The recent Independent Film Channel screening of MANIAC was the kind of weird unexpected viewing opportunity that is the reason digital cable exists. Released in 1980, MANIAC was arguably the most controversial of the post-HALLOWEEN slasher movies, released unrated in the US, banned in some countries, cut in others. And while critics in general threw an amusing fit of moral outrage over the popularity of the subgenre as a whole (though, in fairness, as critics they were ordered to see an unhealthy fraction of them), it's easier to see why they got upset about this one as opposed to, say, FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3.
Joe Spinell (a character actor who appeared in both the first two GODFATHER and ROCKY movies, and who wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with C. A. Rosenberg) plays Frank Zito, a psychopathic serial killer who kills young women (and occasionally men) in the New York area, keeping scalps and occasional bits of clothing and using them to dress mannequins he keeps in his hovel. Between murders he talks to his dead mother and himself, the murderous side continually bullying the guilty child. As a normal man he meets and begins dating Anna (Caroline Munro), a fashion photographer. That doesn't go so well, as one might imagine.
A number of elements combine to make this one of the more uncomfortably sleazy entries in an already not very respectable genre. The story is told almost entirely from Frank's point of view, and Spinnel portrays him in a way that engenders some sympathy. In this way it's reminiscent of PEEPING TOM, especially the romantic subplot, but the killings are more gruesome and even more sexualized, which makes our identification with Frank even more uncomfortable. The gore in this film, orchestrated by makeup guru Tom Savini (who also has a small role as "Disco Boy"), is fairly intense. Finally, there's a level of gritty, grimy realism here that's not present in the average slasher film (the pictures generally being more outlandish, gimmicky affairs.) It was shot almost entirely on location in New York at the height of its "great place to visit for about an hour or so" status, and the media panic as the killer keeps striking almost at random makes me wonder if the writers didn't take a page from the Son of Sam rampage. Particularly striking is a chase that takes place at a subway station in the dead of night, walls decked with graffiti and gates rusted and creaking. All of which combines to make this not a near-supernatural fantasy about an unstoppable killer terrorizing psuedo-teenagers, but an ugly little thriller about a sick man who cuts up women. It's strong stuff in some ways.
Which, unfortunately, is not to say it's good. In the end it fumbles. The climactic scenes are rushed, devolving into a silly chase and some final ludicrousness that, though a hallucination, seems to exist only because someone demanded a "horror movie" ending. The last shot is the kind of cheap, stupid ending that the slasher flick is known for. In some ways it's a relief because it makes the whole film easier to shrug off- it leaves the uncomfortable realm of authentic horror for the familiar and safe conventions. That said, I think more of this film in retrospect than I did immediately after seeing it. It stays with you.
Fortunately, no such inner conflicts are elicited by ZOMBI 3, the rented DVD with which I decided to round out the evening. It's just plain awful- the worst zombie film I've ever seen, and I've seen ZOMBIE LAKE. This is the film that has a flying skull, zombie birds, leaping kung-fu zombies and a helicopter chase and manages to screw up all of these things. It's the kind of film you can't even recommend to fans of the genre, and I AM a fan of the genre. As a kid I was terrified by zombies, as an adult I consider them a selling point. Just as Leslie Nielsen is funny enough that he now appears mostly in films which have no laughs and rely on his presence to make them seem funny, zombies often appear in movies which have no merit other than having zombies in them, because zombies sell. I'd say something about casting pearls before swine, but I'm giving this movie a detailed review, so who am I to talk?
So, okay. A terrorist or saboteur or something (seriously, who knows?) steals a container of "Death One", an unsubtly named biowarfare agent, from a U.S. (possibly) weapons lab. In the pursuit a gunman shoots open the container, which dribbles its toxic contents on the spy, who instead of seeking medical attention checks into a hotel. There he drinks a lot of water, turns into a green zombie and kills a maid. The military place the building under quarantine, shoot everyone (offscreen), bury the bodies in a mass grave (offscreen), and burn the zombie (we sort of see this, I think.) The ashes go up into the air, birds drop from the sky and then reanimate, and attack a group of people in an RV as three off-duty soldiers are trying to flirt with them. One woman gets badly bitten and the soldiers and vacationers take her to- not just a hotel, but the same hotel, now overgrown and decaying. Some woman and her idiot boyfriend also stumble across the birds, he gets bitten, she goes to an old abandoned gas station to try and get water (lots of people need water in this movie), and there she's attacked by zombies. Zombies also start attacking the camper/soldier group, a stash of assault weapons is discovered in the hotel (I am not making any of this up, stop looking at me like that,) and meanwhile, the scientists in the research lab (led by a guy who looks a lot like Niles Crane) try to persuade the military to let them find a cure while the military favors a policy of killing every living thing in the contaminated area. By the way, I'm not spoiling anything by saying that the bulk of those scenes could be cut without having any impact on the story whatsoever. Color commentary is provided by "Blue Heart," a DJ who goes on some weird New-Age vaguely rastaesque tangents before reporting mass murders and cannibalism and the like.
The director's credit on this film officially goes to Lucio Fulci, who made the earlier ZOMBIE (aka ZOMBI 2- DAWN OF THE DEAD was called ZOMBI when released in Italy, with these two films promoted as unofficial sequels, a not uncommon practice in the country.) However, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized while making the film, and when recovered refused to go back to a project he had no interest in to begin with. Bruno Mattei and co-writer Claudio Fragasso took over, and Fulci's material comprises some fourty or fifty minutes of the completed film. Which is a way of saying that none of it makes any sense (although SUPERMAN II was filmed in much the same way.) Characters make decisions that are stupid even by the standards of horror movie characters, various "shock" effects are given ludicrous setups, and even the zombies themselves are inconsistently portrayed. In most scenes they're your traditional lurching, groaning monsters. In others they can talk, perform acrobatic feats and wield machetes. One character becomes a zombie within an instant of being bitten, others seem to take hours. Gunshots kill them, but then you've got the aforementioned flying skull.
The film making no sense would be forgivable- Italian horror has never been that strong on plot anyhow. But it doesn't even work on a brainless level. The action sequences are horribly staged, spatially incoherent (as in a scene where zombies swarm over one man while a woman stands mere feet away completely unmolested) and laughably cheap. At some points the soldiers obviously just wave their prop guns back and forth, the zombies falling to the ground on cue with nary a squib in sight. At another point a character throws a grenade not at a group of attacking zombies but the shed just behind them. The zombies themselves leap out of the most random "hiding" places imaginable (at one point getting up from under piles of hay) and leap from high poles and trees where they were presumably waiting for prey to wander by. Finally, all the attacks and chases are horribly drawn out, until you reach the point that you realize that yes, the filmmakers have managed to make zombies boring. The characters are forgettable to the last, of course, and the dialogue- well, dubbed movies usually have bad dialogue so I won't belabor that.
There's a lot of gore, none of it terribly shocking. There are maybe a few interesting visuals, as with a scene in an improbably vast lagoon that almost seems to have flooded the hotel surrounding it. There are bits of story that could have worked if any of them had been developed. And there's the last scene, which, while stupid as Hell and a blatant sequel hook, is a blatant sequel hook for a movie that sounds a lot more interesting than the film which just finished. (Needless to say ZOMBI 4, like the others before it, had nothing to do with any prior installments.) What we have here is an exploitation film that fails to deliver even on an exploitation level. There are zombies, and guns, and explosions, and watching this film will make you reconsider your enthusiasm for all of these things.
(P.S. - In case I ever do a multiple-movie post again, anyone know how to make two images appear side by side as opposed to on top of each other?)