While Maniac Cop cannot be considered a straight slasher, it certainly borrows enough from the genre for it to share enough similarities with various slice ‘n’ dice classics. Directed by William Lustig, the man responsible for the disturbing 1980 chiller Maniac, and based on a script by B-movie filmmaker Larry Cohen (of It’s Alive fame), Maniac Cop also mixes elements of cop dramas, serial killer thrillers and action movies with its tale of an undead killer loose on the streets of New York. Starring ’80’s horror favourites Tom (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) Atkins and Bruce (The Evil Dead) Campbell, Maniac Cop became a cult hit upon its release and spawned two entertaining sequels. But what can a viewer expect from a movie called Maniac Cop? It could have been an abomination, the kind of schlock no budget disaster that only those that like really, really bad flicks would appreciate. But its tagline, ‘You have the right to remain silent… forever,’ gives you the indication that thankfully the filmmakers are not taking their somewhat ludicrious concept too seriously. In fact, Maniac Cop steals elements from some of the most entertaining subgenres of the eighties – slashers and monster movies – to create something that, whilst not necessaily original, has its tongue firmly in its cheek and is well aware of just how ridiculous it really is.
A spree of murders throughout the Big Apple have caused a tremor to travel through the city, with both regular citizens and criminals in fear of becoming the next victim. When the evidence starts to point towards one of New York’s finest, ageing cop Frank McCrae (Atkins) starts his own private investigation, much to the annoyance of his superiors. Rookie Jack Forrest has been sleeping with his partner, with his endless late nights raising suspicion with his wife that he may be the real killer. But when she is found brutally murdered, all fingers point to Jack, especially when he is unable to account for his whereabouts on the night in question. But McCrae is unconvinced of his guilt and digs deeper, eventually discovering the truth about Matt Cordell, a once decorated cop who was framed and sent to jail, only to be slaughtered by those who he had arrested. Rising from his premature grave, Cordell now stalks the streets the night wreaking fear and havoc on the innocent in his neverending quest for revenge.
Maniac Cop was the brainchild of director William Lustig and writer Larry Cohen, two cult filmmakers who had previously been responsible for such cult favourites as Vigilante and Q: The Winged Serpent, respectively. Full of B-movie charm, the screenplay was full of the usual clichés but with a wit and energy that raised it above its peers. The presence of genre legends Atkins and Campbell (fresh from his success with Evil Dead II) helped the credibility of the movie, whilst Robert Z’Dar’s bulking figure, as the eponymous villain, is an intimidating sight to behold. His almost robotic movements, along with an evil stare, makes him a menacing companion to Michael Myers, a figure that looms out of the shadows to claim its prey. Cohen’s story boasts a few interesting elements and manages to rise above bargain bin standard to produce an entertaining and playful take on the slasher genre. The proceedings are helped by the eerie score created by Jay Chattaway, that blends a creepy childlike theme with the usual horror orchestrals.
On a budget of a little over $1m, Lustig managed to produce an entertaining if flawed thriller, shot on location around New York (as opposed to many movies which use cities such as Toronto as a stand-in for budgetary reasons) and Los Angeles, with a cast of recognisable faces. The antagonist is a menacing and silent killer who is never in danger of falling into parody like many of his contemporaries (such as Freddy Krueger), with Lustig instead opting to reduce him to minimal screen time. The ever-reliable Atkins makes for a strong lead and Campbell is always a pleasure to watch, and for a B-movie the plot if surprisingly detailed. Both Lustig and Cohen would team up again for two sequels, both of which are as entertaining as the original, which showed that by the late 1980’s the slasher movie was starting to move away from summer camps and into the city.