She’s been dead for almost 30 years and he’s still not over it.
Frank Zito lives alone in a one-room apartment. One night, he wakes up screaming in a cold sweat. Then, he weeps. Once he gathers himself, he washes up, gets dressed and leaves.
While wandering around aimlessly on the streets of New York he encounters a hooker with cheap rates. (It only costs 125 dollars for “the ultimate”, whatever that means.) They check right into the sleazy hotel she had just been outside standing in front of to get down to business. Sadly, he won’t be sleeping over to enjoy the next morning’s continental breakfast.
The middle-aged schlub isn’t really interested in sex beyond some perfunctory making out and requested model poses. No, our boy Zito would much rather strangle this working girl until she stops breathing. Then, with typical compassion, he barfs in the bathroom sink and weeps while blaming her for her own murder. What a gentleman.
Why did he do it? The lack of a sensible answer is the biggest problem with Maniac, one of the most notorious horror films of the 1980s. As amply documented on its otherwise excellent 30th Anniversary double-DVD release (the hours of extras are far better than the film itself), feminists and movie critics were so vocal in their hatred of it, their protests got covered in the news. Siskel & Ebert famously devoted an entire episode of their PBS series Sneak Previews to analyze the startling plethora of “Women In Danger” films like Maniac in the American cinema. A feminist anti-rape organization protested outside theatres showing the film advocating for a boycott. In one news report, we see an offended woman literally paint over a billboard poster of the movie because she got tired of seeing it from her office everyday.
35 years after the film first premiered, it’s incredibly easy to understand why it pissed off so many people. It is excessively violent and deeply misogynistic. More importantly, though, this work of depraved fiction is thoroughly incoherent.
Played by late character actor Joe Spinell (The Godfather, Rocky), Zito is a constantly groaning homicidal self-talker with serious mommy issues and a fetish for mannequins wearing nailed bloody scalps of human hair. He claims his mother died in an automobile accident in 1952. But during the scene where he chokes the hooker to death his mom’s face is briefly seen in her place. Does this mean he was sexually abused as a child and is belatedly punishing his mother through a sort-of lookalike while reliving a trauma? The film is never clear on this. Through voiceover flashbacks, we learn her idea of good discipline was locking him in a closet. Why? Who knows. Either way, Zito’s constant weeping about all of this never warrants any sympathy when we don’t know the whole story.
Further complicating his motivations are his views of women in general. He openly despises their joy, their freedom to dance and laugh, the way they dress, their use of make-up, their seemingly carefree sexuality. He wants it all to stop, hence all the horrific murders he commits against random women like the nurse he chases all the way down into a subway bathroom or the model who has just taken a welcome bubble bath in her apartment after a long photo shoot.
His misogyny has roots in his childhood. He didn’t approve of his mother’s personal choices, whatever the hell they were (vagueness is this movie’s Achilles heel), which has led him to needlessly and ruthlessly punish these other women. Was she a prostitute like the woman he strangled in the hotel or a single mom who simply dated a lot? Again, it’s not clear and truthfully, it doesn’t matter. (There’s nothing wrong with being a sex worker or having a full dance card.) The point is that Zito has very weak motivations for being a serial killer in the first place.
The two men he also kills have nothing at all to do with his burning hatred of women. They are simply unfortunate witnesses who need to be executed, lest he be caught by the curiously absent authorities. As awful as the misogynistic murder scenes are (they’re as bad as anything seen in the Saw & Friday The 13th franchises), the ones involving these male victims are just as appalling. In fact, the scene where a mustachioed disco clubber gets his head blown off at close range while sitting in a parked car (why he doesn’t just drive away is baffling) is undoubtedly the most gruesome of them all.
Midway through the film, Zito gets photographed by a beautiful British photographer (Caroline Munro from The Spy Who Loved Me) in Central Park. After he spots her, she conveniently leaves behind her bag which just happens to have a tag with her name and full address on it. Next thing she knows, the same guy whose photo she’s literally just finished developing in her apartment darkroom is now at her door wanting to see it.
At no time during this impromptu visit does she elicit even the slightest bit of trepidation or suspicion. Despite Zito being a walking red flag, she is actually interested in the undesirable psycho and even accepts his offer of a dinner date where his rather unsubtle propensity for jealous possession is never a serious cause for concern.
Why he continues to date her when he’d rather be killing women who kind of resemble his dead mother for rather confusing reasons is yet another mystery the film is not terribly interested in fully exploring in an intelligent way (not that the relationship is at all convincing to begin with). By the time he persuades her to make a cemetery pit stop to pay respects to his mother’s grave while on another date, it’s more than clear his naïve, new girlfriend is the most tolerant human being he’s ever met.
Beyond a couple of quick, catchy, inessential snippets of disco, there is absolutely nothing redeemable about Maniac. Not one god damn thing. Thinly sketched characters are introduced and then immediately extinguished for no good reason as the demented Zito curiously changes up his methods of execution in one clichéd slasher scene after another.
While I was repulsed by the murders, I laughed uproariously during two unexpected moments of delusion. There’s an unnecessary tribute to the last scene of Carrie and a bizarre revenge sequence where his small collection of mannequins suddenly, predictably and murderously spring to life. (The headless one made me crack up.) It “pays off” with a very fake special effect that betrays the film’s low budget.
Gene Siskel famously walked out of a screening of Maniac after only lasting a half hour. Gene Siskel was a better man than I am.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, May 21, 2015