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Maniac (1980)

February 23rd, 2012 by unkle lancifer · 17 Comments

The other day I came across an article in which the author was wondering if there might be anything to gain from watching a movie more than once. I would have read it but I had better things to do, like watch a movie that I had seen before. I’ve viewed MANIAC (1980) way more than three times over the years but here is a list of three significantly different experiences that I’ve had with the exact same WILLIAM LUSTIG film.

ONCE (1981-ish)

This movie is horrifying. It’s like watching a catastrophe unfold while laying helplessly in a coma. Is it X-rated? Are there brakes on this VHS player? MANIAC is basically steamrolling over me. I’m no stranger to slasher flicks but this is something different. There is a wild seedy energy and seemingly no moral code. How can things go back to normal in this MANIAC universe when they were so fucked up and feral to begin with? There is no sweet final girl to chill with. CAROLINE MUNRO’s character Anna has come to the party tardy and it’s too late- I’m already trapped within crazy Frank Zito’s twisted, unpredictable brain…I was later to see things differently but I remember being completely repulsed by JOE SPINELL when I first took in MANIAC. He was like an unhinged, quivering mass of whiney, sweaty corruption. I wasn’t such a wilting flower that I could not see that the special effects were incredibly awesome (I rewound SAVINI blowing his own brains out a few times) buy the overall undiluted sleaze on display turned my stomach. I was never going to live in the city…ever! People must be nuts to live there! I decided to hang the poster on my wall just to let people know that I walked through this perverted subway tunnel and made it out alive. Boy, did I think Zito’s living space was creepy.

THEN (1994-ish)

My best friend got a laserdisc player! He also bought a laserdisc of MANIAC! You don’t understand, the picture and sound quality is way better than VHS and it’s even in its proper aspect ratio! It’s like seeing it in the theater and for the first time! Wow, I totally recognize that porn star! “Going to a Showdown” has got to be the best song ever! Haha. This is so retro eighties. I should move to New York. I’ve always wanted to live there! At this point MANIAC is the ultimate midnight cult movie, so much decadent fun. Did I just laugh my way through a film that once pummeled me in the face? I was later to see things differently but I remember thinking JOE SPINELL was some kind of clown genius. He was so charming with his funny voices and suddenly it wasn’t so crazy to me that CAROLINE MUNRO would go on a date with him. Who wouldn’t, he’s a card! I thought I’d buy a MANIAC t-shirt so folks understood how edgy I am. This movie is a hoot! Rewind that head explosion again! Awesome moustache SAVINI! Boy did I think Zito’s living space was cool.

NOW– (2012ish)

MANIAC is so deep. How sad it all is. I should probably spring for the Blu-ray. My old DVD looks better in the PS3 than that slightly more bleached out version on Netflix Streaming. Did people really think MANIAC was misogynistic? Get a grip. This poor guy is sick. He needs help. His mother abused him and he can’t get over the feeling of abandonment spurred by her death. He wants to freeze time so things don’t change. He thinks by killing these women he can somehow keep them with him forever. There really are serial killers like that! MANIAC is smart and serious. Look at New York; I’m so glad I never moved there. I think I could marry JOE SPINELL. He may not be the best actor in the world, but he’s so committed and sincere. It’s so sad he’s dead and that he never got to do the MANIAC sequel he wanted to. I’m totally ordering THE LAST HORROR SHOW from Amazon; I have not seen that in a while and I love it. They’re going to do a remake of MANIAC? How are they going to do that? You know what? I think JOE would really like that idea. They probably would have invited him to the premiere and he would have been so proud. Man, it’s so depressing how things change and time moves on but I guess you gotta go with the flow. That’s really what MANIAC is about after all. It’s not just some gross decadent special effects showcase; it’s not some nostalgic freak show to watch while drunk. People think they can buy the poster or the T-shirt of this movie and that means that they “get it” but they don’t, not really. It’s really very poignant. Boy does Zito’s living space look like my own.

OK maybe I was exaggerating for effect and poking fun at myself in that last one but you get the idea. I guess what I’m saying to the guy whose article I was too busy to read is, YES you should watch a movie more than once! You’re sure to pick up stuff you missed and perhaps larger themes will become apparent. More importantly the movie may not change but YOU sure as hell will. Truth is, young me was right, MANIAC is frickin’ scary and not so young me was right, it is oddly funny and poor now me is right too- it is tragic and melancholy too. I look forward to finding out what older me thinks. Movies can capture a certain time or place but they are never truly frozen because each time we visit them, they come alive again and take different forms. If they were mannequins, they’d be the kind that come alive and throttle you… even if only in your head.

Frank Zito: People die. But in a picture or painting, they’re yours forever.

Anna D’Antoni: There’s no way you can possess someone forever. Even in a photograph, there’s no way.

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Tags: Caution: I break for geniuses! · General Horror

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff X MartinNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 12:03 am

    This article is brilliant. Kudos.

