“Maniac”: Bill Lustig’s controversial 1980 psycho killer saga was one of the UK’s Video Nasties

By on October 30, 2018

We’ve just added eighteen restored cult horror titles from the Blue Underground collection to our eclectic selection on Night Flight Plus, including William “Bill” Lustig’s controversial 1980 psycho killer saga Maniac, starring the great New York character actor Joe Spinell in a rare leading role.

Watch Maniac and other newly-added cult horror titles over on Night Flight Plus!

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Spinell — who you’ll no doubt recognize from his appearances in The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), Taxi Driver (1976) and lots of other great films — plays the sweat-faced sneering psychopath (“Frank Zito”) of the film’s title, attacking and killing women around NYC and then attaching their bloody scalps to the mannequins he keeps in his apartment.

The entire film was shot “guerrilla-style” by Bronx-born filmmaker Bill Lustig (b. February 1, 1955), without obtaining the proper filming permits during the fall and winter of 1979/’80, beginning in late October and wrapping on January 18, 1980.

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Lustig — who grew up in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, home of fictional mob chief “Tony Soprano” — ended up attending NYU’s film school for a couple of semesters before working as an apprentice to editor Peter Savage (who later co-produced Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull).

He also learned editing skills from Larry Marinelli — who later edited some of Lustig’s own films — synching dailies on movies like Death Wish.

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After the success of Deep Throat, Lustig got his first directorial opportunities in NYC’s hardcore adult film business, the same sleazy, seedy milieu currently being depicted in HBO’s “The Deuce.”

Under the alias “Billy Bagg” he directed two X-rated adult films: Hot Honey and Violation of Claudia (both 1977).

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Lustig was working as a production assistant on the set of Philip D’Antoni’s The Seven-Ups (1973), becoming friends with actor Joe Spinell and bonding with him over their mutual love for horror films.

They began going to 42nd Street grindhouse theaters together to watch the latest theatrically-released movies, sometimes in the middle of the night in the 24-hour theaters since Spinell suffered from insomnia.

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Soon, Lustig nd Spinell began developing original screenplay ideas together, setting their sights on raising the money to make their own film.

Spinell would eventually give Lustig the money he’d made from appearing in William Friedkin‘s 1980 film Cruising, and with some of the extra money Lustig had made directing X-rated movies and money from other sources (just $48,000 all total), they began work on Maniac, co-written by Spinell and C. A. Rosenberg.

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Maniac also features Caroline Munro (“Anna D’Antoni”) — with whom Spinell would also appear in Star Crash (1979) as well as The Last Horror Film (1982) — and Tom Savini (“Disco Boy”), who also provided Maniac‘s gory special effects.

Maniac‘s infamous shotgun sequence, filmed in just an hour, was based loosely on the “Son of Sam” murders committed in the late ’70s by serial killer David Berkowitz.

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Savini — playing the boyfriend in the couple who were shotgunned while sitting in the front seat of their car — had made a cast of his own head, which he filled with leftover food bits and fake blood.

He also used live ammo in the shotgun, which he afterwards tossed in the trunk of a car driven by production assistant Luke Walter (a friend of Spinell’s) who drove away quickly from the scene to avoid being caught by the police.

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Read more about Maniac, and Bill Lustig below.

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Maniac was so controversial upon its release that it was banned in the UK during their “Video Nasty” craze in the 1980s.

In the U.S., for its domestic debut in New York City in January 1981, Lustig didn’t submit Maniac to the MPAA ratings board, meaning the film would be released “unrated” with a special designation “For Adults Only.”

A heavily-edited version received an “R” rating in the South and was distributed around the country in March of 1981.

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Maniac star Joe Spinell and some random actor (with Maniac co-producer Andy Garroni behind them) at Cannes, 1980

Although Maniac screened at midnight at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1980, the film was largely reviled by American movie critics for its over-the-top depiction of misogyny, brutality and shocking graphic violence (Maniac remains banned in England and Germany to this day).

The review in the L.A. Times — who decided not to publish Maniac advertisements, saying “it is our duty to the community we serve not to encourage even indirectly such violence” — claimed that Maniac was “without any redemption whatsoever.”

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Critic Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times: “Good sense, if not heaven, should protect anyone who thinks he likes horror films from wasting a price of admission on Maniac, a movie that shows how an aging, pot-bellied maniac slices up young women of no great intelligence.”

Despite the critical backlash, Maniac went on to become a controversial cult classic, and it was also successful enough at the box office that allowed him to continue directing, writing and producing films, many of which are available from Blue Underground.

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Lustig directed the Larry Cohen-scripted Maniac Cop (1988) and two effective sequels, Maniac Cop 2 (1990) and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993), as well the Death Wish-esque retribution film Vigilante (1983) and another collaboration with Cohen, 1997’s Uncle Sam, about an undead Gulf War veteran.

As we told you here, Lustig founded Blue Underground for releasing the behind-the-scenes “making-of” documentaries for film titles being released by Anchor Bay before growing to become an independent entity on its own.

Watch Maniac and other Blue Underground horror films on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.