Original vs. Remake: Maniac (1980 & 2012)

William Lustig (1980)
Franck Khalfoun (2012)

Joe Spinell - Frank Zito
Caroline Munro - Anna D'Antoni
Gail Lawrence/Abigail Clayton - Rita
Kelly Piper - Nurse
Rita Montone - Hooker
Tom Savini - Disco Boy
Hyla Marrow - Disco Girl
Nelia Bacmeister - Carmen Zito

Elijah Wood - Frank Zito
Nora Arnezeder - Anna D'Antoni
Jan Broberg - Rita
Liane Balaban - Judy
America Olivo - Angela Zito
Joshua De La Garza - Martin Nunez

Genre - Horror/Slasher/Serial Killers

Running Time - 88 Minutes (1980)/ 89 Minutes (2012)

It's been quite a while since I've done an actual Original vs. Remake post for Full Moon Reviews. In fact, it's been 14 months since. While I have reviewed original films and their remakes, they've been done separately due to me watching them at separate times. I was waiting for the right moment to return with one of these mega-posts, looking for a film and its reboot to inspire me enough to come back and tackle both at once.

Thankfully this past weekend, I finally got the chance to sit down and watch both versions of MANIAC - a grindhouse slasher original that has gained a massive cult following, and its remake that was ridiculed prior to released but mostly loved now that it's been released [you can now stream it on Netflix Instant]. While both films share the same story and present a similar tone, there are certain aesthetics that make one different than the other. And now having watched both versions, I can honestly say that one of these is better than the other - but not by much to be honest. Does the 1980 version of MANIAC still hold up for modern audiences? Does the 2012 remake deserve to exist? I think the answer to both is "yes".

Frank Zito (Joe Spinell/Elijah Wood) is a serial killer within the shadows of New York City/Los Angeles. His schizophrenic nature stems from a disturbing upbringing involving his mother (Nelia Bacmeister/Anerica Olivo), who was promiscuous and brought a lot of strange men into his life. After his mother's death, Frank just snapped - murdering beautiful women, scalping them, and using their scalps to top mannequins to maintain his victim's beauty forever.

Along the way, Frank ends up meeting Anna (Caroline Munro/Nora Arnezeder) - a beautiful photographer he takes a serious interest in. The two hang out, with Anna never realizing who Frank really is, until his feelings for Anna trigger his murdering spree once again - to the point of madness.

MANIAC isn't an entertaining film. It's not a film you would pop into your player to amuse your friends because you think they're going to enjoy it on a popcorn level. But MANIAC is a cult classic for a reason. It's gritty. It's raw. It's violent and maybe a bit misogynistic. But more importantly, it captures late actor Joe Spinell in a performance so fantastic, you can't help but want to watch this sleazy film from beginning to end.

There's not a whole lot to the narrative of MANIAC. It's mainly a character study in a way of Frank Zito [the name a homage to director Joseph Zito], a New York City serial killer stemming from dangerous mental issues that make him a genuine threat to society. We get just a glimpse of his backstory, which involves his mother - who may or may not been a prostitute [she was promiscuous nonetheless], which twisted Frank's feelings towards her and women in general. In fact, Frank seems lost without his mother, as he was in love with her. Frank's victims seem to be his way of coping with her death, seeing them as figments of his mother that he wants to recapture for all eternity. We watch Frank stalk these women, murder them, scalp them, and place the scalps on mannequins in his apartment as a way to maintain their beauty. He even has conversations with them, as if these mannequins are real people who he sees as his girlfriends, while still being haunted by his mother. It's a truly disturbing look at a man who has serious problems, which he deals with by being truly vicious and violent.

It's even more disturbing, and fascinating at the same time, when Frank is the only real character that gets any sort of depth. He's pretty much in every scene of the film. He's the one with the voiceovers and any dialogue that's considered important. Frank Zito is our narrator, and we follow him as he dishes harm to helpless women who aren't given enough time to mean anything to anyone in the long run. By default, Frank is the most sympathetic character in the movie because he gets the most screen time. It's a strange dynamic for most audiences, but an interesting one when our main character is more of the villain than any sort of hero.

Even though the narrative is seriously simple, it works because it succeeds in what it sets out to do. However, the love story aspect between Frank and Anna brings it down a notch. For one, Anna isn't really that interesting of a character. She's beautiful and loves to take photos, which is pretty much all we know about her. She also seems to have this fetish for liking sweaty, creepy men who don't exude enough charm or humor to be considered attractive to most. Yeah. Call me shallow, but I can't really get why this woman who want to date and hang out with this man for more than she had to. The love story doesn't really develop naturally because there's no real foundation for it. Anna doesn't get a lot of screentime. We know Frank is nuts, yet acts completely sane and normal with Anna. It just doesn't fit within the film for me. The only positive thing about it is that it gives Frank a reason to find new victims. But other than that, I can see why Lustig himself wasn't happy with this part of the story, even cutting out the dinner scene in certain versions of MANIAC. It's a decent attempt, but the execution is flawed.

I'm also not the biggest fan of the very end either. It probably wasn't as cliche as it is now, but I'm sure it still felt as cheap as it does now. I know a sequel was in mind, which unfortunately didn't happen due to Spinell's shocking passing. But it does nothing for me. This is a film that should have felt final by the end, instead of feeling as if it would lead to something else.

Probably the most memorable thing about MANIAC, besides Joe Spinell, is the violence. And boy, is MANIAC a vicious movie or what? There's no question why MANIAC was considered a Video Nasty. You get a ton of graphic scalping scenes. There's some strangulation. We get stabbings and slit throats. There's a memorable face being ripped apart. And the shotgun scene...oh man, probably one of Tom Savini's finest moments as a special effects wizard. Watching a head get blown into chunks via a shotgun to the face is probably second to the head explosion in SCANNERS a year later. Extremely graphic, yet you can't keep your eyes off of it. I love that it's shown in slow motion too, really adding to the effect. Just amazing stuff. Gorehounds will be pleased.

