Monday, October 23, 2017

Maniac (1980)

Why? Just why?
When it comes to a good number of the cult classic horror films made from the 1970's on, I often credit two sources that introduced me to them: The Horror Movie Survival Guide, a book I bought in 2002 that mentioned numerous horror films besides the movies featuring the monsters they specifically spotlighted and the documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, which I saw when it premiered on Starz in October of 2006. As far as slasher movies, I, of course, knew of and had seen the big franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I wasn't as familiar with all of the one-offs that were made around that time period as well; this documentary was where I first became aware of movie like Prom Night, The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine, Graduation Day, Happy Birthday to Me, and Pieces, just to name a few. Among those featured was, indeed, Maniac and I can remember that one getting some special attention for its nastiness and really sleazy quality, with Tom Savini commenting that a lot of the women in that movie were porno actors and some of the really gruesome moments, like the scalping scenes, the woman in the restroom getting impaled through the back, and Savini's head getting blown to bits, being featured. It was one of many films that I put into the back of my mind and felt that I must one day check out. But, a year or so before I finally did see Maniac, I learned that it was very different from its brethren from a YouTuber who's no longer around named Topercat, an Australian gentleman who was really into horror flicks and, as far as he was concerned, the bloodier, the better. I don't know whatever happened to him (his channel is long gone) but, regardless, he was the one who described Maniac as being much more psychological than a lot of the other slasher movies, one that was trying to make it so you could get into the killer's mind and hear his thoughts, rather than it just be about watching people get butchered. That sounded intriguing and, by the time my 22nd birthday rolled around in 2009, I was in a slasher movie mood, having revisited Going to Pieces, which I'd bought on DVD back in December, and so I bought a lot of them with money relatives had given, which they always do. As you can guess, this film was among them, and when I watched it, it didn't take me long to see what Topercat was talking about, nor did it for me to understand why it was so controversial when it was originally released. While I liked it enough that I bought the Blu-Ray that Blue Underground released at a convention in 2012 and do feel that it is very effective on many levels, I must admit that it's not one I pop in all that often, as it's unsettling in a number of ways and hardly a fun film to watch like a lot of the other slasher films.

Having suffered an abusive childhood at the hands of his mother, Frank Zito is a very disturbed man whose damaged mind to commit hideous, grisly murders on the populace of New York City. Many nights, he leaves his small, claustrophobic, one-room apartment to prowl the cold, grimy streets of the city, looking for victims, be they prostitutes, couples out for a nice time, or women who make the mistake of walking home by themselves. Any men who get caught up are killed outright, while the women are further desecrated by having their scalps removed, as Zito takes them back to his apartment and nails them to the heads of mannequins that he keeps there. One day, while stopping a little girl who nearly runs into him with her bicycle, Zito has his picture taken by a lovely photographer, Anna D'Antoni, whose name and residence he learns while sneaking a peek at her purse. Some time later, Zito arrives at her apartment and introduces himself, with Anna becoming fascinated when she recognizes him as the man in the photos she's just developed and the two of them begin something of a relationship, having dinner together that very night. Despite this new development in his life, Zito can't repress his demons, and after they drive him to stalk and murder one of the models who works with Anna, it's only a matter of time before she becomes his next target.

Around the time I first saw Going to Pieces, I bought Dark Sky Films' remastered DVD of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which came with the Shocking Truth documentary, which I hadn't seen before then, and Bill Lustig was one of the people who was briefly interviewed when talking about the impact that film had, saying that when he saw the poster, he knew it was a movie he couldn't miss. So, I knew of both Lustig and his film long before I saw Maniac and it's still amazing to me that such a kindly, chubby guy, with a fairly high-pitched voice with a New Yorker accent, could've made a movie as horrific and disturbing as this (and at just 24, no less!) Lustig doesn't get mentioned that often in discussions of the modern Masters of Horror, like John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, and Wes Craven, mainly because his few films (he's only directed nine) didn't have quite as big of an impact as the bonafide classics they made, but he has made some memorable ones. After Maniac, his most well-known movies are the three Maniac Cop flicks, which are, admittedly, the only other films of his that I've seen at this point but all of which I personally enjoyed, including the much maligned third one, which even Lustig himself hates. I've heard good things about Vigilante, with Robert Forster and Fred Williamson; Hit List and Relentless, the latter of which spotted a mini-franchise all its own, sound interesting, especially the former; The Expert, which Lustig only co-directed, and is uncredited as well, sounds like it had some behind-the-scenes problems; and while I've never seen it, I can remember seeing the VHS cover for Uncle Sam at a video store way back when I was a kid. Since that movie, which he released way back in 1996 and is not too fond of either, Lustig hasn't directed another movie, mainly focusing on producing documentaries and his job as CEO of Blue Underground but, who knows, maybe one day he'll get the urge to get back in the director's chair again.

