BatQuinn’s review published on Letterboxd:
BatQuinn’s Cinema Review #60
“'I've been going over your report. Seems you automatically assume it was a police officer instead of some lunatic son-of-a-bitch dressed up like a cop." - Commissioner Pike
Greetings fellow cinephiles and welcome back to BatQuinn's Cinema, where I review the good, bad, and obscure sides of motion pictures.
As many of you probably know, police officers are very important to society. Their main jobs are to apprehend suspects, prevent criminal activity, and maintain public order. Many are trained in special duties like surveillance, child protection, and counter-terrorism. But Officer Frank Cordell is trained to do one thing: murder. Because of this, he is dubbed the "Maniac Cop”, which is also the name of the film that I’m reviewing today.
Plot Synopsis: In New York City, innocent people are being brutally murdered on the open street by a uniformed police officer (Robert Z’Dar). As the death toll rises, Lieutenant Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) is called in to investigate the situation. Soon the police find a suspect in its ranks: Officer Jack W. Forrest Jr. (Bruce Campbell), who was turned in by his wife Ellen Forrest (Victoria Catlin). However, Frank believes that Jack was framed for a crime he didn’t commit. To prove his innocence, Jack teams up with Frank and his girlfriend Officer Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon) to investigate and stop the Maniac Cop’s rampage.
The idea for Maniac Cop came from the mind of William Lustig. During his teenage years, Lustig watched a lot of trashy exploitation movies at various grindhouse theaters in Manhattan and also worked as a movie theater usher in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
In his mid to late teens, he got his start in the film industry the same way a lot of people did in the seventies: working on hardcore X-rated porno movies. He had a few other jobs like working as a production assistant on The Seven Ups and Death Wish. He made his debut as the director, producer, and editor of the hardcore porn films Hot Honey and The Violation of Claudia, under the pseudonym Billy Bagg.
After directing the controversial film, Maniac, he got a phone call from famed b-movie director Larry Cohen. Cohen loved Maniac and asked Lustig why he didn’t make a sequel. However, Lustig had another idea in mind for a movie called Maniac Cop. Despite sharing the word maniac, Maniac Cop would be far different than Maniac. Even though Cohen had written a few notes down, Lustig was intrigued and decided to direct the film. While the film was in development, one of the producers questioned why the film was being titled Maniac Cop. Cohen and Lustig fought over the title before the producer allowed it. However, he told them he could change the title of the movie if it didn’t perform well.
When it came to casting, the first actor chosen for the film was Bruce Campbell, who would play Jack Forrest. Even though Cohen told Bruce that a script wasn’t ready, he wanted Bruce to be the hero of the movie.
Lustig, who was in charge of casting, hired Richard Roundtree to play Commissioner Pike since he was a huge fan of Shaft. A few years before Maniac Cop, Roundtree played Sgt. Powell in Q: The Winged Serpent, which was directed by Cohen.
Another actor that Lustig was a big fan of was character actor Tom Atkins, who previously played Detective Ray Cameron in Night of the Creeps and Dr. Daniel Challis in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (or as I call it “the film that Joe Bob Briggs refuses to show due to his undying hatred for it”).
Laurene Landon, who played Theresa, had starred in some of Cohen’s films including It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive and The Stuff.
After watching The Night Stalker, Lustig called up Robert Z’Dar for a meeting and gave him the titular role of The Maniac Cop without having to audition for the part.
Shooting for Maniac Cop lasted for twenty-one days on a budget of $1.1 million. Since the film was shot on a low budget, the filmmakers had to find ways to save as much money as they could. When they heard about a film studio shutting down, they bought the remaining film stock in cash to use on the film.
The first scenes that were shot for the movie took place during the St. Patrick’s Day Festival in New York City. Some of the footage used was filmed by Sam Raimi, who had a brief part in the film as a news reporter. Since the filmmakers were shooting without a permit, they were trying not to get caught. Unfortunately, they did after the cops busted some of the extras who were wearing police uniforms. The crew explained that they were making a student film but were told to leave. Fortunately, they got the footage they needed and didn’t get arrested.
For the next few days, the filmmakers starting shooting at various places in New York. They were aware that some places wouldn’t let them film there because of the film’s title. To bypass this, the crew claimed to be working for a company called Cordell Productions and gave the movie a fake name each time. Since Maniac Cop was being filmed as a non-union film, it attracted the attention of the New York Teamsters. They fought back by finding out where the filmmakers were shooting and often caused disruptions like shining bright lights or riding a motorcycle without a muffler outside.
