Blu-Ray Review: ‘Maniac Cop’

"Maniac Cop is better than you’d think a movie called Maniac Cop could ever be. It’s a hoot and a half!"

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Does anyone you know ever talk about Maniac Cop? Not in my circles, they don’t. Which is weird, since I travel in some truly geeky film crowds. If pressed, the typical cinemaphile will probably say that they’ve seen this quirky 1988 action/horror hybrid, and maybe that they kind of liked it. Maybe they’ll even comment on its impressive genre pedigree, coming as it does from William Lustig, the director of the cult serial killer favorite Maniac (no other relation to Maniac Cop), prolific b-movie writer Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, Q the Winged Serpent, et al), and co-stars Tom Atkins and Bruce Campbell, who have each, individually, appeared in more horror movies than that Leatherface guy. It’s a shame that Maniac Cop doesn’t get more recognition, since it’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s finally poised to get a new lease on life with this new, impressive Blu-Ray edition from Synapse Films, available now.

Maniac Cop is a film that wants to be everything. It’s a cop drama, a murder mystery, a slasher, a revenge saga, a tale of political corruption, a Hitchcockian fugitive thriller, and a vigilante justice parable. It takes each genre pretty seriously, and the plot is just barely clear enough that Maniac Cop never feels like a junior jumble. The movie opens with a young woman accosted by street toughs. She escapes their threats of violence and runs into the arms of a police officer… who murders her. Yes, someone is roaming the streets in a cop uniform, just blowing away innocent bystanders. The higher ups at the precinct want to keep this quiet, but a troubled detective responsible for solving the case, played by the great Tom Atkins, thinks he can save lives by leaking the story to the press. It backfires, and innocent cops die in the line of duty because every normal Joe is so terrified of the “maniac cop” that they’ll shoot any police officer on sight.

Meanwhile, Officer Bruce Campbell is acting so mysteriously that his wife, played by future Twin Peaks star Victoria Catlin, thinks that he’s the killer. It turns out that Bruce is just having an extramarital affair, but when his wife ends up dead at the maniac cop’s hands Bruce becomes the prime suspect/scapegoat. Before long he’s on the run, trying clear his good name, and evading both his former co-workers and the actual maniac cop, played by the strangely-chinned Robert Z’Dar, who may or may not be supernatural in origin.

William Lustig doesn’t enjoy the same positive reputation as his 1970s-1980s contemporaries, like Sam Raimi or John Carpenter. It’s partly because he didn’t direct as many good films, but I suspect it has more to do with his lack of narrative flourish. What craziness we get from Maniac Cop comes from the zesty ridiculousness of Larry Cohen’s screenplay, which nails so many different genre conventions (from many different genres) that it keeps the audience grounded, even though he’s throwing traditional story structure out the window half the time. Lustig’s direction is classy but never calls attention to itself, which was probably wise: Maniac Cop is so kooky that it doesn’t need jazzing up. But the director keeps Maniac Cop moving along quickly, stopping only periodically to build suspense when necessary, and let the occasional piece of character development play out in a respectful fashion.

It all amounts to a ridiculously fun movie filled with interesting ideas, but also one that’s straightforward enough to slip your mind after a while if you’re not really into this kind of thing. If you have any interest at all in the cast, crew or type of genre oddity I have just described, you owe it to yourself to check out this Blu-Ray.

Synapse Films has released Maniac Cop in high definition with an impressive audio/visual presentation that looks about as good as I ever expected Maniac Cop to look. It’s also accompanied by a strong supply of special features, the highlight of which is an extended interview with Robert Z’Dar, an actor often maligned for his unusual appearance and often unimpressive performances. He turns out to be a charming, affable fellow when he’s not pandering (he wants a comeback role so bad it’s borderline uncomfortable) or heavily implying an affair with Maniac Cop co-star Laurene Landon (which is just plain uncomfortable). Tom Atkins gets a separate interview, and obviously holds the film in a little less reverence, possibly because, unlike Z’Dar, Maniac Cop isn’t the best movie he ever made. But he also has a lot of fun talking about the production. The disc also includes some additional scenes filmed for Japanese television and promotional art. Sadly, Lustig, Cohen, and Campbell are all absent from the retrospectives. That's a pity, since they’re all very interesting fellows.

Maniac Cop is better than you’d think a movie called Maniac Cop could ever be. It’s a hoot and a half for action fans, horror fans and cult movie aficionados alike. If you’ve never seen it, you’re out of excuses. If you’ve seen it before but thought little of the experience, give it another shot. You’ll be glad you did.