Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a deranged man with a serious Oedipus complex, and stalks the harsh streets of New York punishing women for reasons that only he seems to understand. As he wanders the streets, he is haunted by his inner demons and the voice of his dead mother. Those voices follow him home, where he argues with mannequins that wear the hair he scalped off his victims.
His life is turned upside down when he falls for a pretty young model named Anna D’Antoni (the beautiful Caroline Munro), who seems to see a lot in this monster with whom she knows nothing about. It takes a real stretch of the imagination to believe that Munro would fall in love with a man of Spinell’s nature, but their acting makes it a believable sell to the audience.
Several factors elevate this classic horror film above what one might expect in the genre. For starters, the passionate acting of the late Spinell packs an emotional wallop. A veteran character actor in classics such as “The Godfather,” “Taxi Driver,” “Cruising” and “Rocky,” it was this film that Spinell co-wrote in hopes of landing himself a leading role. He spends a large portion of “Maniac” onscreen, and is convincing right from the start.
We learn about the character of Zito when we watch him senselessly strangle and scalp a young prostitute – the sheer violence and horror seen through his eyes serve as an introduction into the bizarre world we are about to enter. This is grim, nasty, edge-of-your-seat, renegade filmmaking.
A large portion of the grim nastiness is due to the realistic depiction of violence designed by Tom Savini. The blood splatters across the screen in this tale, and the attention to the detail for the gore effects is some of the most phenomenal work to ever come across the screen – this is no CGI, but the sheer brilliance of Savini’s imagination.
Lustig utilizes those two elements to create a hauntingly realistic vision of a serial killer running amok on the terrified citizens of New York. It is a testament to the director that this picture was put together as something different from some of the slasher films in theaters at the time.
Due to its brutal nature, “Maniac” is not a film for everyone, but those who love horror movies should see it.