In 1980 director William Lustig let his feature film debut, Maniac, loose to the world. A painfully raw collaboration between Lustig and star/co-writer Joe Spinell, Maniac is a gritty snapshot of the seedy side of New York City. Spinell plays Frank Zito, a serial killer acting on impulses brought on by years of abuse as a child by his now deceased mother. Zito stalks the streets looking for victims, mostly promiscuous young women, to kill and scalp (the scalps are used to dress mannequins on display in his small apartment). For the character of Frank Zito, Spinell borrows elements from real life killers such as David "Son Of Sam" Berkowitz and Ed Gein,but also resembles Robert DeNiro's alienated and emotionally lost Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver (a film Spinell appeared in). Spending nights in his cramped, dirty apartment conversing with mannequins about his dead mother causes Frank's mind to unravel even more until he meets a beautiful fashion photographer (Caroline Munro in a role originally to be played by Daria Nicolodi) who seems to balance him out. For awhile. The hallucinogenic finale makes Maniac one of the bloodiest and uncomfortable films of the 80's. Feeling the need to shower after watching it was a regular and not surprising response. When released theatrically,Maniac was a huge success that played all over the world despite negative critical reviews and protests from special interest groups. The controversy helped in fact to boost ticket sales, driving Maniac to even greater heights.
Maniac has had numerous home video releases on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray discs. In 1997 Elite Entertainment released Maniac on DVD (they had a previous Laserdisc edition in '94). This had the 85 minute version of the film with no subtitles and an English language track only. For bonus material it presented five trailers (domestic and international), nine TV spots and the infamous deleted "date" scene which comes with a disclaimer that director Lustig never wanted it in the film thinking that it just didn't fit. He was right, it doesn't although it does have a nice bit of natural acting from Spinell. Best of all perhaps is the feature length commentary track by Lustig, special effects artist Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli (who hardly contributes) and Joe Spinell's personal assistant Luke Walter. This commentary track (recorded in 1994) is extremely revealing and informative making it extremely essential listening for fans of the film.
The other really important bonus feature on this disc is the eight minute long promo footage from the never produced sequel Maniac II:Mister Robbie. Responding to the complaints from women's groups about the original Maniac film's violence against women, Spinell created this concept of a children's TV entertainer who exacts revenge upon abusive parents. Unfortunately the film was never finished and this brief, violent clip is all that survives.
In 2001 Anchor Bay (under the leadership of Bill Lustig himself) released a new DVD version of Maniac. This is an 88 minute version restoring the deleted "date" scene for some reason. Some scenes are also just slightly longer than on the Elite Entertainment edition. Along with a Spanish subtitle track and being dubbed into French and Italian, this disc has the same great commentary track as the previous release. There's also a good posters and stills gallery, four radio spots and nine trailers/TV spots and the "Gallery Of Outrage" which presents text excerpts from various negative newspaper reviews from Maniac's theatrical showings. Perhaps the two best bonus features though are a 19 minute radio interview featuring Lustig, Spinell & Munro and a fantastic 51 minute documentary "The Joe Spinell Story" featuring many of the actor's co-workers and friends reminiscing about the talented and troubled man.
A hidden easter egg on this release is a short one minute audio clip of The Exorcist director William Friedkin talking about Maniac with Lustig.
For the 30th anniversary in 2010, Blue Underground re-released Maniac this time as a 2 DVD special edition. This set contains everything from the previous version plus a generous selection of brand new bonus material created specifically for this release. They include a new commentary track (in addition to the one from the other releases) this time featuring just Lustig and co-producer Andrew W. Garroni. The new commentary track has fresh stories, repeats a few and unfortunately does not address or even acknowledge that the deleted "date" scene has been re-inserted back in to the movie (they do have a pretty good story about the music used in that scene though).
Of the other featurettes "Anna And The Killer" is an upfront and honest recollection from star Caroline Munro, "The Death Dealer" interviews special effects artists Tom Savini, "Dark Notes" featuring composer Jay Chattaway and an odd little segment "Maniac Men" which has Lustig interviewing songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky about their hit song "Maniac" from the 1983 movie Flashdance.
A truly rare feature MOVIE MADNESS is a very low budget 1981 Manhattan cable access show interview with Bill Lustig that runs a lengthy 47 minutes. This VHS quality black & white segment includes phone calls from viewers and is a really interesting glimpse into how this film was originally received. There is also a thirteen minute appearance by Joe Spinell on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW promoting the film, and even reciting a little Shakespeare.
One of the really valuable segments of this set is "Maniac Controversy" which collects vintage TV news clips documenting the reactions to the film's original theatrical run. News footage from Los Angeles, Chicago (Gene Siskel was particularly disgusted by the movie) and Philadelphia give great insight to the feel of the times. In the language department, BU added a German dub and improved on the Spanish subtitles by including English, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai making this the most multi-cultural version of Maniac ever! (No, I have not watched Maniac with Thai subtitles. Yet.)
There is also a very interesting Q&A from a film festival with Lustig, Garroni and adult movie actress Sharon Mitchell who has a small role in Maniac. The copious bonus material make this version of Maniac the most thorough and complete of them all and adds greatly to the viewers understanding of the place the film has in horror movie history. This 2010 30th Anniversary Edition was also released as a 2 disc Blu-ray / DVD combo pack and again in 2012 as a single disc Blu-ray release missing some of the bonus material.
The legacy of Maniac continued though.
In 1982 Spinell and Munro teamed up again for The Last Horror Film shot on location at the actual Cannes Film Festival. In it Spinell plays an unbalanced aspiring film director stalking a famous horror actress (Munro) to get her to appear in his debut feature. While its great seeing Spinell & Munro reunited on screen (and the scenery from Cannes is terrific), the film is just not the strong piece of work that Maniac was. The DVD does have some good bonus material including interviews with Bill Lustig and Luke Walter plus trailers for the film under it's original title Fanatic.
The Maniac II:Mister Robbie footage from 1986 which has made its way onto many Maniac DVD releases was written and directed by Buddy Giovinazzo. When work on the film was cancelled, Giovinazzo went on to make the depressingly bleak Combat Shock, the logical, dreaded continuation of nihilistic films like Taxi Driver and Maniac.
The 2001 Anchor Bay release was also available in a limited edition version numbered out of a run of 5,000 in an oversize tin case. The DVD inside is identical to the regular Anchor Bay version but this has the additional highly collectible Maniac soundtrack CD. If just having the eerie music wasn't enough, the CD actually comes in the shape of the Frank Zito character's head!
Later in 2001 Lustig's new company Blue Underground re-released this exact version of the DVD with just slightly different packaging and menus.
New in 2013 (no doubt timed to coincide with the theatrical remake starring Elijah Wood) is a three disc set from Germany (limited to a run of only 500!) that has a beautiful hard cover book and a 28 page booklet. Languages on this version are English and dubbed German with German being the only subtitled language . It has four trailers, two in German and two in English. Other special features from the 30th anniversary edition are also included on this extremely limited edition version.
For his final starring lead role, Spinell appears in The Undertaker playing a serial killer working at a funeral home. The script to this low budget attempt is amateurish and the much too bright score consists of outdated drum machines and the harsh blast of 80's synthesizers.
But the biggest letdown is Spinell himself who is clearly not healthy or in a right frame of mind in front of the camera even slurring lines of dialogue.
After years of hard living Joe Spinell died on January 13 1989.
Memorabilia courtesy of John Farmer and Anthony Nicoletti.
All DVD pics from my collection, sadly.