Although I knew of the director going into the film, it was my first exposure to Joe Spinell, who I learned more about it thanks to a documentary about his life on the original Anchor Bay DVD, which was carried over to the Blue Underground Blu-Ray, and my reaction was, "Okay, there's a serial killer if I ever saw one." He has to have been one of the creepiest-looking actors who ever lived and his looks are a major part of what make Frank Zito a very unsettling, terrifying character. What's even more frightening than the way he looks, though, is how he swings back and forth from being a bloodthirsty predator who observes and stalks his prey, all the while breathing heavily and groaning and moaning like an animal, to a horribly tortured man who doesn't seem like he wants to do the things that he does. Take his introduction for instance: after awakening from a nightmare about him murdering a couple on a beach (which you later learn is actually a memory of a real crime he committed), screaming and crying, he gets up, dresses, goes out on the streets of New York, picks up a hooker and takes her to a seedy hotel. In the room, after she does some modeling for him and they begin making out, Zito, out of nowhere, calls her a bitch and slowly strangles her to death. Once she's dead, he's so sickened by what he's done that he runs to the bathroom to throw up and comes out crying, mumbling, "Why did you make me do that? I didn't want to do that!", before he scalps the corpse. As a result, you're left not knowing whether you should be repelled by him, feel sympathy for him, or both. One thing's for sure: it's a disturbing performance by Spinell and shows what a gifted, underrated actor he really was.

In addition to his being the main character, another thing that sets Frank Zito apart from a lot of other slasher movie villains is that we really get a glimpse into his world and psyche. We see the claustrophobic, one-room apartment he lives in, which is full of bizarre artwork, mannequins and dolls, and a small shrine to a woman who is later revealed to be his mother, and we also get a glimpse into his fractured mind, as we hear him rambling on, talking to somebody who isn't there about how they keep going out and causing trouble, his fear that they'll be taken away from him, and his disdain for women wearing fancy clothes and doing their "dancing." A lot of what he's saying and who exactly he's meant to be talking to, be it his victims, whose scalps he nails to the mannequins' heads and clothes on the bodies, or his deceased mother, is incomprehensible and real stream-of-consciousness stuff, which fits with the notion that this is a glimpse into the mind of a deranged man, but you do slowly but surely get an idea of the center of his madness: his mother, Carmen Zito. There's no question that, like Norman Bates, as much as his mother abused him (the only concrete example is audio of his young self pleading with her not to lock him in a closet but scars on his chest suggest that she did far worse), he misses her and wants to bring her back in some way. A conversation between him and Rita before he ultimately kills her provides some clarity to his actions, that he sees his mother, who was a hooker and had plenty of men in her life, in his female victims, thinking that she changes her clothes and hair every time she "goes out," and that his putting their scalps and clothes on the mannequins is his way of keeping her forever (though what he means when he says that the "fancy" women must be stopped or they'll take "her" away from him is anybody's guess). When he talks with Anna about her photography, we get the most lucid, concrete explanation of Zito's intent and his interest in art in general: "I'd keep them forever... I think it's to preserve them. You see, the beauty is already in the model... To me, things change, people die, but in a picture or painting, they're yours forever." Anna then tells him, "There's no way you can possess someone forever. Even in a photograph, there's no way," and Zito probably understands that, which is why he's taken it to the next, ghoulish step.

When we're not watching him stalking and killing his victims, we're watching Zito working on the mannequins, talking to them, and actually lying in bed with them, talking to his mother's picture, shooting a small cap pistol at a target on the wall, and so on; in short, for 95% of the picture, we're completely immersed in his nightmarish world, which is what makes it not as enjoyable to watch as most slasher movies. Our glimpses into his mind are just off-putting, as we not only hear his internal thoughts, memories from his childhood, and his one-sided conversations with mannequins but we also see him reliving his past kills in his nightmares, acting like a type of hairdresser when nailing one scalp to a mannequin, looking into a department store window and doing his usual creepy groaning while looking at the dressed mannequins in there, his constant crying for his mother like a little child, and, by the end of the movie, when his mind is really breaking down, we see him having bizarre hallucinations like his mother's corpse bursting out of her grave and grabbing him and his mannequins coming to life in the guises of his victims and tearing him apart, the latter of which appears to have caused him to have inadvertently killed himself... or not, given the movie's confusing ending, which I'll get into later. There are even moments where it feels like he's acknowledging the viewer, such as the way the camera pans around the bed while he's having one of his conversations with the mannequins and he's looking right at it at one point as he talks, and a moment when, while stalking the nurse in the subway station bathroom, he looks right at the camera for a few seconds.

And yet, as strong and degenerative as his psychosis is, Zito can come across as a very intelligent, articulate, and seemingly normal man, the best example of which is when he introduces himself to Anna at her apartment/studio. He comes in, wearing nice clothes and dark sunglasses, and has an intellectual conversation with her about the true purpose of art and photography and he then asks her out to dinner in a charming enough manner, making you wonder if you sat on the remote and switched over to another movie with Joe Spinell because of how much of a change it is. But, that said, I'm like a lot of people in that I don't really buy Anna's striking up a relationship with Zito. Putting aside how quickly it comes about, Zito, in spite of the charm he is putting on, for me, still has a kind of creepy vibe, not to mention the way he looks. I know that's a shallow thing to say, and I'm not much of a looker myself either, but I would think that a guy like that, showing up at her apartment unannounced, after somehow learning where she lived, would send off more alarms in a woman's brain. And even after their first date, Zito continues to act a little awkward and creepy, particularly in the scene where he visits Anna during a photography session she's having with some models and he brings her a stuffed bear, as well as his nonchalant reaction to her kissing him for sending flowers to Rita's funeral while he's driving her to dinner and a show near the end. But what do I know?

