologetic film seems appropriate, and even though we may not get a lot of insight into Frank Zito’s mind, we certainly get an idea of what it’s like for someone like him to live day-to-day, what his world consists of, and that killing isn’t necessarily a thing he loves to do, but has to do.

In the book, The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, in which Maniac is included as one of the landmark movies on serial killers, the writers say of the film: “A truly repulsive movie but – for that very reason – worth seeing, since it does such an effective job of capturing the sickening, sordid reality of serial murder.”

Maniac is indeed a sickening movie (you’ll feel like taking a scalding shower after you’ve watched it), but what’s even scarier is that there are people out there like Frank Zito, which makes it one of the most unsettling films ever made.  It’s a real tour-de-force of nauseatingly realistic movie making that, despite all its flaws, manages to succeed in creating an exceptionally disturbing experience.


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