Tuesday, 21 August 2012


1980, US, Directed by William Lustig
Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, Region A, Blue Underground; Video: 1.85:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS HD

Frank Zito is a seriously disturbed individual with a penchant for misogynistic violence thanks to mistreatment during childhood at the hands of his mother. New York’s seedier side conceals a man who roams the streets at night looking for women to sexually brutalise, before leaving them scalped and dead - their hair he keeps nailed to mannequins in his morbid and dingy apartment while people of the city become increasingly frightened (following media exposure) of the perverse killer hiding amongst the already flawed inhabitants. Managing to demonstrate an ounce of normality he begins dating a fashion photographer but this only leads to more mutilation and death.
A simplistic storyline is embellished with a deeper analysis of abnormal psychology, taking initiative from the Italian giallo movies that flourished throughout the seventies by adopting a psychodynamic concept that is not so much iterated as implied in the distressing life of Zito. Joe Spinnell portrays an incredibly fu*ked up creature who oozes unhinged pain and hatred, a man who - in apparent attempt to pursue a more conventional lifestyle - temporarily manages to pull off a Mr Nice Guy act to date the corny photographer (Caroline Munro, transferring herself reasonably well from the Hammer period and her brief exposure to fame as a Bond girl), but even this seemingly contradictory turn comes across as slightly creepy. There’s something fascinating about Zito and his homicidal exploits and I suppose it’s understandable that the BBFC had such a big problem with the film back in the eighties (it was repeatedly rejected a certificate and then heavily cut even when Anchor Bay UK finally got it through in 2002). It wasn’t just the female-hating concept that perturbed the censorship body back then; the film is grindingly bloody with some horrific gore effects from maestro Tom Savini, who also bagged himself a bit part in the film to personally exhibit the special effects centre piece - a show stopping head explosion that would have woken Sleeping Beauty up to take notice. Whilst dialogue is often revealed to be slightly odd (though whether that is due to thespian execution I’m not quite sure) there are several suspenseful sequences that combine good directorial and editing capabilities - the strongest of these (assisted by a favourable performance from the actress playing the victim) involves a panic stricken nurse being pursued through the underground by the eponymous killer. Is it possible to sympathise with such an unnerving monster? Lustig makes a case, without preaching, for the fact that he was never in control of what he was to become (as is arguably the situation with any of us), and Zito’s fate was sealed by the treatment perpetrated by his mother that ultimately scarred his mind beyond repair. Maniac was a controversial horror film that hit very hard, confronted its audience with the disturbing concept of a despicable man who was really created by the actions of a person well out of the picture, and perhaps most distressing of all, the film was constructed in a fashion that keeps your eyes and ears glued throughout its duration. Admittedly a film that probably a large portion of the population would prejudgingly hate, Maniac is a highlight from a now classic period.

I understand Maniac was shot on 16mm and as such was never going to look wonderful either in the cinema or on home video. Previously I've viewed the film on duped VHS tape, and the Anchor Bay region 1 DVD several times. This 2001-released disc demonstrated a soft, indistinct image, which is forgivable considering the source. What was really surprising was the fact that the soundtrack absolutely kicked one' ass out of the room - while dialogue and effects were largely centre rooted, the music (courtesy of DD or DTS 6.1) hit you from all directions and sounded great for a low budget film on DVD. During each sequence of violence, bloodshed, or madness, this truly injects an additional slab of potency that’s very much appreciated. Surprisingly selected for a Blu-ray release in 2010, Blue Underground gave the film a bit of a makeover - of course, you can't polish turds, and it shows here. The BD image is marginally more detailed than the DVD, although colour is more saturated (it's arguable which format presents the film more accurately as it could be said the washed-out look suits the material better - never fear, you can just turn down your colour control a couple of notches!). The surround audio (available in a selection of formats including the overkill that is DTS HD 7.1) is probably a more noticeable jump in quality, and Maniac sounds stunning on Blu-ray. The BD comes with a new commentary track, along with the one recorded for the original DVD. There's also a massive batch of trailers and featurettes, as well as the near-hour-long documentary about the life of deceased Joe Spinell (which was on the AB DVD) - some of these extras are present on a second disc (standard definition, probably due to the way this material was recorded in the first place). An uncut print, probably making the film about as good as it possibly can, plus a ton of extras complete the definitive edition of this powerful and thrilling film. Incidentally, Lustig went on to direct another three films with the word ‘maniac’ in the title (example here), but more respectfully founded the DVD/Blu-ray production/distribution wonder that is Blue Underground.

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