As this is Spinell's movie, there are no other characters that have much meat to them, as they're little more than lambs for the slaughter, with one exception being Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro). She's first seen maybe a third of the way into the movie, when she snaps a photo of Zito stopping a little girl from running into him with her bicycle, and afterward, he follows her and gets her name and address from the tag on her bag, but she doesn't actually become an integral part of the story until a little later. You don't learn much about her other than she's an Italian who's worked mostly in England (explains why her accent is completely British) and you get a hint that she may be bi-sexual or a lesbian, as the models for her photographs are all women and she takes them in such a way as to make them look really beautiful, and when she and Rita are interacting at the photo shoot, they're holding hands and touching in suggestive ways, but Munro is lovely and charming enough to where it doesn't matter. But, again, I can't get over how she just lets Zito into both her apartment and life when he shows up out of nowhere, looking and giving off the vibe he does, and with her having no idea how he found where she lived and yet, she goes out to dinner with him just like that. Maybe she just thought he was a good person considering his interactions with the little girl (which I think anybody would find to be rather menacing) and if so, well... Plus, I have a feeling she narrowly avoided being killed that very night, as she tells Zito that she has some work to do and that it'll have to be a short evening, prompting him to ask to see her again. Whether or not he ever did intend to kill her, though, is left up in the air, but you could argue that he had planned to do so when he met her again at the photography session, only to decide to go after Rita instead. Whatever the truth, when she accompanies him to the cemetery so he can pay his respects to his mother's grave, she learns how deranged he is when he snaps and starts babbling about Rita before attacking her. He chases her through the graveyard but she manages to get away by severely injuring him with a shovel, and while she's never seen again, it's not a stretch to think that she called the cops who burst into Zito's apartment in the final scene.

After them, the most memorable person in the film is Tom Savini in the role of "Disco Boy," a guy who walks out of a disco club with his date (Hyla Marrow) and they drive to a nearby bridge to admire the view, not knowing that they're being followed by Frank Zito. Disco Boy is memorable for two reasons: one, because of what a smooth, pimp of a guy he is, with his rocking mustache and how he talks his girl into the backseat of the car by asking her to meet him someplace and fluttering his eyebrows after specifically mentioning the backseat, and two, for his literally explosive death, which was enough to drive critic Gene Siskel out of the theater when he saw it during its general release. Disco Girl, as she's called, isn't nearly as memorable, as her death is offscreen and, because Zito didn't seem to take as much interest in her as he does his other victims, I thought he might've seen her as one of those "fancy" girls whom he needs to stop, but I guess not since I think he added her scalp and clothes to one of his mannequins as well. Otherwise, all I remember of her is her initial reluctance to get in the backseat with her date, that she's cheating on her boyfriend with him, her catching a glimpse of Zito watching them through the window, causing her to panic and force Disco Boy to take her home, and the side of her face getting splattered with his blood after Zito blows his head off. The rest of the characters are little more than cannon fodder for Zito: the hooker (Rita Montone) he picks up and who models for him a bit before he murders her, a nurse (Kelly Piper) who's stalked by him through the streets and into the subway station before finally meeting her end in the restroom down there, Rita (Gail Lawrence), the model whose apartment Zito manages to get into and is the one who sees the extent of his psychosis before he kills her, and the couple on the beach (James Brewster and Linda Lee Walter) who Zito murders at the beginning. Plus, Bill Lustig has a one-scene role as the manager of the seedy hotel Zito and the hooker check into, one who employs the hookers' services for customers and doesn't care at all about their being uncomfortable out in the cold.

I didn't know at the time I first saw it, mainly because it wasn't as obvious to me in the way it looked, but Maniac is another one of those horror films that was shot on 16mm (it has to have been one of the last major ones, given how far down the road it was filmed) and, knowing that, I think the feeling that it gives fits very well with this story about a serial killer. But, while it may not have looked as grainy or gritty to me as films like The Last House on the Left or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it certainly had a seediness to it that was undeniable and that's what I take away from this movie the most in terms of its look and setting. It can be viewed as a time capsule of how unsavory and sleazy a place New York City was back then, with hookers on the street, willing to give men anything they want to make a buck, like posing for them, as the one hooker does for Zito; seedy hotels with really tacky, ugly wallpaper, run by guys who are unsavory with a capital "U,"; signs and advertisements that look like they belong on the notorious 42nd Street; grimy-looking subway stations, with restrooms that look like they haven't been cleaned in a while and graffiti all over the walls; and cold, dark streets that you wouldn't want to walk down by yourself if you could help it (in true guerilla filmmaking style, Lustig and his crew often didn't have the necessary permits and simply shot their scenes as quickly as they could and got out before the cops appeared). That feeling of it being wintertime and cold and miserable permeates the outdoor scenes and adds to the feeling of fear that's gripped the city, even in scenes that take place in more welcoming settings like the park and playground where Anna photographs Zito, the lovely beach where the opening murders take place, and when Rita is all alone, or thinks she is, in her nice apartment. That's another thing: you do have settings here that are a little more classy, other examples being Anna's nice apartment and studio, the studio where she does her photo shoot, and the fancy restaurant she and Zito have dinner at (he must have some kind of good-paying job that allows him to afford places like that and the good clothes that he's sometimes wearing) but, for the most part, there's very little class to be found here. And while there's no hardcore sex or nudity, save for when Rita's taking a bath (even there, you don't see as much as you'd expect), the feeling of it is definitely there in certain scenes, like between Zito and the hooker in the hotel room, Disco Boy and Girl making out in the backseat, with close-ups of his hand rubbing her legs, and the aforementioned shots of Rita in the bathtub. It's definitely a movie that was made for the 42nd Street era, as it radiates that sleazy, Grindhouse air the place was known for back then.

By far, the most unsettling location in the film is Frank Zito's small, one-room apartment, which serves as a physical representation of his deranged mind. In addition to being very claustrophobic, it's also downright creepy and uncomfortable, with a tacky purple color to the walls (Lustig took inspiration for the color scheme from Italian horror films), dolls everywhere, including one that's sitting in a birdcage and which Zito offers a crackerjack crumb to, asking, "Polly want a cracker?", a small shrine to a framed picture of his mother, with candles and little trinkets around it, and, most disturbing of all, the numerous mannequins that Zito dresses in his victims' clothes and nails their scalps to. When you combine that disturbing decor with those scenes of Zito doing his thing and talking to himself, and especially the ending where he hallucinates the mannequins coming to life and attacking him, it makes it all the more of a living nightmare. Another environment that feels a bit outside of reality is the cemetery where Zito's mother is buried, serving as the setting for when his psychosis takes over all but completely and Anna realizes the kind of person he really is. While it looks like just a typical cemetery, all of the mist that's flowing through the scene and the number of tilted and close-up camera angles make it feel somewhat otherworldly, a notion that's reinforced when Zito begins hearing the sounds of his tortured childhood in his head and hallucinates that his mother's corpse reaches up out of her grave and grabs him.

Despite the very low budget and his lack of filmmaking experience, I feel that Bill Lustig did a pretty competent technical job with Maniac. Besides handling the 16mm in such a manner where I didn't know that's what it was until I heard him mention it in an interview, I think he did some nice stuff with the camerawork and the editing. There are some pretty good shots and angles here, like when the camera is right up in Joe Spinell's freaky face while he's strangling the hooker, the way it pans around him while he's sitting on the bed with the mannequin, talking to himself, which is to say nothing of all the bizarre shots in general of the mannequins in his apartment, the shot of the side of his face and his reflection in the window as he stares at the mannequins in the department store, the way it juxtaposes both him and the nurse hiding in the restroom stall right next to each other in the same frame, the shot of blood dripping down the camera in front of his face as he scalps Rita, the extreme high and low angles during the cemetery scene when he's really losing his mind, and the close-ups and angles on the mannequins' faces when they're coming to life that highlight the nightmarish quality of that film. A very impressive bit of camerawork comes during the scene in Rita's apartment, where the camera pulls back from her sitting in the bathtub, down the hall leading to it, revealing Zito's arm and hand as he waits for his chance to strike, akin to the shot in Halloween where the camera pulls back from Lynda and Bob making out on the couch to reveal Michael Myers watching them from the nearby darkness, and the same goes for the shots of Zito stalking around in the distance, like when he's stalking the nurse and after Anna takes the photograph of him with the girl (another moment that's reminiscent of Halloween). On the editing side, there's the slow-mo of Disco Boy's head getting blown to pieces and his date getting splashed with blood, with even shots of the aftermath being shot that way, and a couple of instances quick, stiff editing into close-ups, akin to the reveal of the monster in the original Frankenstein, like when Zito is shown coming down the stairs in the subway and when his eyes suddenly snap open at the very end.

While the film doesn't dwell on it, I think that it also does a fair enough job portraying the fear that has gripped New York and continues to grow as more murders are committed. You see newspaper reports of many of Zito's crimes throughout the film, detailing not only the gruesome nature of them but also how the populace is becoming more and more panicked, but the moment that gets me is when you see a television news report showing helicopter footage of New York (which is apparently stock footage from Dario Argento's Inferno), as a reporter says that the police are now fairly confident that all of the crimes are the work of one loan killer and that they're trying to find him, even though they don't have a single clue to his identity. All the while, Zito himself is watching it, and I find that really unsettling, that we not only know who the killer is but, unbeknownst to everyone else, he's actually watching and reading reports of his own crimes. You do get some insight into the populace's own personal worries about the killings, with the two women talking on the bench at the playground and the nurses discussing it when their shift is over, as well as their naivety of how it could be anybody, as the one woman on the bench has no clue that her little girl just met the killer, one of the nurses makes the fatal mistake of walking home by herself, not knowing that Zito is stalking her from nearby, and Anna unintentionally photographs and begins having a relationship with him. Moreover, she also introduces him to his next victim when they meet up at the photo shoot and even thanks him for sending flowers to Rita's own funeral!

At the time he worked on Maniac, Tom Savini had already proven his talent at creative and realistic gore and death scenes with Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th but with this one, he really surpassed himself and created some of the best work of his career, stuff that ranks right up there with the effects in those films and others like Day of the Dead. As gruesome and cringe-inducing as the opening double throat slit (one with a razor and the other with a wire), the nurse getting stabbed through the torso with a bayonet, Rita getting stabbed in the chest and gruesome aftermath of it, and Frank Zito himself getting a chunk taken out of his left arm with a shovel are, they're nothing compared to some of the movie's really grisly, well-known moments. The scalpings are very convincing and are shown in such slow, up close detail, both the cutting and the removal, that they're absolutely wince-inducing, to say the least, and the death of Disco Boy, as simple to pull off as it was (with Savini himself shooting a fake head cast from his own that was filled with fake blood and stuff from craft services), is just incredible, as it does genuinely look like a head got blown away. Granted, when you see the head right before the shot, it's obvious that it's fake, but that glimpse is so quick and the splatter is real enough to where it doesn't matter. And finally, there's Zito's last hallucination before the ending, following his thinking that his mother burst out of her grave and grabbed him (a simple, zombie-like creature that's actually reminiscent of Mrs. Voorhees' decaying corpse in some of the later Friday the 13ths). The sight of the mannequins suddenly coming to life in the bloody guise of his victims, is freaky enough, especially since those women have pale makeup akin to the zombies from Dawn of the Dead and fake blood all over them, but what they do to Zito is just as grisly as anything he did to them: he gets stabbed in the gut with a bayonet, his arm gets chopped off, and his head ultimately gets ripped off, an effect that is also maybe slightly hampered by the fake head not looking that great but there's so much blood everywhere and it's such a shock that, like the shotgun blast, it ultimately doesn't matter.

