After achieving some infamy with Maniac (1984), William Lustig emerged with another violent film four years later, and Maniac Cop marks a highpoint in eighties exploitation cinema, mixing crime, sleaze, and horror in one easy-to-digest package featuring a great ensemble cast, notable cameos, and a running time that clips by at a brisk pace.
Lustig’s no-nonsense style isn’t flamboyant, but his instincts in marrying a love of film noir with grindhouse sleaze were a perfect union with Larry Cohen’s surprisingly tight and simple script, and while the premise of a sort of undead cop wreaking vengence pele-mele is absurd, it just manages to succeed based on a constant undercurrent of dread.
In the procedural storyline, detective Frank McCrae (Frank McCrae) is determined to break ranks with the department and alert the media and good citizens of New York City of the titular villain at large, while two-timing, sleazebag beat cop Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) finds himself arrested as the lead suspect when his wife is found with her throat cut, and naming his genuine alibi would endanger her career on the force.
Cohen’s characters are enjoyable archetypes, and his killer - disgraced cop Matt Cordell (Robert Z’Dar) - is charismatic as a massive physical behemoth believable of surviving a prison assault, and capable of being healed back to a semi-prime enforcer by a sympathetic surgeon who believes Cordell's blend of brutality is the best way to fix a crime-ridden metropolis.
Sheree North adds some subtle depth to her character of a broken spirit with a dark past, and Laurene Landon transcends her role of Jack Forrest’s secret squeeze by being more proactive and assertive than her male lover. The two actors make a great pair, and as is typical of his films with Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), Campbell is punched, slammed, and physically tossed around like a Buster Keaton rag doll by several actors, as though director Lustig felt compelled to carry on the tradition of beating up Bruce onscreen. (The precursor, if not signal of things to come, is perfect: Sam Raimi appears as a TV reporter prior to Campbell’s lengthy smackaround against the side and inside a paddy wagon.)
Lustig shows a special affection towards the grungy locales of NYC, and although parts of the film were shot in Los Angeles, it’s a generally seamless blend. In addition to a creepy montage, Maniac Cop also boasts some superb stunt work, cresting with a marvelous portside water crash.
Composer Jay Chattaway, who provided a hard synth score for Lustig’s Maniac, goes for a more thematic and action-oriented score, balancing synth and percussion hits with orchestral backing, and an eerie whistle that serves as the killer’s theme (paying homage to the old time radio show The Whistler).
Synapse’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous transfer of the film, and the DTS soundtracks are punchy in 5.1, 4.0, and 2.0 mixes.
Ported over from the label’s 2006 DVD and the 1995 Elite laserdisc are foreign trailers, TV spots and deleted scenes requested (and paid for) by the film’s Japanese buyer who wanted Maniac Cop’s running time boosted. (The extra scenes involving the mayor and his aide add nothing to the film and aren’t missed, particularly the ridiculous coda to the film’s already perfect ending.)
Not included on the BR (perhaps due to rights issues) is the commentary track recorded for the laserdisc, and carried over to the DVD. The track features director Lustig, writer / producer Cohen, co-star Campbell, and brief comments by composer Chattaway. It's a perfect chat sessions that’s jokey, informative, and ridiculously fun, and it's a real shame it’s not on the BR, as the quartet cover a lot of ephemera, including locations, sets, makeup, hurting Bruce, cameos & casting (such as Lustig's uncle, Jake LaMotta), and Lustig & Cohen’s use of family members as regular murder victims throughout their films. (Lustig also makes note of the film being matted to 1.85:1, which presumes the film was shot open matte for TV. The widescreen matting is generally well composed, and there are perhaps a few brief shots where the headroom is mildly tight.)
To compensate for the MIA commentary, there are separate HD featurettes / interviews with actors Atkins and Danny Hicks (Evil Dead II, Intruder [M]), whereas the Z’Dar interview is carried over from the DVD (in HD, but affected by heavy compression in its second half), as well as the Spanish radio spot. Also new to the BR is an animated promo art gallery in HD.
The best among the interviews is Atkins, who carries over some of the discussion about the film’s controversial elements – primarily morally corrupt cops – plus the film’s special place among fans in uniform, and Atkins still being recognized for his role as the crusading detective.
To add a bit more confusion (or frustration) for fans, while Arrow Video’s British Blu-ray edition lacks the 5.1 and 4.0 audio mixes, aforementioned promo ephemera, featurettes and deleted scenes, it’s augmented with unique art, booklet with notes by Troy Howarth & an excerpted Q&A with Lustig, an intro by co-star Atkins, and new separate interview featurettes with actress Landon, and screenwriter Cohen on creating the character of Matt Cordell. (An additional Q&A with Atkins may or may not be identical to the Synapse extra.)
Larry Cohen and William Lustig revisited their characters in Maniac Cop 2 [M] (1990), along with most of the film’s original cast, and that film’s surviving batch of characters returned in Lustig & Cohen’s third & final go-round, Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence [M] (1993). The success of the franchise spawned a series of imitations, including Wallace Potts' Psycho Cop (1989), and Psycho Cop 2 / Psycho Cop Returns (1993), directed by Adam Rifkin.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan