Still Squicky After All These Years, 1980’s Grimiest Movie Is Coming to the Drafthouse

William Lustig's Maniac arrives at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission on Tuesday, Jan. 29.

Let us now praise strange men.

If tragedy plus time equals comedy, then sleaze plus time equals respect. This is not to say that William Lustig’s 1980 horror film Maniac is now respectable per se, but in the past decade it’s received not one but two restorations. See? Restorations aren’t just for pretentious foreign films like Wings of Desire, which only exist to make critics feel smart! Movies that you don’t have to be a snooty artfag to enjoy also get restored.

The first Maniac restoration was a 2K transfer of “the original uncut and uncensored negative,” released on Blu-ray by Blue Underground in 2010. The latest, also on Blu-ray by Blue Underground and released in December 2018, is “a brand-new 4K Restoration from its recently discovered 16mm original camera negative.” But no matter how many pixels or how shiny, Maniac is a rough, rough film.

The titular maniac is a big slab of sweaty, hairy beef named Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) who kills women on the streets of New York, scalps them, and staples their scalps to his menagerie of mannequins. The squick factor is as high as you might expect both due to the basic concept and the gore effects by Tom Savini, produced during an unparalleled run which also included George Romero’s Martin and Dawn of the Dead and Sean Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th.

Maniac was shot on 16mm for not much money, and like so many low-budget films from that era, high definition makes it feel like a documentary of its own making. If we’re being honest, the splatter effects don’t have quite the same visceral, forbidden power they once did in squalid theaters or on smudgy VHS tapes. Now, when Frank shoots a man (Savini himself!) at point-blank range with a shotgun through a windshield, the fake head now looks very much like what it is. But that also adds to the … um, charm, let’s say? But even if the gore were removed you’d still want to take a shower after viewing Maniac, and it’s very much worth seeing on the Drafthouse’s big screen, especially since director Lustig will be there in person.

In addition to having been famously controversial at the time — Gene Siskel was not a fan, to put it mildly — Maniac is perhaps best remembered as the passion project of its writer and star, the late Joe Spinell. The seed for Maniac’s budget was Spinell’s salary from William Friedkin’s Cruising, speaking of problematic New York serial-killer movies, and Spinell himself was sort of the B-picture version of John Cazale. He was good friends with Sylvester Stallone and Steven Spielberg, and in the room with the latter when the 1976 Oscar nominations were announced, as were cameras from an unspecified news program.

When Jaws is nominated for Best Picture — but Spielberg isn’t for Best Director — he steps back and lets Spinell, resplendent in a Jaws T-shirt, vent all the frustrations Spielberg himself cannot. It’s on YouTube as “Steven Spielberg watches Oscar nominations in 1976,” and whether you’re able to make it to (or through) Maniac itself, the clip is guaranteed to be the best 3:29 of your day.

Five Other Films and Film Festivals We’re Excited About

Have You Seen My Movie?
Jan. 29, at the Roxie
A celebration of the experience of moviegoing as seen in the movies, culled from clips from over 1,000 films spanning 80 years.

COVEN Film Festival
Feb. 9, at the New People Cinema
A day of short films by female filmmakers from all over the world.

NY Cat Film Festival
Feb. 16, at the Roxie
The festival returns from the East Coast with more short films about our betters.

Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future
Feb. 22-23, at the Roxie
A documentary about the artist whose mid-20th-century paintings of space travel you’ve seen, even if you’ve never seen them.

Captain Marvel
March 8, opens widely
As though being about one of the female Captains Marvel won’t ruin enough childhoods, her breast size is proportional — and she’s fully clothed from head to toe! MRAs just can’t catch a break these days.

Read more from SF Weekly’s Winter Arts issue:

Expressions of Exuberance: Michael Light’s Aerial Desert Photography
Hosfelt Gallery’s “Michael Light: Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas” is nothing short of transfixing.

The African Dream, in Mfoniso Udofia’s America
Two plays in her “Ufot Family Cycle” make their Bay Area premieres this season, showing the Nigerian Civil War through one clan’s experience.

Columbine Author Dave Cullen Sees Hope in Parkland
The esteemed reporter returns with a new book focused on a group of students who refused to let others tell their story.

Meet Adia Victoria, Blues’ Heiress Apparent
In one of the most male-dominated genres in the rock pantheon, she knows how to establish the mood.

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