None of the 80's slasher movies were critical darlings when they were originally released but Maniac was particularly controversial and reviled for its brutality and also for all of the violence towards women it portrays, leading to a lot of picketing by feminists and women rights groups, some of whom called the theater owners maniacs themselves for playing the film. As I mentioned earlier, Gene Siskel who, along with Roger Ebert, was well-known for his crusade against these types of movies, walked out on the movie after the head-shot, feeling that there was no way it could redeem itself afterward, and his condemnation of it resulted in the distributor having to cancel his plans to advertise it in territories like Los Angeles and Chicago. Even the poster caused outrage because of how nasty it is (I'm sure for the bloody scalp and the not-so-subtle boner next to it), with the L.A. Times refusing to run any ads for it and the owner of the R&B Custom Shop being so disgusted by it when it appeared on her property that she completely painted over it! Looking at the movie even today, the controversy that it stirred isn't surprising because, as you've seen, it is pretty damn sick, and while I don't feel that it's any more misogynistic than the other slasher movies made around that time, given that men get killed in equally gruesome ways, particularly the death that made Siskel walk out, even I have to admit that the deaths these women are put through do make my skin crawl. And unlike most slasher movies, the villain isn't ultimately defeated by the usual "final girl" (a trope that is the reason why I've never seen them as being nothing more than demeaning towards women, especially since the killer is a woman in some instances and a few of these movies were directed by women); rather, Anna runs away and informs the police but by the time they get there, Zito has seemingly fatally succumbed to his demons. But, the sad truth of the matter is that women are often the targets of violent men, especially those who are as psychotic as Zito and end up becoming serial killers as a result, so this film is accurate there, and also, let's not pretend that there aren't women who use their bodies as means to make money and aren't often abused by their clients as a result. So, while I don't think the film is anti-women and I feel that Siskel and Ebert really overreacted and got on a soapbox in regards to it, as they did with just about every slasher movie (people should be able to choose for themselves whether or not they want to see something, I do see it as a very harsh truth in some regards.

The film opens with Frank Zito watching a couple who are camping out on the sand dunes at a beach, when the girl asks her reluctant lover to go gather up some firewood before it gets cold when the sun goes completely down. He gets up and leaves, as a POV shot reveals that Zito is watching from some nearby reeds and, once the boyfriend is out of sight, he sneaks up to the girl and caresses her blanketed shoulder. The girl, thinking it's her boyfriend, thanks him for bringing back the wood (even though he just left, making me think she believes he's the Flash), as Zito strokes her hair before grabbing it, jerking her head back, and slashing her throat with a pocketknife, as she screams. The boyfriend, meanwhile, is seen picking up random sticks he finds strewn across the beach and, once he's got a decent-sized pile, he takes them back to the campsite. Seeing his girlfriend lying there, unable to tell from that distance that she's dead, he prepares to walk towards her, when Zito comes up from behind him and lassos a wire around his neck. He drops the firewood to the ground as Zito lifts him up and pulls back on the wire so hard that it slashes into his throat, blood gushing out of the wound and his legs convulsing rapidly until he finally expires. The scene cuts to Zito in bed with a mannequin, waking up from a nightmare where he relived his crime, screaming his head off and then crying, leading into the opening credits where you see his cramped, unsettling apartment and watch as he gets dressed and heads out into the city.

In the city, two hookers are standing out in front a hotel, one talking about how her last client had some very insane ideas about sex and the other, younger one mentioning that she needs one more client in order to be able to pay her rent, when Zito comes walking down the street. The younger one offers herself to him and he's initially unimpressed with her offers but, when she promises him "the ultimate" for a hundred bucks, he agrees and they head into the really seedy hotel. The hooker tells the manager, Al, to give them her favorite room and after Zito signs in and pays for it, they head up. In the next cut, they're in the room, the hooker coming out of the bathroom, while Zito is laying on the bed. He asks her if she's ever modeled and when she says, "Yeah, sure," he asks her to show him, to pose like they do in the magazines. The hooker walks out into the room and does some erotic poses for him, including one that she does while lying on the bed next to him, and when she tells him that the meter's ticking, so to speak, he shows her that he's got plenty of money. Getting off the bed, she slips off the short shorts she's wearing over a black leotard and fishnet stockings, but when she starts to slowly slip her top off, he tells her to leave her clothes on. She complies, since he's the one who's paying, and then slips down onto him, the two of them starting to passionately make out, with Zito rolling over so he's the one on top, when he suddenly rolls off of her, looking a little upset and stressed about something. The hooker tells him to relax, that there's more than one way to skin a cat (very poor choice of words), and they start making out again, Zito giving her a slap on the rear, which she says she loves, and they roll over again. It starts to get a little more energetic, with the hooker telling Zito that he's really good, when he suddenly snaps, calling her a bitch, and sits up on her and grabs her throat. He proceeds to slowly strangle her, the camera cutting back to close-ups of his terrifying, deranged face and her frightened expression, as she screams at him to stop and struggles to get him off of her. Try as she might, he's too heavy and strong for her to escape, and her movements gradually slow, as do her protests, before she finally expires. Once he realizes that he's killed her, Zito gets off the bed and runs to the bathroom, coughing and retching in there, and slumps back down the hallway to the room, sobbing and moaning to himself about how he didn't want to do that. He then pulls out a straight razor and slowly cuts off her scalp, blood streaming all over her face, before he removes it and, right before it cuts to black, leans in to do something I think is better kept offscreen.

