With a minuscule budget, many scenes in the film were shot guerrilla style. Originally considered an exploitation film, Maniac has since attained a cult following despite receiving mixed reviews and released in limited theaters by Analysis Film Releasing Corp. The film was remade in 2012 by director Franck Khalfoun and produced by Alexandre Aja, starring Elijah Wood in the lead role.
Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a deranged man that due to him being suffered by his abusive mother when he was a child, he becomes a serial killer that murders young women and scalping them to add towards his mannequin collection. After he awakens in his bed from having a nightmare about killing a couple on a beach, he dresses himself and leaves his resided one-room apartment - consisted of paintings, a framed picture of his mother, and a collection of mannequins - towards downtown Manhattan. When Frank is randomly invited inside a hotel by a prostitute (Rita Motone), she kisses with him before he abruptly strangles her and scalps her with a utility razor while on a range of disturbance. He then returns home and adds the hooker to his mannequin collection by placing her clothing and nailing the scalp onto the mannequin; he tells himself in his mind that beauty is a crime punishable by death.
Sometime later, he dresses again and takes a collection of weaponry with him, including a double-barrelled shotgun, before leaving. He drives around Brooklyn and the Queens area, where he find a couple exiting a local disco and parking near the side of the Verrazano Bridge. When the boyfriend (Tom Savini) starts up the vehicle after his date sees Frank spying on them, Frank kills the couple with his shotgun and then adds the killed woman to his mannequin collection back at his apartment. After seeing his recent crime committed on television, he talks to himself and the mannequins as he sobs himself to sleep.
During the next day in Central Park, Frank follows a photographer named Anna (Caroline Munro) after she takes a photo of him and a little girl riding on a bicycle in the distance. At night, Frank sees a nurse (Kelly Piper) leaving the Roosevelt Hospital, where he then stalks her inside subway station and murders her with a bayonet before adding her to his mannequin collection. Days later, Frank heads to Anna's apartment and is invited inside by Anna after she recognizes him from the photo she took of him. Upon him asking out to dinner, he later shows her a photo of his mother who died in a car crash year ago. Few days later, Frank is invited by Anna to a studio where she is taking photos of models at a photography session, and she introduces one of her models Rita (Abigail Clayton) to him. After seeing the two talking and holding hands, he steals Rita's necklace left aside and leaves. Later that same night, he arrives at Rita's apartment to give her necklace, before then attacking her and tying her up to her bed. Frank begins disorientingly talking by addressing her as his mother and stabs her with a switchblade before scalping her to his collection.
One night, Frank invites Anna and they stop by a cemetery where his mother's grave resides. While laying some flowers beside the headstone, Frank begins to mourn over one his early victims and attacks Anna. While chasing her around the cemetery, Anna injures his arm with a shovel before fleeing. While sobbing at his mother's grave, he hallucinates his decomposing mother attacking him from the grave. While he cries at his apartment, he then sees his mannequins suddenly coming alive and they mutilate Frank with his weapons before ultimately tearing off his head.
The next morning, two police officers break into Frank's apartment and sees Frank lying dead on his bed, who committed suicide from hallucinating the mannequins attacking him. As the officers leave the apartment, Frank's eyes suddenly open as the film ends with the title printed onto the screen.Joe Spinell as Frank Zito
Caroline Munro as Anna D'Antoni
Gail Lawrence as Rita
Kelly Piper as Nurse
Rita Montone as Hooker
Tom Savini as Disco boy
Hyla Marrow as Disco girl
James Brewster as Beach boy
Linda Lee Walter as Beach girl
Tracie Evans as Street hooker
Sharon Mitchell as Nurse #2
Carol Henry as Deadbeat
Nelia Bacmeister as Carmen Zito
Louis Jawitz as Art director
Denise Spagnuolo as Denise
Billy Spagnuolo as Billy
Frank Pesce as TV reporter
William Lustig as Hotel manager
Principal photography began on October 21, 1979, and wrapped on January 18, 1980. Many scenes had to be filmed guerrilla-style because the production could not afford city permits, including the shotgun sequence, which was filmed in just an hour.
The "Disco Boy Scene" features make-up artist Tom Savini in a small role and dressed in full 1970s disco regalia. The scene where Frank kills the boyfriend with a double-barreled shotgun is loosely inspired by the 'Son of Sam' killings of serial killer David Berkowitz, who shot people in parked cars with a .44 Special revolver. The scene, filmed in slow motion from three different camera angles and lit entirely by the reflected headlights of the car, is extremely graphic and realistic in its depiction of the damage caused by the head being shot at point blank range by 12-gauge buckshot. Savini was a Vietnam War veteran and used his firsthand knowledge of the carnage he saw on the battlefield to create the effect. Savini got the part of the male shotgun victim, because he had already made a cast of his own head. He then filled the head with leftover food from lunch and fake blood and fired live ammunition at it. Immediately after firing the shotgun, Savini threw it into the trunk of a waiting car driven by a friend of Spinell's, an assistant named Luke Walter, so they could avoid being caught by police.
