To Mom

Frank Zito’s shower leaks. Maybe it’s his sink. Whatever it is, Maniac’s killer lives in deteriorating squalor, a one-room apartment, it seems, placed at the end of an alley. A dark alley, of course. That’s where murderers stay.

On release, Maniac earned infamy for its violence. There’s no mystery as to why, and given Maniac’s crudeness, defending the cruelty means engaging in mental gymnastics.

Rather than question Maniac itself (or the content) though, it’s better to examine how society pushed itself to this extreme. Zito (Joe Spinell) recreates Psycho’s Norman Bates, a man obsessed with his deceased mother, stalking women at night, then murdering them with sharp instruments.

By 1980, in particular New York’s harrowing entry into the decade, Bates seemed peaceful. In Psycho’s blistering outbursts, there was a cinematic classiness. Dark, cruel, morbid, yet fascinating. Flash forward two decades: It wasn’t Maniac that set off the city’s unfathomable crime rates – urbanity did. Growing wealth disparities, racial inequities, and people compressed into ever tighter quarters acted like a pressure cooker. That’s what gave birth to Maniac.

… the industry let Maniac be because who could say no?

Psycho’s famed knifing used perspective and edits to make its mark. In some sense, Maniac does too, only now, the camera doesn’t look away. Zito runs up the hood of a car, points a shotgun at the driver, and fires. Perspective places the viewer is in the backseat, helplessly staring until a head explodes. Spectacular splatter and a classless screen murder, yet it speaks to a society on the verge of breakdown. This is what sold tickets. Morbid curiosity at play, or maybe a necessity to see what news could only put into words.

Maniac is an imprint, a self-reflective stamp on failing morals. Big city scuzz, every minute of it, if never inherently dishonest, just crude. Spinell capably chills even when not brandishing a weapon. Like with the shotgun blast, he gives a monologue looking directly into the camera, the slow pan across his bed slowly trying to exit his eyeline. Those watching see what his potential victims see, because Maniac forces them to, and to confront a boorish if no less frightening reality.

Most of Zito’s actions display a certain perversion; he stalks women because that’s what these movies do in targeting/courting males. Sex angers him. The modern equivalent is an incel whose misogyny rages unchecked. There’s no pity to be found in Zito, even in understanding his inability to mourn. Instead, he lashes out. The city lets him because systems failed. And, the industry let Maniac be because who could say no?

Video

Released simultaneously with Zombie by Blue Underground, the two films share little other than dealing in gore and minimal budgets. Maniac exists in persistent darkness, often crushing shadows by way of the coarse 16mm stock. It’s a case of “it is what it is,” but with an added, “and always will be” tacked on.

4K represents 16mm’s maximum potential. Maniac, with this 4K scan, cannot look better. Maybe encoding improves in the future, but this disc doesn’t show any inherent compression faults. Grain appropriately thickens, resolved and organic. Detail isn’t extraordinary, if still present. Close-ups produce fine definition. New York exteriors nail the skyline and grim alleyways, natural softness a minor barrier.

Dolby Vision treats light sources well, embellishing downtown skyscrapers while the camera pans by at night. Candles pop a little, if not much. Given source limitations, shadow delineation won’t impress either. The gains come alongside deep color, enriching flesh tones and primaries to stunning levels. While still grimy and dirty – aesthetic isn’t lost – the purple walls in Zito’s room excel now. Blood never looked so red.

Audio

The newly added track is Dolby Atmos. Blue Underground preserves the DTS-HD 5.1 and mono mixes too, thankfully. Spread consolidates into mono more often than not, yet Atmos does stretch a bit. Nice stereo movement provides a little energy. In noting newness, seagulls call in the heights and as kids play on swings, metal groans overhead. Neither effect is natural, but does prove something was tweaked.

Understandably thin fidelity preserves scratchy dialog, purely as possible. Scoring drives energy into the low-end, if not much. Expect little, and that’s fine.

Extras

On the UHD, dueling commentaries. Director William Lustig features on both, joined by producer Andrew Garroni on the first, and Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and assistant Luke Walter on the second. Promo material follows.

Over on the bonus Blu-ray, Blue Underground ports all bonuses from their previous release (those commentaries were also ported). Interviews include Caroline Munro, Tom Savini, composer Jay Chattaway, and the songwriters, Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky. William Lustig tours locations in a featurette.

A whole section on controversy digs up local news reports and newspaper clippings criticizing Maniac’s content. Nearly 20 minutes of 16mm outtakes come next, a mix of deleted scenes and random set footage narrated by the Lustig. The Joe Spinell Story runs 49-minutes, detailing the actor’s eccentricities and life. Finally, promo materials and a short reel teasing the possible sequel.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Maniac (1980)
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
2

Movie

There’s little to takeaway from Maniac, but it’s worth exploring the culture that brought it into existence in the first place.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 36 full resolution uncompressed 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: