Girl Meets Context: The brainchild of character actor Joe Spinell, who stars as Frank Zito and who developed the story and co-wrote the script, Maniac is one of the most notorious of the grindhouse slashers of the early 1980s. It has the honor of being one of the few movies critic Gene Siskel walked out of and was almost universally derided as cheap, pornographic trash. But the film has a weird allure. It follows Frank Zito, an overweight psychopath, as he stalks New York City killing people, mostly women. He scalps his female victims and then nails the scalps to the heads of the many mannequins that adorn his apartment. Abused as a child by a domineering mother, he also keeps a candle-lit shrine to her. The first half of the movie is dedicated to following Zito as he impassively commits a series of murders. Then, in the film’s second half, he becomes taken with a glamorous female photographer named Anna, played by horror icon Caroline Munro, a veteran of the Dr. Phibes films, many Hammer pictures, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and a brief but memorable part as an evil female assassin in The Spy Who Loved Me. In discussing the movie, Kristine and I tried to decipher what the film’s “message” actually is, as well as celebrated some of the movie’s low-budget gonzo aesthetic. You should also check out the Film Club coverage of Maniac over at Final Girl. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie on Netflix Instant and come back!
Kristine: So I feel confident in saying that Frank Zito was perhaps the most disgusting monster we have encountered thus far in horror movie club! At least, the most physically disgusting (tied with Linc from Hardware). But Joe Spinell was amazing in the role, actually.
Sean: He was also the co-writer. He was all… this is my vision!
Kristine: Aha, interesting.
Sean: Just fyi, apparently he was a total mensch in real life. He was beloved by all, especially Caroline Munro, who played the photographer.
Kristine: Aw, I love that! The two craziest scenes were the INSANE slaying of Tom Savini in the car, and the hunting of the nurse in the subway. The latter really upset me. The former, I was just kind of laughing from being stunned. I did think it was a GREAT cameo by Tom Savini.
Sean: Yeah – apparently they had no filming permits so they had to do that head explosion on the fly just under a random on-ramp and Savini fired the shot and then threw the gun into a trunk of a car that then sped away so no one would get arrested.
Kristine: Who does a head explosion “on the fly”? LOL. I love it! Well, Savini was hilarious in the cameo and it was fun.
Sean: He was so disco.
Kristine: But God, when Zito storms the car and gets up on the hood, I was like, Holy shit! It was intense.
Sean: Yeah, he could be really scary and menacing. And he was so slimy and sweaty and gross.
Kristine: That’s why I think the acting was great, because his physicality was so adaptable. Like, at first he’s such a schlub and he doesn’t seem that menacing. But at other times, he was hulking and definitely dangerous. I liked the duality.
Sean: Well but that’s the thing about the movie – once he meets Caroline Munro’s character he all of a sudden is this smooth talking ladies’ man? It sort of doesn’t make sense. For the first half of the movie you think he’s like, retarded.
Kristine: Okay, that part was RIDIC. I don’t care how “charming” he was supposed to be. She is a gorgeous model, dressed in ferocious ‘80s realness! There is NO WAY she would be dying for a dance with Zito the super.
Sean: Just fyi, Caroline Munro is the real deal – a British horror movie queen from the Hammer era.
Kristine: That photo shoot Sean… I couldn’t EVEN with that photo shoot!
Sean: I LOVE THE FUCKING PHOTO SHOOT.
Kristine: What was that SONG?
Sean: There was SUCH a lesbian undercurrent to Caroline Munro’s character, right?
Kristine: Oh yeah, for sure.
Sean: Her and her models all caressing each other?
Kristine: She keeps grabbing the models’ asses and mouth-kissing them, and remember the photographs on the wall on her apartment? Naked ladies with, like, gift bows wrapped around their butts?
Sean: The way she “acted” like she was a photographer was hilarious. Like, spazzy tap-dancing in place and going “Give it to me! Yeah!” She was all, I ONLY photograph women, they’re my thing!
Kristine: LOL. Yeah, she was hilarious… but I thought her character didn’t work at all.
Sean: I think she makes the movie 1,000 times funner. It’s sort of a drag until she shows up, for me. The stuffed bear he gave her MADE ME WANT TO DIE.
Kristine: I agree, what grown woman, let alone a sophisticated New York lipstick lesbian photographer, would melt over some fat retarded schlub giving her a shitty stuffed bear?