Spinell planned to make a sequel entitled Mr. Robbie, a remake of the 1973 film The Psychopath, about a children's television host who murders the abusive parents of his fans. A short promotion film was made in 1986 which was filmed, produced and directed by Buddy Giovinazzo and written by Spinell and Joe Cirillo, but Spinell was unable to find financial backers. Portions can been seen on the latest 30th Anniversary DVD release. After nearly three years, financing was indeed raised and it was scheduled to go into production in March 1989, but the sudden death of Spinell two months prior cancelled all plans for the sequel.
Spinell and co-star Caroline Munro worked together on two other film productions; The Last Horror Film in 1982 and Star Crash in 1978.
The film is unrated because it was not submitted to the MPAA. The poster stated that "No One Under 17 Will Be Admitted", a practice often used for extremely violent unrated films such as Dawn of the Dead, but a severely edited version received an R-rating and was distributed in 1981. The film was refused a classification by the British Board of Film Classification upon its original cinema release and was additionally banned for video in 1998, but was later passed at an 18 certificate in 2002 with 58 seconds of cuts.
The film holds a 43% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 14 reviews.
Film critic Gene Siskel described how sickened he was by the film on Sneak Previews, and walked out thirty minutes into the film (after the shotgun murder scene), saying the film "could not redeem itself" after the amount of violence shown up to that point. However, in the 1990s Siskel was asked if he had ever walked out of a film and did not mention this one, instead saying he left the 1996 film Black Sheep, because of his dislike for Chris Farley, and the 1971 Disney film The Million Dollar Duck.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "Good sense, if not heaven, should protect anyone who thinks he likes horror films from wasting a price of admission on Maniac, a movie that shows how an aging, pot-bellied maniac slices up young women of no great intelligence."
Stuart Galbraith IV (DVD Talk) said of the film "Despite some good direction and a sincere, even daring performance by character actor Joe Spinell (Rocky), who also co-produced and co-wrote its screenplay, Maniac (1980) is alternately repellent and boring, despite the obvious intelligence that went into its making. A low-budget slasher film notable for its extremely graphic splatter effects by Tom Savini - who also appears in the picture - Maniac is mostly a character study, anticipating the much superior (if no less unpleasant) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)."
Tom Becker of DVD Verdict said "That the film is so effective is due in no small part to the performance of Joe Spinell as Frank, the schlubby-looking guy whose darkness overwhelms him. This is not the standard, amateurish, paint-by-numbers horror villain turn. Spinell creates a fully formed portrait of this monster that goes far beyond the surface. He mutters to himself, talks to mannequins, growls like an animal when stalking his prey—yet he can be charming as well, and while the pairing of Spinell and Munro as lovers has a definite Beauty and the Beast quality to it, it's not entirely unbelievable. Had Maniac been more of a mainstream film, Spinell might have been remembered as one of the great horror heavies."
The Hollywood Reporter cites the film as "something of a grubby touchstone among genre fans."
Maniac was nominated for a Saturn Award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, USA, for Best Low-Budget Film in 1981.
Released in 1981 on Beta and VHS by Media Home Entertainment The film was originally released on DVD and VHS in North America by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2001. Blue Underground re-released Maniac on Blu-ray on October 26, 2010.
An extract of dialogue from the film's trailer was sampled on the song "Frank Zito, The Maniac" by metal band Frightmare on their album Midnight Murder Mania.
Death rapper Necro recorded a song titled "Frank Zito" on his album Brutality Part 1.
The Michael Sembello song "Maniac" was inspired by the movie Maniac.
A horror short promotional film was shot in 1986 by Joe Spinell and director Buddy Giovinazzo entitled Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie about a psychopathic children's television show host who murders abusive parents. The short was done to raise financing for a sequel to Maniac.
The short film was included with the 30th anniversary edition release of Maniac.
The feature-length version of the film was never shot after Spinell died in 1989.
Lustig planned a remake. During the 2009 edition of the New York Horror Film Festival, while receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, Lustig announced that the deal for a remake has been sealed. During a Q&A session at the Sunshine Cinema in New York City on November 19, 2010, Lustig announced that the remake rights had been acquired by a French production company with Alexandre Aja attached. He also stated that he would love to see Tom Sizemore take over the Frank Zito role, as he feels Sizemore is a lot like Spinell, and that he had recommended as much to the French production company.
On November 4, 2011, Elijah Wood was cast as Frank Zito and the plan was to begin filming later in the year. Aja produced the film and Franck Khalfoun was signed on to direct the remake. In December, America Olivo and Morgane Slemp were cast, alongside previously announced Nora Arnezeder and Genevieve Alexandra.
On January 31, 2012, in an interview with Arnezeder, she discussed the remake using POV shots and Elijah Wood's character as half-angel/half-devil. Arnezeder described her role in the film as an artist who develops a friendship with Wood's character. She declined to reveal more but hinted at a different take on the original. She said she was drawn to the concept of the film as a psychological horror, stating it would not be that interesting if the movie was just blood and screams. The film finished shooting in Los Angeles in December 2011 and was released in 2012.
On May 25, a red-band trailer for the remake was released. The film officially stars Elijah Wood as Frank Zito, Nora Arnezeder as Anna and America Olivo as Angela, Frank's mother.
On December 28, 2012, a trailer of the first 6 minutes was released. The film was released on June 21, 2013.