December in New York, just before Christmas, and Maniac Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is on the loose. He kills women and scalps them, and no one is safe. Typical slasher set-up, but here the difference lies in the focus. We don’t have a victim as a lead, but the killer. We see into his den of foulness, we hear the conversations in his head (revolving entirely around his bizarre obsession with his Mother) and we see his routine during the build-up to his crimes. Normally, the running time would be filled with a traditional Cop character hot on Zito’s trail, trying to catch him before he kills again. Here, there seems to be no hero in the wings, and the police are instead relegated to the news bulletins we watch along with Zito.
So, December then. Cold, right? Not in Maniac it seems. The opening scene, in tribute to Jaws, is a young couple sleeping rough out at the beach. Rather than become victims to the weather, they are Zito’s first. He chooses his kills at random, often making split-second decisions that have little or no common theme. He truly is a murderer without an obvious motive to anyone not inside his world. You might be getting into your car to head home, you might be a prostitute offering ‘The Ultimate’ or someone in-between. There is no pattern, and it’s a powerful and frightening idea – that there is nothing you can do to avoid being selected. This isn’t a ‘stay out of the woods’ or ‘don’t go into the cellar’ movie, this is a ‘cross your fingers and hope you aren’t a nice looking young lass with a good head of hair’ movie.
Back at his pad, it’s nice to see that the Maniac has a Christmas tree (albeit poorly decorated) in amongst all the usual psycho paraphernalia like a shrine to his abusive mother, a collection of female scalps and an assortment of disconcerting child’s dolls. It’s little touches such as this that add a strange sense of normality to the proceedings. The killer is not merely a faceless shadow in the darkness, he is instead a social outcast and loner. Nothing unusual there, but here is also a man with a deranged home life. At times he is reluctant in doing his work, which seems to be collecting mannequins and finding real scalps to replace the fake hair. He does not relish the murders, nor does he simply pounce on his prey every time. Some, like the prostitute he chokes to death, are obviously attractive to him alive, yet he is compelled by forces beyond his control to kill them. After the choking, he is immediately sick with disgust. Others he stalks for longer periods of time, playing out a lengthy game to which we are a party at every turn.
The strangest section of the film is also the least brutal. Zito manages, with nary an explanation, to ingratiate himself into the social circle of a successful and remarkably attractive female photographer by merely turning up at her house in a cravat and a big pair of specs. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well.
Spinell’s character is, of course, a deeply disturbed person. He also has a disconcerting habit of grunting and breathing heavily the whole time, like a fat guy at a barbecue. Alongside the startlingly dated soundtrack (first-timer Jay Chattaway) the routine of a Zito point-of-view shot, whilst he’s watching his prey and moaning, turns the viewer themselves into the stalker. Luckily, we exit this POV shot when the killing is underway, and are instead treated to extreme close-ups of eyeballs rolling around in their sockets and knives being plunged into necks.
As one might expect from a slasher flick which Tom Savini has more than just a hand in, the death sequences are inventive and suitably grisly. For proof positive of their quality, check out the (infamous) shotgun through the windscreen killing around the 27 minute mark – a great effect, a great screen death, and you can see why Savini is considered such a legend of the low-budget horror scene. Throughout the rest of the film blood flows just as readily. Scalps are scalped and people scream as Zito sticks a variety of things in their bodies in a variety of painful looking ways. Along the same lines as so many films of this genre, sex is what gets you in trouble. The couple at the beach, hookers, a couple in the back seat of a car – all are victims. Hormone fuelled teenagers are being sent a clear message by these films. That sex is incredibly dangerous, morally wrong and you will get sliced apart by a fat loony if you succumb.
The film saves the best for last, naturally. The denouement sees Frank come face to face with his demons in a misty graveyard, before returning home to be butchered by his army of mannequins in spectacular fashion. Undeniably a slasher flick at heart, this is also a film that offers a new perspective in a well trodden genre. There is no hero, and despite his lengthy monologues and clearly tortured background the only sympathy lies with the poor girls that die at Zito’s hands. Suitable justice is meted out eventually, although the final frames may tell of a different story to come.
One thing to note about the Anchor Bay DVD version I have is that it comes with an excellent four-man commentary team – Director William Lustig, Effects man Tom Savini, Editor Lorenzo Marinelli and Assistant Camerman Luke Walter, self-proclaimed ‘pal’ of the sadly dead Spinelli - which explains the films origins as being ‘Jaws on Land’. It's interesting to listen to the trials and tribulations and stories that emerge from the making of a low budget horror flick of this nature.