Sean: I AM DYING!!!! LOL. It is so infantilizing and grotesque!
Kristine: She DOES make the movie funner BUT it doesn’t make sense. And she is supposed to represent some hope that maybe Zito can relate to women? That never materialized for me.
Sean: Kristine, if some guy gave me a teddy bear I would take out a lighter and set it on fire in front of them.
Sean: This is the thing about grindhouse cinema though, is that you just have to love the incoherency. I mean, the movie makes no sense.
Kristine: NO sense.
Sean: Those cops at the end? Who just like, LEAVE? They’re like, he’s dead, bye.
Kristine: Yeah, I know. And he is doing all his crimes out in the open, with no attempt at covering anything up. Which is intentional, I think, to underscore the point to ladies that if you live in the big, bad city, crimes against will happen against you right and left, and no one cares and no one will stop it.
Sean: So tell me why the stalking of the woman through the subway and bathroom upset you. That’s one of the movie’s biggest setpieces.
Kristine: It was so upsetting because the nurse is in a place that should be safe.
Kristine: It’s public transit, there are people there. Remember all the people on the other side of the subway platform when the train pulls away? But instead of being safe, the entire subway becomes this trap for her.
Sean: I would have jumped down onto the track and sprinted over the rails.
Kristine: That’s what I was thinking! Or, at the very least, screamed at the people across the tracks that a dude was after her.
Sean: The bathroom sequence is SO LONG. The camera stays with her in the stall for like, 3 minutes.
Kristine: The bathroom sequence was incredibly stressful. When she was trying not to puke from fear I was right there with her.
Sean: Did you think there was any way that she could live?
Sean: I hoped maybe she’d getaway.
Kristine: I have given up on hope at this stage in the game of horror movie club. I am officially hopeless.
Sean: OHMYGOD! Is horror movie club making you have ennui?
Kristine: Not ennui, just resignation. I just assume all will die and it’s just a matter of when and where.
Sean: Holy nihilism!
Kristine: YEP. Everyone will die and everyone’s motherfucked them up but good.
Sean: Are you OVER horror movies!?
Kristine: Not over them, because where else will I see fun, fresh, fierce fashion shoots like the one in Maniac?
Sean: That’s true!
Kristine: So, can we talk about Son of Sam? Because this movie mad references him and his crimes.
Kristine: This movie really was into the articulating the same message to ladies that the Son of Sam spree had.
Sean: The Tom Savini death is so Son of Sam. Son of Sam was like, my dog told me to do it. What did you think of Zito’s mannequins?
Kristine: Well, wait, first, the message to ladies being: stay inside. Don’t work outside the home (nurse death), distrust all strangers (model death), the city is evil (everyone’s death), if you fuck you die (hooker and car deaths). I mean the tagline for the movie is “I TOLD YOU NOT TO GO OUT TONIGHT!” All parental.
Sean: Have you been reading Ebert again?
Sean: Yes YOU HAVE!
Kristine: Nope. I looked for an Ebert review but there wasn’t one. That was the ONLY thing I tried to find, I’ve done zero research except for that.
Sean: Oh Siskel all WALKED OUT of Maniac after the head explosion and he and Ebert cried about it on their show.
Kristine: I didn’t see that clip, but I wish I had. HOWEVER, there was a two-minute thing on Youtube of Siskel decrying the marketing of the movie, because I guess some theatres were showing snippets of it on monitors outside theatres? And Siskel was calling it rape, the rape of innocent eyeballs on city streets. Or something.
Sean: I feel like this movie portrays women more sympathetically and three-dimensionally than most slashers.
Kristine: Here’s my thing: I thought the attitude towards women was VERY complicated and not simplistic.
Sean: Like how we’re with the two prostitutes on the street before Zito comes up, and one of them is like, You should have seen what this guy thought “the Ultimate” was!
Kristine: Actually, as a sidebar, I am always confused about hooker lingo. What’s the difference between “Around the World” and “the Ultimate”? I need a Hooker-to-English translator on my computer. Anyway, I agree that the ladies are presented as competent and practical, and the only men in the movie of import (Zito and disco Tom Savini) are warped sadistic pathetic freaks and clueless hornballs, respectively.
Kristine: And I think the harpy scene at the end, giving all of Zito’s victims a chance at revenge, is interesting. But I do think the overall message is parental and sexist – don’t go out! All men are evil! You are a victim waiting for a predator!
Sean: “Harpy” huh?
Kristine: So, I was torn. I honestly still don’t know how I feel.
Sean: Yeah, well… I feel like this is an obvious precursor to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer right? How do you think this stacks up against that movie?
Kristine: I think… Hmm. Well, the backstories to both characters are obviously pretty much identical. I actually think Maniac is more subtle about the abuse the character underwent as a child, just showing his scars and his weirdness was more effective then that bizarre scene between Henry and Becky when he says, “My mom did this, my mom did that.”
Kristine: But Henry is a much more plausible character, and it actually seems like a possibility he could find redemption in Becky and live like a real person. While in Maniac, it is a laughable suggestion that Zito and hot photographer will be some kind of real couple. Though Zito’s cave room did scare me. More then just the grossness of the actor, the apartment too.
Sean: That’s true. Zito exists in more of a fantasia New York.
Kristine: I agree. He really did remind of Linc from Hardware. I do occasionally wonder, how many hovels like that are there like Zito’s in Dallas RIGHT NOW??
Kristine: Do you think the movie is scary? Do you think it hates ladies?
Sean: I think that the Zito of the first half of the movie is real and there are lots of them. The Zito of the second half is fake.
Kristine: At what point are you dividing the movie?
Sean: When Caroline Munro enters the narrative.
Kristine: Hmm, okay. It definitely must be an alternate universe if she doesn’t even question why this freak shows up on her door.
Sean: I know it is ridiculous! And when the model was like, not scared of him and it was dumb. I would be scared of him.
Kristine: Right, and when he’s like, “You took my photo in the park”, I would have been like, “Yeah, when you tried to snatch that little girl! Get the FUCK out!”
Sean: Yeah it is so implausible, but that makes me love it, and I love that Caroline Munro smashes him in the graveyard and like, runs her ass right out of the movie never to be seen again.
Sean: But on the question of whether the movie hates women… I think it’s more complicated then that, but obviously misogyny is part of the equation here. I think that the movie is about a hatred of women. But also about the grossness of HIM and we are supposed to be like, “Die, freak, die!” at the end when the mannequins come to life. It’s both things at once, to me. And obviously the mannequins are great symbolic markers in the movie, in which the bodies of women are rendered as inert, lifeless, posable, eroticized. I mean, you could do a feminist reading of this movie. I don’t know how convincing it would be, but you could do it.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: Again, like hearing the prostitutes’ conversation before he shows up. That gives her some three-dimensionality and makes it more fucked up when she dies. Can I also ask, who can scream like that while being throttled? He must have a very limp grip…
Kristine: I noticed that too!
Sean: Kissing him must be the grossest thing in America.
Kristine: I also think that giving the nurse so much camera time really let you identify with her. But there’s something about his “death” at the end, with all the women as grinning ghouls ripping his body apart. I don’t know…
Sean: Also you asked if the movie is scary. My answer is… sort of, but not really. Like, he is a freak and is grotesque and terrifying but I was never really SCARED in the movie.
Kristine: The grave scene – I loved the grave scene.
Sean: I loved that too. I jumped. The dead mother zombie was a great touch. I love the second half of the movie a lot more than the first.
Kristine: Ok I have a question but I feel dumb.
Sean: No. It’s me!
Kristine: My question is – what exactly is he doing? Okay, he kills the ladies. He scalps them. He brings home the scalps and also some of their personal effects. He has this mannequin collection. He occasionally gets a new one. He affixes the scalp to the mannequin head with a single nail (!!!) (those scalp nailing scenes were ICK NAST VOM). Then he puts the mannequin in bed and has a weird dialogue with it.
Sean: It’s like he’s creating his own harem. He is like, impotent.
Kristine: But is pretending he is… the mother? His childhood self? Both roles? Do I have the scenario right?
Sean: I think he can’t actually get off so he has these weird chaste relationships with the mannequin girlfriends. I don’t remember him calling them “Mom” or anything. I think he’s just like, You are my girls, and he wants to possess them and he fetishizes their scalps.
Kristine: Right, he wants to “keep them” so they don’t “go away” like Mommy. Do we know if he killed his mother like Henry did?