Following that, we get the first unsettling scene in his apartment where we hear Zito's incomprehensible inner thoughts as he brings home another mannequin and dresses it in the hooker's clothes and nails her scalp to its head. After he looks at a newspaper headline about his murder of the couple on the beach and rocks back and forth on his bed, moaning, he loads up a double-barrel shotgun and some shells, as well as his razor, into a case, eating some crackerjacks while doing so, and heads out, telling his mannequins, "I'll be right back." Walking to the front of the building, he gets into his car and is then seen cruising the streets of Manhattan. We then see the disco couple standing outside the club, talking, unaware that Zito is parked nearby, watching them. A valet brings the guy's car around and the couple piles into it and drives off, Zito following them. The couple parks across from a bridge and Disco Boy tries to make his move but she pulls away, commenting that it's a nice place; meanwhile, Zito turns his headlights off and parks only a few feet from them. After sitting there for a bit longer, the couple starts making out and Disco Boy asks her to meet him in the backseat. As Zito watches, they get out of the car and crawl into the backseat, and the killer steps out of his car and walks towards them as they begin making out. They don't get very far, with Disco Boy taking off his sweater, revealing a white button shirt underneath, and caressing her very well-toned thigh, when she sees Zito watching them through the window behind him. She tries to warn her date but, by the time he leans up and looks behind him, Zito's gone. Thinking she was just seeing things, he tries to go back at it but she insists and says that she wants to go home, much to his disappointment and irritation. They get back in the front seat, Disco Girl frantically pleading with him to start the car, and when he does and switches on the headlights, they both then see Zito standing in front of the car, wielding his shotgun. As they watch, he rushes towards the car, jumps on the hood, takes aim, and fires right through the windshield, blowing Disco Boy's head apart and splattering Disco Girl in the face with his blood. Once she gets over the shock of what just happened, she tries to hide in the backseat, when Zito comes around the back window across from her, aims the barrel barely a couple of feet away from her head, and fires again.

Following the moment between Zito and the little girl on the bicycle in the park, where he first sees Anna D'Antoni and finds out where she lives, and the creepy moment where he stares at some department store mannequins, we cut to the Roosevelt Hospital at nighttime, where two nurses are heading home, discussing the grisly murders that have been all over the news. Despite knowing that there's a violent killer on the loose, though, this one lovely, blonde nurse makes the mistake of deciding to walk home by herself rather than letting co-worker and her husband drive her. After they drive off and the nurse glances at the headline of the newspaper she's carrying about the slaughter of the couple at the bridge, Zito steps out of the darkness across the street from her, but she doesn't seem to notice him, walking off down the sidewalk. At first, he walks parallel to her, but it doesn't take long for him to appear on the same side of the street as her and begin to follow her. Realizing that she's being followed, the nurse begins to walk quicker, and Zito follows suit. The two of them play this back and forth of increasing their walking speed until the nurse comes to the subway station and heads down the stairs, into the depths of the station.

Heading to a nearby revolving door, she fumbles the change out of her small pouch that she needs in order to get through it, when she sees Zito coming down the steps she just walked down. Quickly, she gets one of her coins into the slot and walks through the door, down another flight of steps leading to the train. Unfortunately, the train has already closed up and, despite her desperate banging on the window and trying to pry the door open with her bare hands, it takes off down the tunnel without her, leaving her in the station alone. Within seconds, Zito comes walking down the steps after her, prompting her to run up some more steps nearby, only to find no way through and being forced to take shelter in one of the restrooms, hiding in the last stall and trying to get ahold of herself and keep quiet. Zito follows her path to the area outside and, seeing that there's nowhere she could've gone, is about to leave when he spies the restrooms. Walking over to them, he glances inside and, looking over some railing and seeing that it was too high of a jump for her, he heads into the restroom, closing the door behind him. Breathing heavily and moaning, he walks across the stalls, checking each one, as the nurse desperately tries to be quiet. He pauses when he reaches the stall she's hiding in and, after glancing around, appears to give up and head back out. The nurse continues to try to be quiet and slowly sticks her head out when she hears the restroom door close. Seeing no sign of Zito, she breathes a relieved sigh and begins to calm down, walking out. Still deciding to err on the side of caution, she creeps down the small corridor in front of the stalls and peeks around the corner there, letting out a relieved, nervous laugh when she doesn't see anyone. Continuing to chuckle to herself, she walks over to one of the sinks and splashes some water on her sweaty face, still trying to calm down, but when she leans back up, she sees Zito's reflection in the mirror as he stands behind her. Before she can do anything, he grabs her from behind and shoves a bayonet all the way through her, as she screams and he slowly pushes her down to the floor. Once she's dead, he jerks back up, pulling the bloody blade out, and proceeds to wash it in the sink, leading into the eerie scene where he's attaching her scalp to a mannequin, acting like a hairdresser contending with a customer who's complaining about blood in her hair.