  • 2 Erin LashleyNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 12:42 am

    I’m a big fan of watching movies over and over. I like noticing when I identify with a different character than I did when I was younger, but I hate it when I realize I don’t like a movie anymore. Fortunately the second part doesn’t happen that much.

  • 3 EshbaalNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 5:29 am

    I have so many movies I wanna watch again, but I prefer to watch movies I’ve seen before WITH somebody so I can share the wonders – but considering I always have new movies, there are so many we never seem to get through them all!

    I haven’t seen Maniac in a while, but boy howdy did I love it when I did. And I especially remember how absolutely freaky the ending was (well, except those last five seconds, I could’ve done without that). Wonderful article.

  • 4 ApocalypsejunkieNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 8:53 am

    “fucked up and feral”, I want *that* on a vanity plate and we’ll just see how many times I get cut off on my commute, HA!

  • 5 Eric EddyNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 10:08 am

    I really missed out on classics like this when I was young because of my age. I first saw Maniac about five years ago and was completely mesmerized by it. Spinell was just so great and totally immersed in the character. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, no matter what horrible and unforgivable things he did.

  • 6 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Maniac is one of my all time favorite movies, horror or otherwise, and it was a bit of a gateway film for me. I was already an adult but rented the movie on a whim and had no idea what to expect. I was just getting into horror and had seen Friday the 13th Part 3 the night before, so I was thinking it would be more of the same fun stuff.

    Boy, was I ever wrong.

    By the time Savini blew off his own head, I had to turn off the movie and resume watching it in the morning. After that I was hooked on horror… or phonics. I’m forgetting which one.

    Anyway, I have mostly the same experience whenever I watch this movie (although more subdued now that I know what’s going to happen), and I agree with all three of your assessments here, which means my brain is fissured when I watch this! I love rewatching movies to see if there anything new to be had. Barton Fink is a whole new film the second time around! And I won’t even get into Phantom of the Mall…. and I’m not kidding.

    Great article. Love the love for Maniac! Long Live Joe Spinell!

  • 7 kristyNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 10:45 am

    I watched this movie about two years ago, and boy, was I not prepared! I didn’t really know what I was getting into. It’s not often that a movie leaves me feeling so confused on how I feel. It just hit way too close to home and reality in a way. Freddy and Jason are just good, clean fun with rules, but this was something way different. I think what really left me without a footing was that there didn’t seem to be a final girl; it just went against the rules and it left me scrambling to understand – no one is safe. It’s just one of those fears that women are reminded of all the time. I live alone and I don’t know how often I’m lectured by people (especially my mom) about how I shouldn’t go out at night alone, or how to protect myself. I usually just shrug it off, but this movie really tapped into that. Its a wild, gory ride, but something about it left a pit in my stomach. I guess that’s what fascinates me about it, it was able to tap into something real and repulsive. I’ve been waiting for the right time to revisit it again, and maybe it’s time to give it another go and see what I take away from it this round!

  • 8 cmcmcmcmNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Great article!

    I don’t really understand how a person can NOT re-watch movies.

    I’ve re-watched movies I loved and loved them again, and movies I didn’t like and wound up loving them, and movies I just kinda liked and either loved them or didn’t love them so much or maybe just liked them a little more and movies I didn’t like at all and still, in the end, didn’t like them – but it was all totally worth it!

    Then there are the ones I swear to god I’ve seen 50 times – and will STILL watch them again – which is the case with a lot of 70s & 80s horror and 70s & 80s Woody Allen movies.

    Thanks again!

  • 9 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Jeff X,

    Thanks so much. I was still working on this post last night when I realized that I accidently published it. I was about to freak out but then I saw your comment and it made me feel much better.

    Erin L,

    I’m the same way, sometimes I won’t even notice a character during the first view and then they later become my favorite. There are very few movies that I have fallen out of love with but there a couple movies that I get tired of hearing about. Maybe I’ll do a list of those!


    I love the ending too. It gets very surreal. It’s funny that when I was younger I took the stuff that happens only in his head as complete reality. Scared the hell out of me.


    Haha, I like that idea!

    Eric E,

    Spinell really is so good and so immersed in this movie. I feel like I was previously too distracted to realize how heartbreaking his performance was.


    Barton Fink! Love that one. I’m so haunted by that picture on the wall in that movie! I’ll have to watch Phantom of the Mall again on your recommendation. Maybe we should just do an all mall post soon and throw in The Initiation and Chopping Mall too!


    Exactly! There’s just something in this movie that is hard to shake off. I think it’s really challenging to be forced to identify and feel sympathy for the killer. It’s really popular now to suggest that the less you know about the killer the more effective the horror is and MANIAC is proof positive that is not true. And you’re right, there are no rules in this movie and no behavior that will save you. It kind of creeps up on you with the idea that it’s all very random, wrong place wrong time stuff. Even watching this recently I kept thinking “Always take a taxi!, never say no to a ride home from a friend!”


