Maniac (1980)

Opinion & writing by Tony Frame

Maniac was one of the films in the video nasty era that I unfortunately never saw until very recently. I guess the film would have had a more profound effect on me had I seen it then, back in the day.

It’s hard to judge the film now when it’s main strength lies in the schlock factor and ultra-violence against women which, back in 1981, would have hit a nerve and gotten it the notoriety that ultimately followed.


As a low budget independent film it has its merits; Joe Spinell manages to pull off a low-key performance as the brutal killer terrorising New York city. The street shots, filmed without permits — on the fly — give it a gritty edge and a slight documentary style.

The graphic murders, which involves Spinell scalping his female victims — as well as a particularly infamous shotgun blast to the head — are orchestrated by effects legend Tom Savini.

One of the more bizarre elements in the film — that adds to its uniqueness — is Spinell’s apartment which is filled with mannequins, adorned with the bloody scalps of his victims.

Not only that, but he talks and interacts with the mannequins, as if they were real people, and this really adds to the creepiness of the story.

It is probably another reason why it was banned in the UK (for over 20 years) when the BBFC refused to give it a certification when it was first released.


The film does teeter on being a repetitive B-movie slasher, but it does manage to redeem itself with its themes of child abuse and Spinell’s performance, portraying what would be classed as a paranoid schizophrenic in today’s climate.

Jay Chattaway’s haunting score adds some major gravitas to the film which climaxes with a memorable and shocking ending.


I can envisage the shock-waves the film would have caused back in the early eighties. And certainly its influence can be found in films throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century.

The director (William Lustig) would go on to hone his film-making skills with his Maniac Cop trilogy. Joe Spinell would continue working throughout the eighties in a number of films, but was only cast in a lead role one more time before his untimely death in 1989, at the age of 52.

His filmography included roles in The Godfather, Rocky, Cruising, Sorcerer and Taxi Driver to name a few. But it will probably be his role in Maniac that he will be remembered for the most.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Director: William Lustig

Writers: C.A. Rosenberg (screenplay), Joe Spinell (screenplay) | 1 more credit »

Stars: Joe SpinellCaroline MunroAbigail Clayton See full cast & crew »


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