Remember Tony Gazzo from Rocky? You know he was Rocky’s former boss in the fancy duds? If it’s starting to come back to you that was character actor Joe Spinell in arguably his most notable role. Spinell was also known by mainstream audiences for his role as Willi Cicci in The Godfather Parts 1 and 2. But to most horror fans Joe Spinell will always be known as Frank Zito in William Lustig’s 1980 film Maniac. A film so violent that film critic Gene Siskel famously walked out of it mid-progress. Then again, that was 1980. By today’s standards, the film is less shocking and far more compelling for another reason. Joe Spinell gives one of the best slasher baddie performances since Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
Frank Zito (Spinell) is an overweight, fortysomething, Italian-American man living in a New York ghetto. By day he’s the landlord of an apartment complex, but by night he’s a schizophrenic serial killer. His fetish involves killing women, scalping them, and then decorating a room full of mannequins with their scalps. Frank often talks to the mannequins and on occasion pretends he’s talking to his deceased mother. At this point, you might be saying, “Isn’t this just Psycho in different packaging?” And you’d be right. Still, this is better than your typical slasher and certainly better acted.
Joe Spinell (who also co-wrote the film) was a seasoned character actor. It would have been easy to bring in some big lug to just stand around in silence, but Maniac takes a different approach. We follow Frank every step of the way, delving deeper and deeper into his psychosis and Spinell never falters. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you have effects wizard Tom Savini pumping all that blood on screen. One of Savini’s finest effects is on display in Maniac (I think it speaks for itself) and if I’m not mistaken, it was after this scene that Gene Siskel walked out.
I’m not sure why there has been so much ill will towards Maniac over the years. It’s certainly not absurdly sickening by today’s standards. If anything, the practical effects are greatly underappreciated. The film also makes great use of its setting, presenting New York like a landscape for Urban warfare. It’s not unlike the kind of feeling you get from watching a late 70s John Carpenter movie like Assault on Precinct 13. It may not be the most innovative slasher film, but it’s a film that attempts to capture a certain mood and on that level, it succeeds.
P.S. A remake was recently made and premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It stars Elijah Wood… What?