The newest flick to make “The Daily Grindhouse” is the controversial slasher/splatter offering from one of the 1980’s masters of the American grindhouse cinema. William Lustig’s Maniac definitely fits the criteria of what makes a grindhouse flick.
Lustig’s flick helped start the so-called “splatter film” subgenre in horror. While more mainstream (and I used that term very loosely) horror like Friday the 13th and Black Christmas brought the “slasher film” genre to the public eye it was the release of Maniac which gave “splatter” the notoriety it craved. It was a flick which was released by it’s distributor as unrated since they refused to let the MPAA screen it for certification knowing the it would automatically get the dreaded “X-Rating”. This rating would kill off any attempt for it to get shown in cinema theaters (even some owners of grindhouse theaters would deny to screen it). But it was a colleague of special effects and make-up artists (also an actor in Maniac) who gave Lustig and it’s distributor the backdoor way to get the flick seen.
George A. Romero’s classic epic zombie film Dawn of the Dead was released unrated and it still made quite the box-office haul that it gave future filmmakers a way out of the MPAA’s X-Rating hell. Maniac would get the same treatment and, while it didn’t get quite the box-office success as Romero’s zombie opus, it did make enough coin to be become one of Lustig’s moderate successes.
The flick was controversial not just for the decision to release it unrated but also for the label of misogyny it received from film critics who did see it. It didn’t help Lustig’s cause that the film was practically about a pyschotic and schizophrenic man who murders and scalped beautiful women to help decorate the mannequins he kept in his home. This flick was the grindhouse version of Hitchcock’s Psycho (to me a film that would be grindhouse if not for Hitchcock being the filmmaker thus given classic status by the elite cineaste crowd) and where Hitchcock kept the violence as something to be imagined Lustig went for the jugular and showed everything.
The most controversial scene would forever be the slow-motion sequence of Joe Spinelli’s killer, Frank Zito, taking a shotgun and shooting Tom Savini’s character point-blank in the head. The scene was so horrific and realistic in its execution that people left the theater right after the scene ended thinking even worse things were to be shown for the next hour (acclaimed film critic Gene Siskel left right after that scene). Tom Savini’s experience as a combat photographer during the Vietnam War gave him the necessary know-how to create the “Disco Boy Scene” so realisticly and which made him one of the early “fathers of the splatter genre”.
Maniac would propel Lustig to cult-status in the horror genre not because of the quality of his work, but for how he pulled no punches in showing the violence in his films even if got him labeled misogynistic and exploitative in mainstream cinema. His flicks were average for the most part, but they were definitely grindhouse in that they spoke to the most base denominator and that’s sex and violence sells and he didn’t sugarcoat it.