Occasionally, a genre film will attract the attention of a mainstream audience in an “unexpected way”. Maniac premiered in New York City on January 30, 1981, playing to packed audiences on 42nd street, a group well-versed in the exploitation cinema of the 1970s and early 80s. But when the film started to open in other markets around the country, the film received the type of negative publicity that was rare for the time period, with protesters picketing theaters which screened the film for its portrayal of graphic violence, especially towards women. Many critics and film historians point to Maniac as the last gasp for the slasher sub-genre, before increased scrutiny from censors and concerned civic groups curtailed the production of and marketing ability of filmmakers to produce stories like Maniac. Since then, Maniac has been given a second-life as one of the truly controversial films of the decade, yet it has also become a touchstone for modern critics, who continue to fall on either side of the argument.
Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Maniac’s reputation has grown to legendary status since its theatrical release. And while Maniac’s Grand Guignol style of gore is certainly prominent in the film (much more so than Chainsaw), Spinell’s performance, focusing on the predatory habits and damaged psyche of a human monster can clearly be seen as a precursor to John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or even David Fincher’s Mindhunter series. It is clear that Frank Zito is not a character than anyone would want to emulate, and he couldn’t be farther away from “the elegant, genius” serial killers that would populate cinemas during the 1990s.
Blue Underground’s latest version of Maniac gives the sleazy film a first class upgrade in their new 4K edition. Maniac was shot on 16mm film, so Blue Underground’s 2018 4K restoration can only capture so much detail in the original camera negative itself. By scanning the original negative at 4K resolution, one can be assured that this disc offers as much detail as has ever existed (and ever could exist) in Maniac. What separates this release from Blue Underground’s original Blu-Ray release is the HDR feature that often comes with the UHD format. Colors pop on this disc without looking unnatural, the black levels are deeper, and there’s more to see in the shadows with this release. Purples and reds especially stand out in this presentation, the latter which enhances Tom Savini’s explosive special effects and makes some of the film’s more surreal shots especially unsettling. Even better, Blue Underground achieves a solid HDR presentation without ever resorting to “torch mode” in any of the daylight scenes… there is a solid color and brightness composition throughout the film. While the Blu-Ray might suffice for many other movies shot on 16mm film, Blue Underground’s attentive restoration and careful use of HDR makes their 4K release of Maniac an essential disc for anyone looking to see the film under the best visual circumstances possible. The visual quality of the sets, special effects, and performances are certainly improved as a result of the transfer, capturing a bygone era of the city and guerrilla film making.
All of the extras from the 2017 Blu-Ray release have been ported over for this version (in Blu-Ray, not 4K form), including two featurettes: Maniac Outtakes and “Returning to the Scene of the Crime with William Lustig”. Lustig’s reminiscence about the making of the film, his directing choices and locations (in particular, the St. James Hotel which was once a den of inequity, and is now a classy boutique hotel), and various tales of mayhem involved with filming the feature without permits or permission in some cases, are eye-opening and entertaining.
The original extras still hold up today and offer a comprehensive examination of the Grindhouse era and the controversy that the film stirred up. The extended interviews with co-star Caroline Munro, special effects guru Tom Savini, song writers Michael Sembello and Dennis Matkosky, composer Jay Chattaway, and The Joe Spinell Story mini-documentary (45 minutes) cover all aspects of the creation of the film. The other extras such as the previous Maniac Publicity and Maniac Controversy fully detail the hysteria caused by the film’s original release (and it seems like the main culprit was the lascivious artwork which doesn’t fully capture the essence of the film, but certainly was responsible for the back lash and profits). Few genre films from this era, and even fewer Blu-Ray sets, dedicate as much time to giving fans a complete look at the time and place of the film, as well as all the ancillary aspects that helped create Maniac.
The two commentary tracks from the 2010 release are also included in this collection, one featuring Lustig and producer Andrew W. Garroni and the other featuring Lustig, Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Joe Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter.