The story focuses on an axe-wielding murderer named Madman Marz who, after accidentally summoned by a group of campers during a campfire tale, begins to stalk and murder the group who summoned him. Originally based on the upstate New York urban legend of the Cropsey maniac, the film's central premise and main antagonist was changed last minute due to conflicts with The Burning (1981), which was in production at the same time. In the years since its release, the film has achieved a cult following.
A group of senior counselors and campers, consisted of T.P., Betsy, Ellie, Dave, Stacy, Bill, and the middle-aged head counselor Max, are gathered around a campfire and tell the legend of Madman Marz (played by Paul Ehlers); a murderer who murdered his wife and children with an axe, and was hung on a noose for conviction before he mysteriously broke free and escaped into the woods. Told by Max, he explains that anyone that says his name will awaken him and have him get that person. Richie, a cocky teenager, awakens Marz by shouting his name and throws a rock into his old home. Annoyed, Max then ends the campfire session and sends everyone to their cabins while he goes into town to stock up on supplies. Richie stays behind when he sees Madman Marz hiding in a tree and sneakily follows him back to his house. While everyone is inside their cabins, Chef Dippy is then killed by Marz outside.
After the kids have gone to sleep, the rest of the counselors go to the rec room to relax; T.P. and Betsy kiss in a hot tub, unbeknownst that Marz is watching them from outside. Meanwhile, Dave finds out that Richie didn't follow them back, and informs the counselors about this. T.P. searches out into the woods for Richie, and is hung by Marz with a noose up on a tree; he is killed when Marz pulls down his legs and the noose snaps his neck. Marz later returns to the camp and grabs the axe out of the log.
While Richie tries looking for a way back to camp, Dave ventures out into the woods due to Betsy worrying about T.P.'s disappearance, and is decapitated by Marz. Stacy tells Betsy to watch the kids in the meantime, and gets Ellie and Bill back to the camp due to the disappearances. Stacey drives out into the woods and, panicking from discovering Dave's headless body, tries to escape in her car in which stalls. She opens the car's hood, and Marz stands on top of the car just before he jumps down onto the hood, decapitating Stacy. Later, Ellie finds Madman Marz and screams, prompting Marz to flee and bringing Stacy's body with him. Bill soon arrives and consoles her while they try to head back to the camp using Stacy's car. Madman appears, and drags Bill out of the car to snap his back. Ellie is then chased back to the camp by Marz, and murders her with his axe.
Unable to find a way back, Richie goes back to Marz' house and is horrified when he discovers the corpses of Marz' victims stashed in the basement. Meanwhile, Betsy arms herself with a double-barrel shotgun upon seeing Marz running through camp, and quietly makes her way to the kitchen cabin. Marz then slams an wounded Ellie into a window, and Betsy accidentally shoots her. The gunshots awaken the children, and she tells them to pack up and get on the bus they took to camp to escape. Marz briefly tries to get into the bus with her, but she wards him off; she tells the bus driver to drive them out of the camp, and she chases after Marz to his home. Inside, she is disarmed and attacked by Marz, who drags her down to the basement and impales her on a coat rack. She pulls out a hunting knife and stabs Marz in the shoulder, causing him to knock over a candle which sets the house on fire, including the bodies of his victims. Madman Marz escapes, however, and disappears off into the woods.
Max drives to the camp, and almost hits a shaken Richie out on the road. He gets out to console him, and Richie tells him that Madman Marz is real.Gaylen Ross as Betsy (credited as "Alexis Dubin")
Tony Fish as T.P.