    Woody Allen movies have to be watched 50 times! I feel like I can watch movies just to set my mood a certain way. It’s like aroma therapy! When I worked in a video store there was stuff that I watched over and over again & so many movies that I did not dig until the 3rd or 4th viewing.

    If I get really depressed, I just watch Holiday and I am fixed. I can’t explain it but it always works.

  • 10 Philip MertzNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    I found a VHS called Thriller Zone in the bargain bin at a record store in late 2004. It had three short films on it and one of them was a shorter version of The Last Horror Film. It was titled, “Fanatical Extremes” and I remember thinking that they must have given Joe Spinell a camera after Maniac was done and just let him go nuts maybe to blow off some steam. Maybe that’s because he’s so convincing in the role as the director of his own film who’s obsessed with the actress played by Caroline Munro.
    In a way it seemed like a lighter version of Maniac which I’d seen about 6 or 7 years before. Now looking it up on IMDB I see that it was shot without permits during the Cannes film fest and that some of it was shot in Joe Spinell’s actual apartment. It’s a really fun movie, but I’d like to see the full version of it someday.

  • 11 Ben SherNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Also playing: EYEWITNESS and THE HOWLING! GOD those were the days.

    I very much related to this post. I’ve also developed much more empathy and sympathy with characters in horror films (villains and victims) since I was younger. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has become unbearable! I think I prefer my current way of interacting with movies, even though it can be more emotionally draining. I feel bad for anybody who doesn’t benefit from watching movies multiple times.

  • 12 Drew BluddNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I thank the movie ‘Maniac’ for introducing me to the song “Going To A Showdown” by Don Armando’s 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band!

  • 13 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Philip M,

    I just got Last Horror Film in the mail. I love all the stuff at Cannes and I believe Joe’s real mom stars in the film too. I’ll have a review up for it next week. The DVD also has the short MR. ROBBIE: Maniac 2 where Joe play’s a kid’s show host who kills abusive parents. ..

    Ben S,

    I agree! Even though it is more emotionally draining to conect to the victims and killers you’re kind of missing out if you don’t. The remake of Last house I thought was pretty good in showing the heartbreak and the tragic side of the events (Though the ending is way too over the top!)


    That song has been in my head all day!!!

    In case anyone missed it I posted this video on our FB page yesterday… it’s pretty hilarious!

  • 14 knobgobblerNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Maniac is one of the few movies I’ve consciously avoided watching again, despite thinking it’s pretty darn good at what it does. Another notable one is Henry, Portrait Of A Serial Killer. A Serbian Film probably goes on that list as well.
    The reason I haven’t gotten it up for Maniac again is because I just felt so badly for Spinell’s sad crazyman. I kept wanting Ms. Munro to coax him back to sanity and sunshine and kittens…

    Otherwise I totally agree about watching movies over and over again.
    My favorite example is Muriel’s Wedding… which I’ve probably watched more times than anything else except Rocky Horror Picture Show. Muriel’s Wedding has so much going on, so many different sorts of movies contained within in it (including horror), that it’s pretty much been a different everytime I’ve seen it (though it has yet to be the feel-good lighthearted comedy that the cover of the box wants me to think it is).

  • 15 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2012 at 9:17 pm


    Funny you should say that. I’ve only seen HENRY once! I’m kinda afraid to watch it again. That one is just too real & I’m afraid of attracting bad mojo.

    I may have to force myself to watch it again now to see what happens.

    I’m pretending Serbian film does not exist.

    Outside of horror, I can watch Broadcast News for forever and Blade Runner I’ve seen a zillion times. I may have a serious Grease 2 addiction too. Oh, my poor neighbors.

  • 16 batsupsidedownNo Gravatar // Feb 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Great article. Maniac is definitely up there as probably the one of the strangest movie experiences I’ve ever had. The first time I ever saw it I was in a hospital..

    Back in high school I had ordered a VHS copy from Suncoast video, but never got to pick it up before I had a spontaneous lung collapse.. which put my in the hospital for a week and a half. My dad went and picked it up for me.. and dropped it off when he came to visit. I was the youngest patient on the floor and became friendly with the nurses. As a special gift the wheeled in a big tv with a vcr for me. At around 11pm after visiting hours, by myself, connected to a lung fluid sucking machine, and doped up on morphine I watched Maniac for the first time. I was completely blown away. I remember pausing it when a nurse came in to talk.. to protect her from the brutality I was seeing. This was probably one of this first movies I had seen where I didn’t want other people to know what I was watching. It wasn’t just a normal horror film.. it felt really dangerous.

    Awesome movie that definitely has some strange memories attached to it for me.

  • 17 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 24, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Great comment Batupsidedown!

    That should be it’s own traumafession post! Thank you for sharing your story!

    I just found this clip too…

    I can’t believe anyone would take “Silent Scream” to task. It’s not a very violent movie.

    And why does he say that the killer in Silent Scream is a frustrated young man? The killer in that movie is a woman. Did he even watch it?

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