Blu-Ray Review: MANIAC

I was too young to catch the theatrical release of Bill Lustig's brutal low-budget slasher film Maniac in 1980, but I did see the film on VHS in the mid-80s. Watching Blue Underground's all-region 30th Anniversary Maniac Blu-Ray, which hits the streets on October 26th, brought back some ugly memories with high-definition clarity. Unlike many video upgrades that rehash readily available films without adding significant value, Blue Underground's Maniac -- over 7 hours of extras are included -- is a model for how to handle a catalog Blu-Ray release.

Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a sweaty psycho who was abused by his mother. When he sees a woman, he sees a mother. In response, he trolls the streets, beaches, and subways in search of murder victims. After the killings, he retreats to his dingy New York City bachelor pad, which is filled with cheap art, mannequins, and body parts. At some point, he develops a thing for beautiful Italian fashion photographer (Caroline Munro) who becomes ensnared in his murderous mama's boy fantasy.

Maniac is the epitome of a grungy cash-strapped 80's slasher. Characterization is non-existent. Motivation is minimal. The film's repetitive structure is built around little more than murder set pieces -- the opening scene is a murder -- and scenes in the main character's bedroom. Joe Spinell plays it completely weird with heavy breathing, facial ticks and psycho voices. Caroline Munro, who replaced Daria Nicolodi shortly before shooting started, doesn't get much to do except look good. That is more than sufficient because her presence is a welcome respite from the film's bludgeoning ugly tone. The gore is basically a third character in this movie. Tom Savini runs through a well-developed gore toolkit  -- throat slashings, scalpings, beheadings, stabbings, and the like -- that still looks pretty good.

Blue Underground's Blu-Ray release is spread across a dual layer Blu-Ray, which contains the feature and extras, and a dual-layer DVD of extras. The feature was sourced from a 2K transfer of the original uncut 16mm negative. MPEG-4 AVC compression is almost 30mbps, which is extremely high, and the film has really been cleaned up. However, the restoration doesn't look too good; the grainy 16mm atmosphere that is so crucial to its appeal is well-preserved. Maniac was recorded in Dolby Stereo, but the Blu-Ray only provides English language 7.1 DTS-HD and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX tracks. German, French, and Italian viewers get Dolby Surround 2.0 audio tracks.

In addition to two audio commentaries, an array of trailers and radio spots, four brand new HD featurettes are included. The subjects are: Caroline Munro, Tom Savini, soundtrack composer Jay Chattaway, and the composers of the chart-topping song Maniac -- songwriters Michael Sembello and Dennis Matosky. The featurette with Sembello and Matosky is worth highlighting. For years, rumors have floated around that the song Maniac from the movie Flashdance was somehow inspired by William Lustig's slasher film. This short featurette gets to the bottom of the urban legend. Those who see this video will never think of the song in the same way again.

The standard-def extras DVD ports over the The Joe Spinell Story documentary from the 2001 Anchor Bay Maniac DVD. A set of radio and television publicity clips, which are OK, are  included. The best thing on the extras DVD are the news clips about Maniac's controversial theatrical release. These news stories, one of which features Gene Siskel, have an outraged alarmist tone that makes it seem as if American society was on the verge of collapse. The nation is still standing strong thirty years later. I think.

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