Harriet Bass as Stacy
Seth Jones as Dave
Jan Claire as Ellie
Alexander Murphy, Jr. as Bill
Jimmy Steele as Richie
Carl Fredericks as Max
Michael Sullivan as Dippy
Paul Ehlers as Madman Marz
In 1979, Joe Giannone and Gary Sales, two filmmakers hoping for a break, began to toy with the idea of making their own feature and, realizing that low budget horrors such as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) were clearing up at the box office, decided to follow suit and began discussing potential ideas. Giannone and Sales had met at Richmond College where they had created several short films, which fueled their artistic passion. After witnessing the overnight success of Halloween in 1978 and 1979, they discussed the possibilities of making their own movie based on a boogeyman and looked at their options. Like Carpenter did with Halloween, Giannone and Sales realized that the easiest way to shoot a low-budget feature was to base the story in as few locations as possible. Sales remembered the urban legend of the Cropsey maniac, which he had heard as a child, and suggested it as a possible basis for their story. Enthusiastic, he and Giannone started to develop the idea, which would soon become Madman: The Legend Lives. As Giannone penned the script, Sales balanced his day job working in an office with the quest of finding an investor, using his employer’s facilities as a base of operations. Eight months and over a hundred attempts later, the project attracted the attention of Sam Marion, who immediately sensed the potential when he witnessed the continuing success of Halloween as well as other low-budget thrillers such as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
By 1980, Giannone and Sales had secured enough financing to enter production. It was during this time that the filmmakers heard about Harvey Weinstein’s The Burning (1981), also featuring the Cropsey maniac. Because the two films resembled each other too much — which would lead to a canceling effect for both projects — Giannone decided to halt production on Madman: The Legend Lives and rewrite the script.
The idea of Cropsey was changed to Madman Marz, a farmer who had massacred his family and lynched by an angry mob, whose presence is claimed to still haunt the woods near his home. With a script finally done, production was ready to begin. A deal was set in motion in August 1980, with the filmmakers demanding an advance of $20,000, which they used to rent out office space on 7th Avenue in New York under the name "The Legend Lives." With the summer drawing to a close and the weather rapidly changing for the colder, it was pivotal that filming commenced as soon as possible. The producers began location scouting, initially settling on a horse-riding ranch for children in upstate New York, whose owner had expressed interest in investing money into the picture. When that option fell through, the filmmakers were forced to search elsewhere for a suitable camp, with Giannone’s parents suggesting Fish Cove in Southampton, Long Island, which would provide the director with all of the required locations for the script.
With a location decided, casting began, with the first role being Paul Ehlers cast as Madman Marz. Ehlers had spent his childhood shooting super-8 James Bond-style shorts and drawing cartoons and comics. In 1979 he had taken a job as an illustrator and had befriended Giannone and Sales, who had begun to seriously consider the film industry as their vocation. His involvement in Madman: The Legend Lives had originally been designing posters and artwork for the movie, as well as the opening credit sequence. After providing suggestions on possible looks for the antagonist, a cast was made of his head by effects artist Rich Alonzo. As Ehlers was describing to the producer and director how the character could behave and move, Giannone and Sales saw potential in him as the titular villain and offered him the part. They had been considering another much taller actor but were unimpressed with his performance. Ehlers had trained in martial arts for many years and so had the requirements to play the killer.
For the role of Max, the middle-aged head counsellor, they had originally wanted to approach screen legend Vincent Price, but with the movie being non-union, they felt that the actor would decline the offer. The only recognizable face to grace the film was Gaylen Ross, who had previously starred in the zombie epic Dawn of the Dead (1978) and was cast in Madman: The Legend Lives under the pseudonym Alexis Dubin for unclear reasons. The rest of the cast were made up mainly of first-time actors, as the budget could not stretch to accommodate Hollywood stars (like Halloween had done with Donald Pleasence and Friday the 13th (1980) with Betsy Palmer). With the casting process completed and the actual shoot approaching, Giannone continued to rewrite the script, which would only serve - as with most slashers - as essentially a succession of gruesome set pieces, padded out with generic characters and soap opera-style melodrama. With a Frank Sinatra tour entitled Frank Sinatra: The Legend Lives being produced around the same time, the filmmakers decided to change the name to simply Madman.
Principal photography commenced in November 1980 in Southampton, Long Island, for what was to be all-night shoots. As the leaves were starting to turn brown and fall from the trees, the production were forced to find as many as possible and paint them green to give the impression that the movie was set in summer. Fish Cove not only provided a large house to film in but also twenty-five cabins that the cast and crew could stay in. As it was out of season, the filmmakers had to hire out the entire camp, meaning that they had the run of the place. For the room and board that the complex offered, the crew was changed only $25 per head, with the staff having to work nights to accommodate for their guests.
