It’s been nearly 20 years since writer Larry Cohen and director William Lustig put their heads together and took a relatively minor character actor named Robert Z’Dar’s fearsome face and massive presence to the big screen—terrifying audiences across the country as a good cop gone bad.
In the post 42nd street huckster world that was rising around the birth of Maniac Cop, the films tagline—You have the right to remain silent. Forever—harkened back almost immediately to the great Grindhouse explosion of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Lustig who built a huge cult following 5-years earlier with the Joe Spinell psychological gore-fest MANIAC had only managed one other film in that span. At the same time Larry Cohen had seen a modicum of success following up 1974’s IT’S ALIVE with other such notable genre pieces as GOD TOLD ME TO, FULL MOON HIGH and Q: The WINGED SERPENT. What the audiences got when Maniac Cop appeared on the scene was much less Cohen’s fantasy worlds and much more Lustig’s gritty visceral realities. Playing in some senses like an unofficial sequel to MANIAC, Lustig’s film is raw and violent with more than enough nihilism to go around. Most of the film takes place at night but even the dayscapes are hued in a cloud-covered gray—depressing everything about the look of the film.
No one would call the streets of New York City safe, but the men and women every desperate citizen should be able to count on pin that brass badge over their hearts everyday. Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) knows this, so when the boys in blue find out that one of their own is responsible for a rash of brutal attacks on innocent victims, the entire city is thrown into a state of panic. With Commissioner Pike (Richard “SHAFT” Roundtree) and Police Captain Ripley (William Smith) breathing down the force’s neck, it’s only a matter of time before patsy flat foot Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is fingered as the killer—leaving Z’Dar’s criminal copper plenty of time to take out a few more frantic citizens.
Synapse Film’s Special Edition DVD might be special but it’s hardly new—rehashing all of it’s main features from the Elite Entertainment edition that went out of print a few years back—but tweaking the picture and sound for a better much better transfer. Still, they might be old but the goods here are great and if you didn’t own this classic before, there’s no excuse not to pony up for it now.
The big bonuses include 10-odd minutes of deleted scenes—almost exclusively focusing on a extricated sub plot about the Maniac Cop’s relationship to the mayor and his impending re-election campaign. The scenes were used in the Japanese Television airing of the show and really add an interesting and well-conceived side note to the film. The other main highlight is the audio commentary track from Cohen, Lustig, Campbell and Composer Jay Chattaway. This sucker even precedes the last DVD—put together for the Laser Disc release of the film sometime around 1996—but it’s still one of the most entertaining commentaries I’ve sat through in a long time— with Cohen and Lustig, barely letting Chattaway and Campbell get a word in edgewise. They talk past and present successes, riff on the 80’s stylings of the characters and point out cameos from RAGING BULL boxer Jake LaMotta (who is actually Lustig’s uncle), EVIL DEAD director Sam Rami and Cohen’s daughter Jill Gatsby—who was so efficient at fighting off the muggers in the opening scenes that she hardly needed any law enforcement assistance at all. The rest of the disc is rounded out with a Trailer and T.V. Spots.
MANIAC COP spawned two sequels with Z’Dar, Cohen and Lustig returning, but as each became less realistic and more formulaic they drug the idea behind the original film down a bit lower than it deserved. Cohen has moved on, directing last season’s PICK ME UP episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror as well as penning dozens of screenplays including Colin Farrell’s 2002 sleeper PHONE BOOTH. Lustig spends his days running Blue Underground—and affording his contemporaries the kind of DVD Special Edition respect that he deserves so much himself. As for the rest of the cast and crew, most went on to bigger and better things but the film they left behind is a testament to a changing idea in independent filmmaking. From the grit and grime of the Grindhouse era to the direct-to-video marketplace that made 2 & 3 there own (albeit minor) successes, Cohen and Lustig’s crazed creation did his damnedest to make a whole subsequent generation of motorists apprehensive of getting pulled over late at night for fear of the MANIAC COP.