Maniac (1980) He's a Maniac, And He's Killing Like He Never Killed Before!

A man prowls the New York City streets to find a hooker who promises him the “ultimate“. He takes her to a seedy motel, $35 for the night. The hooker begins to strip, he tells the girl to keep her clothes on. Then they’re on the bed and he climbs on top his fingers lacing round her neck, the man begins to strangle the life out of her. She struggles beneath him. Her eyes filled with panic. It goes on past the point a movie should, it feels real, voyeuristic, and uncomfortable. And this is how we are introduced to Frank Zito and William Lustig’s 1980 film, Maniac.Banned or released heavily cut in some countries, this is a film that has a well deserved reputation of intensity.

Frank Zito was abandoned years ago by his mother when she perished in a car accident. Sure she was an abusive streetwalker with nothing but hate for her son, but a boy misses his mother. So Frank hunts for women, scalps them, and pins their scalps on a series of mannequins. Frank is stalking in the park when he gets his picture taken by Anna D’Antoni, a fashion photographer. He tracks her down, but Frank feels different about Anna. He thinks he may have found the woman who could actually replace his mother.

Frank Zito, his name a tribute to Joseph Zito the director of early slasher The Prowler, could only have been embodied by Joe Spinell. The character actor, who first came to notice as Mafioso Will Cicci in The Godfather, stalks the screen and fills it with equal parts menace and pity. That’s the genius Spinell brought to the role. Not only did Frank Zito seem like one of the most frightening, sadistic creations to come through the screen; he also manages to extract the smallest amount of empathy for his demented sicko. The audience meets a killer, but also a sad, lonely, pathetic man

When Frank Zito meets Anna played by the lovely Caroline Munro, the film makes a dramatic shift. It actually becomes a kind of romance movie for a moment, but because of what we know Frank is capable of, you’ll want to reach though the screen and tell Anna to get away as fast as she can. Anna and Frank make an odd couple, and you have ton wonder how she would fall for a man who looks a bit like a sweatier Mark David Chapman. However, the fact that she does adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. Little things like that make it easier to accept when the film takes some turns toward the nightmarish, with a body rising from the grave and a group of zombies. The supernatural elements which come as something of a surprise are even more jarring because of the work of special effects master Tom Savini.

Tom also puts in a memorable appearance as Disco Boy. As the name implies, Savini is resplendent in his butterfly collared glory. Disco Boy trying to get his groove on with a girl in the back seat of his car when Frank Zito bounds up on the hood and blows him away. The scene was perfectly captured in a grainy slow motion which was only lit the car’s headlights. Disco Boy’s head explodes with such an excess of gore that the dummy used for the head explosion had to be retired, and it had been used in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Not happy with just merely being the recipient of the double barrels of death, Tom also took it upon himself to deliver the shot to the face. In a gross understatement, he described the experience of executing his doppelganger as “kind of weird”.

Maniac was William Lustig’s first mainstream film after starting his career in adult film helming the titles Hot Honey and The Violation of Claudia. (The latter starred porn mainstay Sharon Mitchell who makes a cameo appearance in Maniac as Nurse #2.) I don’t know if Lustig’s past in blue movies informed the raw, gritty, real style that pervades the film, but Lustig brought to screen a visceral experience where even the film’s more bizarre elements are easily accepted. He also managed to deliver on the script written by Spinelli and C.A. Rosenberg and form an ending which is both satisfying and infinitely debatable.

Maniac is a film which not only contains a bizarre tale; it has a few which surround it as well. The film intended to have a theme song at one time, but it wasn’t used. Instead the lyrics were toned down and when Michael Sembello crooned the hit “Maniac” in the film Flashdance, he was really singing a neutered song about Frank Zito. If that’s not a strange enough connection, try this one on for size. The headless corpse used in the end of the film was also the body used as the lopped off corpse of Betsy Palmer, the one and true Mrs. Voorhees. And of course in true B-movie style, the film was shot with a guerilla attitude. Many scenes, including the spectacular shotgun blast, were shot without permits, and the crew would have to scramble to set up and break down the equipment before the cops arrived.

Spinell would go on to reteam with Mureo for the 1982 film The Last Horror Film, but never managed to capture the fire he had as Frank Zito. When he died suddenly in 1989, he was preparing to shop for investors in a planned sequel. Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie. William Lustig would continue to produce and direct, and he was the force behind the Maniac Cop series as well as the direct to video campy classic Uncle Sam. While some of those films are high water marks in cult horror, Lustig would never capture the raw feeling of his first genre film. Maniac is a film that has a great reputation, but I feel like few people have seen this flick. This is one that fits right in with the gritty horror movement of the early 80’s and deserves to be put up there with the great psychos in film history.

Bugg Rating


  1. A great slasher film that I haven't seen in many, many years. Excellent review. I definitely look forward to a rewatch. That Tom Savini death is still embedded in my brain.

  2. Just saw this for the first time last week, and really loved it. As you said, one of the great psychos. He's good enough to get Caroline Munro, bad enough to not understand that. Wicked cool.

  3. Good review....haven't seen this movie, but from the moment I read the title, the "Maniac" earworm began. It's just that after reading your first paragraph, I have such a graphic picture in my brain to go along with it!

  4. Totally dig Maniac. I only saw this one for the first time in '05 and wished I had attempted it sooner. Spinell was creepy as hell. Leaps and bounds from his role in Rocky.

    Bugg, you're kidding about the Flashdance connection, right? If not, that is the greatest bit of film trivia EVER. It sounds just weird enough to be true. Just think, I could have the theme song to "Maniac" on my iPod.

  5. In January of 1981 Ms. Munro was at Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material's Store in NYC promoting Manaiac. I met her & got an autographed 8x10 (now long gone) from her.
    Even more beautiful in person

  6. Almost forgot, got to see Maniac later on at Times Square, the 2nd feature was Blood Beach


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