For the opening scene, which sees Max tells the story of Madman Marz around a campfire, actor Tony Fish was given only one night to memorize the song that he sings in an effort to creep out his fellow counsellors, as the prosthetics for Madman Marz were late arriving on set, and the director was forced to rethink his shooting schedule.
The effect of Marz crushing his wife’s skull with the axe was achieved by the make-up artists filling a condom with fake blood, then placing a wig over it, so when the blade was struck down onto the pillow, blood would explode.
During the production, Ehlers and his wife had been expecting their first child, so Sales had supplied him with a beeper. One night he is informed that she had gone into labor and rushed from the set to the hospital, without changing out of character. Upon arrival, he asked a nurse at reception where he could find his wife, and believing that he had been in an accident, she tried to convince him to make his way to the Emergency Room. His son, Jonathan, was born on November 15, 1980.
Whilst on set, Sales spent his spare time shooting production stills for press releases, but this relatively simple task almost spelt disaster for the writer. For a scene where Betsy shoots her friend, Ellie, through a window with a double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun, Sales had been above the camera taking shots himself, when a piece of the breakaway glass fired out and landed between his eyes. Luckily, only being synthetic, the glass did not dig too deeply into his forehead and Sales escaped relatively unharmed.
One night there was a strange figure in the woods that various people had claimed to see and, nervous as to whom the intruder could be, Giannone asked Ehlers, who was in full Marz makeup, to head into the trees with his felling axe and look around. He was unable to find anyone, and no figures were seen again for the duration of the shoot.
On December 8, 1980, towards the end of the shoot, filming was abandoned for one day when news came over the radio that singer John Lennon had been murdered in New York. This senseless act of violence, carried out by an obsessive fan, took the entire nation by surprise and so as a mark of respect, the filming was put on hold for the day.
Original music for Madman was created by Stephen (Steve) Horelick with Gary Sales filling the role as musical director.
Madman was released in January 1982 and, over the course of the year, became a sleeper hit in the drive-in circuit. The film faced down rival horror films backed by major studios such as Paramount, Tri-star, and Warner Bros., succeeding through word-of-mouth, which was perhaps a movie’s most powerful marketing tool. The film quickly gained a cult following, eventually reaching new audiences on home video, which was a new format at the time. The film's home video success resulted in Madman becoming one of the most treasured gems of the genre’s heyday, and helped shift low-budget horror's eventual move in the mid-1980s from theatrical to home video.
Over the decades, the film fell into obscurity as dozens of new horror movies were released and old VHS tapes were out-of-print and hard to find. Madman was released on DVD on February 13, 2001, by Anchor Bay Entertainment. The DVD was non-anamorphic and has since gone out of print, and is sought by horror and slasher film connoisseurs. The film was again released on DVD by Code Red studios on September 28, 2010. This version is anamorphic and with many extras made by the fans. This version has a weaker print than the Anchor Bay one, and many of the blue hues that made the film so atmospheric are now missing. On 12 May 2015 the film premiered over Vinegar Syndrome on Blu-ray Disc with the full-length documentary film The Legend Lives as extra and had a special screening on Hudson Horror Show on 13 June 2015 in The Alamo Drafthouse in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Critical reception for the film has been mixed-to-negative and currently holds a 33% "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Allmovie called it an "unremarkable slasher film", writing "only genre completists with completely undiscriminating tastes are likely to be frightened or entertained". Scott Weinberg of FEARnet gave the film a negative review, saying that Madman was "better left in the annals of your vague memory." TV Guide gave the film a negative review, complimenting the film's photography, but also stated that the film was "predictable" and "boring" calling it "[a] wholly derivative splatter movie".New York deathgrind band Mortician used a soundbyte from one of the film's trailers for the song "Madman Marz" on their 2004 album Re-Animated Dead Flesh.
A poster for Madman can be seen in Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006).
This film inspired the CKY song, "Escape from Hellview".