Sean: I don’t know if he killed his mom or not. What do think the scalping is all about?
Kristine: I have ZERO idea. You tell me.
Sean: Well, I’m wondering if there’s something a bit…. transvestite-ish about his fixation on their hair and clothes.
Kristine: Hmmm, interesting.
Sean: I mean, obviously it’s about gender roles. But it also signifies his power over them, he takes their scalps like a warrior would… He steals their energy or something.
Kristine: Right, he has a trophy. I thought the way he covered up their crotch areas with fabric was interesting. He clearly can’t deal with even the suggestion of a vagina.
Sean: He cannot handle the va-hee-na. I don’t even think he can ejaculate!
Kristine: Ugh, what do you think that skank room smelt like with all the scalps and all the HIM???
Sean: I’m sure he farts up a storm in there and never bathes and has fat-roll-lint.
Kristine: Ha! I’m trying to remember all the pictures that made up his shrine.
Sean: His shrine was sick.
Kristine: Okay, there was a Madonna and child…
Sean: I don’t really remember all of them, just that I hated it.
Kristine: He had the big picture of his Evita-looking mom.
Sean: OMG right?
Kristine: Remember the girlie posters with their breasts and genitals scratched out?
Sean: YES! The scratch-outs were the most perverted thing. But this is part of what the move is exploring: a man who worships at the alter of the “feminine” but also hates it and wants to destroy it. I think the movie is incoherent about it’s relationship to women, but I do think it wants to critique Zito in some way.
Kristine: So I want to make a quick list of all the horror movies where the main conceit is a wicked Oedipus complex…
Sean: Oh okay! Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, of course. Friday the 13th Part 2.
Kristine: Right. Psycho.
Sean: Yes. Hush.
Kristine: Oh! Oh! The Texas Chain Saw Massacre!
Sean: But there is no mom figure in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Sean: It doesn’t work, sorry.
Sean: There has to be a “mad mommy.” The Goonies.
Kristine: This is harder then I thought, I thought there would be tons. Beause when I realized what was going on with Zito, I was all, “This old yarn again.”
Sean: Trey on Sex and the City.
Sean: Psycho is really the big one. I think it casts such a long shadow that it makes it seem like everything is about that even when it’s really not.
Kristine: Right. Well, I rate this: Problematic but fun as hell.
Sean: Mine is: Total trash… I loved it!
Kristine: I want that one, too. Double rating.
Sean: Just because I wouldn’t call this movie “fun.”
Kristine: Eh, it’s just the gist of it.
Sean: Well, maybe it gets fun in the second model-filled half. So now that slasher month is over are you all, “Good riddance to bad rubbish”?
Kristine: I am ready to move on. “I am ready for something a little more nuanced,” she said with an insouciant hair flip.
Sean: Do you think boys who LOVE slashers are sickos?
Kristine: No, but I think they may be boring. Unless they are really into effects or something.
Sean: There are lots of guys whose favorite kind of horror movie is the slasher.
Kristine: Hmmm. The thing about slashers is that they are so primitive and easy to grasp. I could see how kids would like them, as odd as that seems. They aren’t challenging at all, unless you have a weak stomach. I feel like adults who are into them, maybe it’s nostalgic appeal?
Sean: Right. I agree.
Kristine: Or maybe it’s the association with T ’n A, because many boys saw it first in slashers? But who needs slashers in the Internet era?
Sean: So there is a gay slasher, just fyi. It’s called HellBent. It’s a bunch of circuit boys getting machete-fucked.
Kristine: That is so weird. Gay cinema has a real problem. I hate how it is like, “Let’s remake this movie… but make it gay!” Same with black cinema, I guess.
Sean: But blaxploitation done well is amazing.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: I dunno if gaysploitation even works…
Kristine: I think it’s twisted how the gay characters always have to die in a sexual way. Like, all ladies in slashers don’t get a machete to the cooter.
Sean: So I would like you, over the next few weeks, to peruse the Genre Guide and figure out which other genres you’d like to do in the coming months…
Kristine: Okay, I will do that. But June is “Witches, Cults & Satanists Month,” right?
Kristine: See you at the Black Sabbath then…
The Girls Rating: Problematic, but fun as hell. AND Total trash… I loved it!
The Freak’s Rating: Total trash… I loved it!