Believe it or not, things actually get normal for a bit, as Zito meets Anna and the two of them begin their relationship, until he shows up at a photography session and meets Rita, one of the models whose photograph he saw at her apartment. As he watches the session, he begins that uncomfortable groaning sound, clearly having an interest in Rita, when he notices a small necklace of hers that Anna had her remove and picks it up before he leaves the studio. Following that, Rita heads back to her apartment and runs herself a bubble bath, when she hears her door buzzer. She asks who it is before she opens the door and hearing and seeing through the peephole that it's Zito, she opens it a crack and gives her the necklace, saying he found it at the studio. While she's distracted, he surreptitiously pushes the button for her door's lock in before he heads back out, the two of them saying goodnight. Putting her necklace, she gets into her bubble bath and relaxes, as the camera pulls back from the bathroom and into the hallway, revealing that Zito is now in her apartment, ready to strike. Once she's done with her bath, she heads to her kitchen and makes herself a cup of coffee, but when she walks back down the hallway to her living room, Zito bursts out of closet next to her, wearing a ski mask, and wrestles her to the ground. Some time passes and Zito is then seen in Rita's bedroom, as she's tied to the bed and her mouth is gagged. He's talking incoherently, telling her that her hair's different, as is the way she looks, but she can't fool him. Sitting on the bed next to her, he says he only wants to talk and that he'll take the gag out of her mouth if she promises not to scream. When she nods her promise, he removes the gag and starts talking to her as if she's his mother, telling her that she shouldn't have tried to hurt him, that she left him alone lots of times, that he often hid in the closet while she was gone, and says that she didn't need all the men she picked up. He then re-positions himself to where he's straddling her and takes a switchblade out of his back-pocket. Flicking the blade out, he says he never wanted to ever hurt her but there were just so many men (suggesting that he may have killed his mother rather than her dying in a car accident like he told Anna), all he while he's twirling the blade across her torso, which is partially exposed by her open robe. Rita begs him not to kill her and he, putting the gag back in her mouth, says that he's simply going to keep her so she'll never go away again. With that, he plunges the knife into her chest, blood gushing out, and she expires with hardly a sound, as he then lies on top of her body and rocks back and forth, quietly crying as he calls her Mommy, while blood streams out from underneath him and down to the bed. Taking out another blade, he tells her that she's not going out tonight and proceeds to scalp her.

After a dissolve, you see a mannequin lying on his bed wearing Rita's bathrobe and scalp, with Zito sitting across from it, in front of his mother's picture, which is surrounded by lit candles. He says to a nearby doll, "You know, when Mommy tells you to hide in the closet, you have to do what Mommy tells you, or else you know what'll happen," and then burns its chest with his lit cigarette, leading to more disturbing suggestions about what his mother did to him. And as if it weren't weird enough, he then walks over to a really fancy chair, puts on an odd-looking hat, messes around with an old type of buzzing toy and winds up a Christmas decoration that plays music, before taking a small cap gun out of a box and shooting at a picture of a woman hanging on the wall across from him. After he runs out of caps and glances at the still playing decoration, the scene cuts to him calling Anna at a phone-booth, asking her if she wants to take in a show that night. She accepts his offer and, after he picks her up, he says that they're going to stop at the cemetery so he can pay his respects to his mother's grave before they go to dinner. When they get there, Zito puts a wreath on his mother's grave and begins saying a prayer, becoming very emotional and starting to cry, putting his head on Anna's shoulder and saying that his head hurts. She tries to comfort him, saying it was a long time ago, when Zito then says, "Rita knew," which confuses her. He repeats it and says, "She was mine forever," before suddenly attacking Anna, grabbing her by the neck. Anna tries to reason with him at first but she quickly realizes how deranged he is and manages to shove him to the ground and run off. Zito chases her amongst the headstones for a distance until he loses her at one point and, as he scans the area for her, walking along, she then pops up from behind a headstone (one that he walked right past, I might add) and slashes open the side of his left arm with a shovel that she found. He falls to the ground, grasping his arm, and, seeing her running away, he gets back to his feet and stumbles after her but doesn't get very far before he falls to the ground beside a large crypt. He screams, "Mother!" at the top of his lungs, crying as he continues grasping his arm, and remembers an incident from his childhood where she told him she had punish him for being a bad boy and he pleaded with her not to lock him in the closet again (the kid speaking as young Frank Zito says those lines in a very flat, emotionless manner; the woman voicing his mother is serviceable, though). Zito then gets up and, after a dissolve, falls to his knees in front of his mother's grave, leaning over it and rocking back and forth, crying for her. Suddenly, her mummified arms burst out of the ground and grab him around the neck and her decomposing face bursts up to stare him right in the eyes. He snaps back to reality, pulling back and crying, "No!" before sitting down beside the headstone.

Still reeling from the injury to his arm, Zito is then seen stumbling back to his apartment, where he sees an image of Anna on his bed, crying, "You betrayed me," as he falls on the mattress, clutching his arm and whining for his mother. He then looks over his shoulder at the mannequins in his apartment and, following a series of strangely-angled close-ups of their faces before he rolls back over to continue crying. But then, he looks back over at them and they all suddenly turn to look at him and start moving towards him in a menacing fashion, in the form of his victims. They each one of his various weapons before converging on him, grabbing ahold of him, stabbing him in the gut, causing him to spit up blood, hacking off his right arm, and after he sees the hideous visage of a decapitated body beside his bed (according to trivia, that's the one Tom Savini made for Mrs. Voorhees' death at the end of Friday the 13th), two of the women grab his head by the hair and wrench it back and forth, as the others hold him down. They rip his head completely off and the camera pulls back from them as they then proceed to apparently tear his body limb from limb. The last scene has two detectives, obviously informed by Anna, arriving at the apartment and busting in, guns drawn, to find Zito lying on his bed, his head still attached but seemingly dead from a bleeding wound to the stomach. They walk up to him and, after deciding that he definitely is dead, they walk back out, the one cop glancing at the mannequins before he does so, closing the door behind them. The camera then slowly pans over to Zito's body and cuts to a close shot of his head, when his eyes suddenly snap open and the camera statically zooms into his eyes, with the title Maniac appearing on the screen before the credits roll. I can't even begin to tell you what that's supposed to mean, as he seemed dead for all intents and purposes, likely from a suicide brought on by his hallucinating that his mannequins were ripping him apart, and since there was nothing genuinely supernatural about this story, it's always felt like it was put there to just have one last jump scare before the end, a la Carrie and such. Personally, I feel that closing on the image of his dead body, in the middle of the apartment that served as the physical representation of his psychosis, would've been a far more affecting and eerie ending, but what do I know?

In creating the score for the movie, composer Jay Chattaway, who's probably best known for scoring all of the latter Star Trek shows but also worked with Bill Lustig quite a bit, heightens its disturbing, nightmarish nature while, at the same time, acknowledging the notion that there's a confused, deeply scarred child within the monster of Frank Zito. He mainly does this in the main theme, which you hear over the opening and ending credits, as well as during the scene where Zito's looking at the mannequins in the department store and in some small spots here and there: the center of it is a shy, fragile-sounding flute, but it's surrounded by more unsettling bits, such as this soft, rhythmic two-note sound and lower-pitched, electronic pieces. It makes for a theme that accentuates what a supremely disturbing character but also alludes to his having a real sadness about him as well, especially in a lower-sounding version you sometimes hear that sounds even sadder. The rest of the score, however, is just pure nightmare fuel, especially during the eerie scenes in Zito's apartment, which are played against lots of freakish, electronic sounds alluding to the hell that is his existence and life, and the murders, especially when he's scalping his victims' corpses. The build-ups to the murders are also played to be very, very unsettling and heart-pounding, with a low, disquieting, keyboard-like piece for when he's following the nurse down the sidewalk, leading into a frantic, synthesizer one for his chasing through the subway station, and a suspenseful, building bit when the camera reveals that Zito is waiting to strike in Rita's apartment. And finally, the music that plays during his imagining the mannequins ripping him apart and in the final scene leading up to the ending credits is the most nightmarish of all, being loud and freaky during the former and low and underscoring during the latter, showing just how far Zito and the movie itself has descended into complete, horrific madness.

There are several songs that are heard during the movie, all of which are performed by Don Armando's 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band, mostly in the background, but the one that really sticks out is Goin' to a Showdown, which plays during the photography session. I always remember it because that title is just about all that's sung and also because of how cheesy and dated it sounds. Only around this time could you hear songs like that. The movie is also well-known for being tied to the famous Michael Sembello song from Flashdance, although not in the way people tend to think. It's often been said that Sembello was originally commissioned to come up with a version of that song for this film that never ended up in it but, when the executives at Paramount heard it a few years later, they got Sembello to rewrite the lyrics in order for it to match the story of Flashdance and then put it into the movie, which led to an Oscar nomination for Sembello. The latter part of that story is somewhat true but, in an interview between Bill Lustig, Sembello, and his fellow songwriter and friend, Dennis Matkosky, on Blue Underground's 2010 Blu-Ray, they clarified that Matkosky came up with that initial version of the song after hearing a news report about the discovery of a number of murder victims in the general area where he lived. After coming up with it, he went over to Sembello's house to work on it further, writing lyrics, "He's a maniac, maniac, that's for sure, and he'll kill your cat and nail it to the door," and they watched the movie Maniac for more inspiration. Joe Spinell himself is said to have proliferated the myth about the song originally being written for the movie, often in drug and alcohol-fueled delusions he would have, but this is what they say is the truth. Regardless, though, for those of you who love that movie and that song specifically, you still have this gory, disturbing horror movie to thank for its existence in some manner.

Maniac is definitely not a movie for everyone, including certain slasher movie fans, because of how extreme and unsettling it is. It's a very effective movie, with a lot of good attributes like an unforgettable performance by Joe Spinell, a number of scenes that give you a disturbing insight into his character's unhinged mind, a feeling of pure sleaze that proliferates throughout its depiction of New York at that time and of dread that overtakes the city as news of Frank Zito's murders spreads, gore effects and death scenes by Tom Savini that are among the most uncomfortably realistic he ever created, and a music score that perfectly fits the film it accompanies, but that's also what makes it a tough sit. It does have some genuine flaws, as well, like Caroline Munro, despite being lovely and doing the best she can with what little character she was given to work with, striking up a relationship with Spinell that's hard to believe, any other characters being little more than cannon fodder, and an ending that makes no sense in context with everything else, but other than that, the only thing that viewers may find troubling is, as I've said, just how effective it is and the depicted violence against women. In conclusion, if you're just looking for a fun, mindless slasher flick, you'd best look elsewhere, because this is definitely not a movie that one can describe as "fun," but if you think you can handle it, it is a nicely-done, creepy character study that's worth checking out at least once.

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