For the prison exteriors, the crew shot footage by a maximum-security prison called Sing Sing Correctional Facility, which is home to “Old Sparky”, an electric chair that was used for high-profile executions. They called the warden and told him that they were going to film there. He told them that they had to stay within five hundred feet of the prison or they would be shot down. Other sequences in the film were shot in Los Angeles.
The film was first screened to the producers, and it went well for the most part. One producer pointed out that Jack's affair contradicted him being a true hero and wanted that removed from the film. Since it was vital to the plot, there was no way Lustig could do it without reshooting a good portion of the film. It was a surprise to Cohen and Lustig because the studio gave them complete control to make the movie they wanted. Fortunately for them, the producer was hired after filming began, so they didn’t have to alter their original vision too much.
Maniac Cop opened on May 13, 1988, in a very limited theatrical run. It opened in fifty theaters but it managed to gross a worldwide total of $671,382 million. Despite being a financial success, it garnered a lot of negative reviews from critics. Most of the common points of criticism included the poor script and direction, uneven tone, and boring kills. Much like a lot of the other horror films I’ve reviewed, it has garnered a cult following.
Now that we got all the behind-the-scenes stuff out of the way, what do I think of this movie? This is another overlooked eighties gem that is worthy of its cult following.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is the characters. When writing characters for anything whether it’s a movie, television series, or a video game, they need to have multiple layers, much like an onion. During the story, the outer layers should be peeled off, revealing what’s inside of them. In this regard, Cohen was a master at it.
At first glance, you would think that Jack would be the goody-two-shoes hero of the movie. When we first meet him, he’s arguing with Ellen about working overtime. She thinks he’s doing it because he doesn’t want to be around her, but he denies it in a somewhat jerkish way. She finds out later that he is cheating on her, which leads to her being murdered by the Maniac Cop. Jack’s jerkish attitude is dropped and now, he is wracked with feelings of guilt. It shows just how flawed of a person Jack is, which makes his character great.
Frank McCrae is also a fun character to watch, mainly because of how amazing Atkins is. It’s no wonder why so many (myself and Darcy included) consider him to be one of the greatest horror actors of all time. He’s also one of the smartest characters in the film because when the murders happen, he knows that a cop did it since they are very calculated.
The most flawed character in the entire film is Frank Cordell. At first, he was a good and decorated cop before the system screwed him over. He then committed police brutality and got thrown in jail where he was jumped and mutilated by the prisoners. After coming back to life, he’s not just killing bad guys, but everyone that gets in his way. Z’Dar did such a great job playing the character, making him both scary and imposing yet somewhat sympathetic (and I use that very loosely).
Another thing I liked in the movie is the setting and atmosphere. New York City in the eighties was the literal definition of a hellhole with muggings and junkies at every street corner, especially at night. During the nighttime, the only place that you’ll be safe is indoors. It feels like a character in itself, much like in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. Another thing that makes the setting so scary is that there are thousands of cops roaming around so it’s hard for the characters to track down Cordell.
The kills are great as well. I love Cordell’s weapon, which is a baton that turns into a knife. I love when slasher villains have unique weapons that fit their character. My favorite is when Frank pushes a guy’s face into wet cement. It’s very creative and quite brutal.
The only issue that I have with the film is that I feel the movie loses some of its atmosphere by the second half. The first half feels like a genuine horror movie whereas the second part feels like a crime drama. Some may not have an issue with this but with a movie entitled Maniac Cop, I expected it to be a straight-up horror film. This might seem like a huge problem for me, but it’s mainly a minor nitpick.
Overall, Maniac Cop is a lot of fun. With well-written characters, awesome kills, a badass villain, and a creepy setting, this is one I would highly recommend checking out.
If you want to track down a copy of this film, I would recommend getting the Synapse Films Blu-ray for the amazing transfer and the plethora of extras on it including several scenes that were shot for Japanese television.
For those of you that like streaming, this movie is currently available to watch on Youtube and Shudder. Recently, Maniac Cop was shown on The Last Drive-In, alongside the sequel Maniac Cop 2. The episode featured an awesome interview with Bruce Campbell, who talks about working on the film. It also features Darcy cosplaying as Frank McCrae. She really has a knack for making such badass costumes. She's also the only girl I know that can rock a mustache and yet still looks as beautiful as ever. And I’m one hundred percent serious on that.
Final Rating: 4/4 A
RIP Robert Z’Dar (1950-2015), Sheree North (1932-2005), and Jake LaMotta (1922-2017)