“Maniac” (1980)

Maniac_(1980)

By Jerome Reuter

On the surface, this film seems like just another exploitation film. It certainly has the appearance of being one many entries in the enormous exploitation/slasher genre of the 1980’s. However, much like so many other horror flick, there happens to be more beneath the surface. In some ways it’s actually a period piece, a film that’s a product of its time. Reflecting a city, and the culture surrounding the infamous ‘grindhouse’ era. Most important of all, it’s not the murder, the violence, or the carnage that makes this film what it is. Here is a portrait of someone’s gradual descent into madness, and their inability to maintain control of themselves.

First off all, lets look at the first aspect; location, location, location. Lustig sets his narrative in New York at the end of the 1970’s. At a time when the public was still reeling from the shocking homicides of David Berkowitz, Lustig plays upon the fear of leaving your house late at night. When you leave that theatre you just might think twice about taking that shortcut. A good filmmaker knows how to comment on the times we live in, and touch peoples emotions at their inner most core. Today we might not understand that sort of atmosphere, but New York wasn’t exactly the safest place back then. If you caught this flick at a grindhouse, you more than likely had to go to the wrong side of the tracks for such a viewing.

The films tag line of ‘I warned you not to go out tonight” is more than appropriate, it hits the nail right on the head.

Now that we know about the atmosphere of the time period, it’s time to look at this films greatest attribute. I’m of course referring to the character of Frank Zito, played flawlessly by Joe Spinell.

spinnell

For a film set in New York, you need an actor who personifies that city. You need someone who embodies everything you’re going to adapt to the screen. Joe Spinell WAS New York. There’s no other way to describe him. Not only does he bring Zito to life, he helped make this film as great as it was. Zito himself is a creation of Spinell, who helped write the film along with Lustig. Who better to play the part than the person who formulated the character? I would even rank Spinell’s performance in this film alongside Robert Mitchum in The Night Of The Hunter or Michael Rooker in Henry. Whenever I watch this, I can see an actor pouring everything he has into a performance.

The character of Frank Zito is rather complex. He has the murderous impulse of David Berkowitz, and the vulnerability of Norman Bates. Someone who we at times empathize with, yet know plain as day he’s driven by compulsion to commit murder. We’re drawn into his world, where he walks a tightrope between madness and redemption. It’s easy to see he’s a tortured human being, one who can’t break away from the prison he’s created for himself.

This isn’t just a product of a time period. This is a journey into the mind of a killer, and the madness that engulfs him. I believe it’s time this film is reevaluated, and given the long awaited credit it’s due.

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