Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Robert Z’Dar, and Richard Roundtree in the same movie—this statement alone should send you running to get your very own copy of Maniac Cop if you do not own it already. This ‘80s slasher masterpiece, directed by William Lustig (Maniac, Uncle Sam) and written by Larry Cohen (The Ambulance, It’s Alive), is a centerpiece of any slasher—nay, horror—movie collection. The plot is relatively simple: in the streets of late 1980’s New York City, a killer dressed as a policeman is taking the lives of innocents. Have no fear, though, as Detective Frank McCrae (Atkins) is on the case! Believing that the so-called “maniac cop” really is a police officer gone wacko, McCrae attempts to spread the word and warn the people of the city—only to cause a public uproar that ends in a tragic scene, prompting the New York City Police Department to find the killer before things get even more out-of-hand. Enter Jack Forrest, an honest cop (but not-so-honest husband) who, thanks to his nutter butter wife’s suspicions (and death) becomes suspect numero uno in the maniac cop case. Aided by McCrae and policewoman/lover Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon), Jack must prove his innocence while uncovering the secret behind Matt Cordell (Robert Z’Dar), the Maniac Cop.
There is nothing especially negative to say about Maniac Cop. While the make-up effects for Cordell near the end are not of the highest quality, they are nothing to be ashamed of and are not shown for an especially long time, so noticing any lack of workmanship is of no real concern for viewers. At one point a throat slicing comes up a tad odd (two slices to the throat, no blood, quick cut to terrified onlooker, suddenly there’s blood), but can quickly be attributed to the wound not opening up immediately, as we do see the victim’s hand moving toward his throat for the split second between terrified onlooker and sudden blood.
Just as the effects are nearly flawless, so is the cast, only showing real weakness in the acting styling of Laurene Landon, who falters a bit here and there but still manages a humorous performance. Bruce Campbell and Tom Atkins are in classic B-movie mode, which is always best, though one may wonder how Jack Forrest is able to get over his wife’s death so quickly, it isn’t worth a second thought. Other notable actors are Richard “Shaft” Roundtree who sports a straight performance as Commissioner Pike and genre veteran William Smith as Captain Riley.The real draw that Maniac Cop seems to have is the fear that the people of New York City have in the film—that of fear of authority. With a cop going around knifing and strangling innocents whom can they trust? While it may not inspire fear in the moviegoer, it is nevertheless interesting to watch as panic spreads and this great behemoth of a killer stalks the streets, all the while giving the uncomfortable knowledge that the police have wrongly accused Jack Forrest of the crimes, thereby adding the police force as whole as a secondary antagonist. Forrest’s is the sort of situation where in the middle of a theater someone yells “What the fuck is your problem?!” at the screen, knowing full well what is going on. This could be taken as a sort of failing point in the film, as there is no real mystery to what is really going on. It is abundantly clear that Cordell is not in reality anyone we see on screen, thereby leaving the only real tension in the film up to wondering who will get it how.
Speaking of which, the kills in this film are simply fantastic. The use of a blade hidden inside a baton is a joy and the way that Robert Z’Dar’s massive hands ever so simply reduce a young woman’s neck to rubber is a very subtle rush that is hard to forget. Moving forward, there are some quick scares where Cordell comes out of nowhere to exact his somewhat blind vengeance, and it does work well at least in a mildly creepy way, though don’t expect any Halloween out-of-the-shadows scare-the-shit-out-of-you scenes. Another point to hit on is the score, composed by Jay Chattaway (who did the scores for Maniac, Vigilante, and The Ambulance). Cordell’s theme is one of the most memorable parts of the film, basically a continuous creepy whistling, that is perfectly done and ranks up there with Friday the 13th and Halloween for being attributed directly to a single character. The rest of the music is well done and fits perfectly, but it is definitely this single tune that stands out as one of the best of the best. All other technical aspects of the film are top quality, from sound design to lighting, with fantastic aerial shots (not stock footage, which is a pleasant surprise) and a pretty nice car chase. Also, keep an eye out for Sam Raimi as a news reporter during the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade scene and William Lustig in a blink-and-you-might-miss-it cameo as a motel manager.
For all future buyers, now would be the time to find a copy, as the Maniac Cop Special Edition DVD was recently released and contains some very nice extra features. Some of these include an audio commentary by Larry Cohen, William Lustig and Bruce Campbell (a very entertaining bunch), extra scenes shot for the Japanese television release (creating a subplot about New York’s fictional Mayor Killium, who is in fact an asshole), and a very humorous interview with Robert Z’Dar, who is a joy to watch and listen to. If you have not already seen William Lustig’s Maniac Cop, I suggest you do, because you definitely don’t want Matt Cordell reading you your rights.