Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Thanks to the releases of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th just two years later, the golden age of slashers that followed meant an endless wave of killers hoping to achieve iconic villain status as well. From masked killers to over-the-top personalities, slashers quickly became something fun and entertaining over scary. Except 1980’s Maniac, a sleazy, grimy psychological slasher that’s narrative is entirely from the killer’s perspective. This meant an intimate, uncomfortable view of serial killer Frank Zito and his scalp collecting hobby.
Character actor Joe Spinell co-wrote Maniac with the intent to play Frank Zito all along. This, combined with director William Lustig (Maniac Cop), makeup effects wizard Tom Savini, and their guerilla-style filmmaking meant a seedy, graphic slasher that the filmmakers didn’t even bother to submit to the MPAA as they knew it’d receive an X-rating.
Spinell is effectively believable as a serial killer, as someone slightly off but authentic; like someone you could easily meet. His unique appearance aside, Spinell did extensive research on numerous serial killers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and David ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz to give his screenplay authenticity. Frank Zito displays some characteristics of each, but holds most in common with Ed Gein, giving Frank Zito and Norman Bates very similar mommy issues.
Unlike Norman Bates, though, Frank Zito is a lot more brutal with his victims. Growing up abused by his prostitute mother, Zito has grown up a killer of young women, scalping them and displaying his trophies on mannequins. That the scalping effect was handled by Savini, an artist with an unparalleled ability for delivering realistic gore makeup, meant Frank Zito’s kills were skin-crawlingly gruesome.
There was very little budget for Maniac, which meant that Lustig and Spinell didn’t always have permits to shoot on location in New York. A lot of scenes had to be shot quickly so the cast and crew could flee before the cops showed up. This was the case for the film’s most infamous scene, where Frank Zito borrows a page from David Berkowitz and blows a guy’s head off with a shotgun, causing it to explode. That unwitting guy was played by Tom Savini, since the head used for the effect was molded after him. The dummy of the body was one he used extensively for effects in Dawn of the Dead. With only one small window to nail the scene, Savini pulled the trigger on his own (fake) head. It was this scene that infamously caused film critic Gene Siskel to walk out in disgust.
Spinell and Lustig brought a sense of sleazy realism that made Maniac stand apart in a sea of slashers, but it’s Tom Savini’s work that elevated the film into something remarkable. While he would go on to further perfect his craft in many films that would follow, it was Maniac that really displayed what he could do with no money. That he could recycle the dummies he used in Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead covertly, or create believable stabbings and slow, visceral scalpings on a reported budget of a scant $48,000 is why he’s built the reputation that he has for gore effects. The trio of Spinell, Lustig, and Savini brought forth a depraved splatterfest that works because of its rough edges.