The direction by William Lustig [who would later visualize the MANIAC COP series] is a definite product of its time. It's gritty. It's dirty. It's sleazy. It's vicious. It's nasty. Yet, Lustig directs the film with such quiet subtlety that makes all the violent and crazy moments stand out more. I also love how Lustig really captures the shadows of New York City back in the late 1970's/early 1980's. Living in NYC now, it looks so completely different than how clean and family friendly much of the city is now. It's like a time capsule put to film. I also think the tension that Lustig infuses MANIAC with is just fantastic. Whenever Frank argues with his mannequins, you feel the mood of the scene thickening. Plus, how great is that subway sequence when Frank is stalking a nurse? The sequence takes its time and just builds with suspense. I think Lustig created a very effective film here.

The acting here belongs to one person and one person only: Joe Spinell as Frank Zito. Spinell was a great character actor, and he's just amazing as this psychotic serial killer. You can't take your eyes off of his performance. He's so damn convincing, you'd really believe he was playing himself. Hell, I even felt bad for his character due to his Spinell's masterful acting. He carries this film in every way, and Spinell is the main reason why people continue to praise MANIAC all these decades later. Top notch stuff by an actor who didn't really get his due until it was too late. Caroline Munro is hot and all [love her accent], but Spinell is the real star of this film.

When I heard a remake to MANIAC was being made, I was curious, while at the same time shaking my head in amazement that someone thought they could recreate such a gritty movie from the early 1980s in modern, more conservative times. Then the announcement that Elijah Wood was going to play Frank Zito, and the internet exploded in frustration and confusion to the casting choice. Even I was skeptical of the choice, although I do think Wood is a good actor. Then I saw screenshots, which showed how polished and artsy the visuals looked, making me wonder if this remake was worth my time or not. Thankfully, Netflix Instant had it available for streaming and I decided to check it out before the year ended. And to my surprise, I really dug this remake. It just worked for me for the most part.

I won't get into the narrative because it's pretty much the same story as the original. Frank Zito is still a serial killer. His mother was still a whore [although the backstory is given a bit more focus here]. Frank still scalps people and places the scalps on mannequins. He still becomes enamored with Anna, which leads to his downfall. Even certain moments, like the subway sequence, and a dry humping scene where Frank calls his victim "Mommy" are here. It's a more faithful adaptation to the original source than I had believed prior to watching. I actually appreciated that, since MANIAC showed a lot of respect for the 1980 version.

I gotta say though that the love story aspect works a hell of a lot better here than it did in the original. Frank and Anna's relationship is more developed and given tons of focus, allowing us to see why Frank would be enamored with this girl and how he struggles with trying to be normal for her. I think it's because Anna is introduced pretty quickly into the story [although the fact that she also loves mannequins is a bit far-fetched - I mean, seriously?]. Because of her earlier appearance, she's given depth to her character. She's Yin to Frank's Yang in a lot of ways. They share things in common. They actually hang out and behave like real people trying to establish a relationship of sorts. Even though Anna has a boyfriend, you can tell Anna has a thing for weird Frank. And while you still may call me shallow, I can actually buy that Anna would be into Frank in this version. Frank is a nice-looking, shy dude who doesn't seem at all threatening to the naked eye. He's somewhat charming in a geeky way, which I can see how that would be appealing. Although Frank's bruised hands were pretty nasty though, which makes me wonder if Anna was blind or something. That's why it works better here. I can actually buy this relationship. The original didn't have that effect on me at all.

I also thought the ending here was executed better than it was the original. I'm not a fan of that final scare in the original. This version makes Frank's story a bit more conclusive, which hopefully leads me to believe that there won't be a sequel. But you never know when it comes to these movie studios. They'll make a sequel out of anything these days.

What the remake doesn't have on the original is the violence. There's no real moment that stuck out to me like that shotgun death in the original did. Sure, we get scalpings. We get stabbings. We get a meat cleaver to the face. We get the face ripping from the original. But nothing as macabre as the 1980 version. Still, the remake is a violent enough film that will probably make some people wince while watching it. At least we get boobs in this version. Yay boobies!!

The direction by P2 director Franck Khalfoun is pretty damn good, I thought. It's a more polished, arthouse type of version than William Lustig's gritty, grindhouse version. And I don't think Khalfoun matched any of the tension Lustig placed in this movie. But I loved the look of the film. And I felt the POV approach to the story was an interesting take to an already established narrative. 95% of the film is in total first person point-of-view, putting the audience in the role of Frank Zito. There's only a handful of times where we see Elijah Wood's face, through mirrors and reflections on glass. The Wood dialogue was actually done in post, which makes it more impressive. I liked how the visuals made this MANIAC feel different from the previous MANIAC. I don't think I would have been as invested in this remake if it wasn't for this visual choice, because I knew it was the same film but it felt different. And that's what a remake should do, regardless if the execution works or not. It worked here big time and I dug the bold choice. By the way, I loved the homage to the poster of the original film. Pretty cool.

The acting was pretty solid as well. Elijah Wood is good as Frank Zito, although nowhere to what Joe Spinell did with the same role. Casting Wood was an inspired, interesting choice for such a classic cult role to many. I know people still hate that he was cast as Frank, but I thought Wood did his own thing with it and made it work. It was a more hipster vibe, which I didn't mind. Nora Arnezeder was also very good as Anna. She's very cute and has a lovely accent. I thought she was very likeable and thought she and Wood has some nice chemistry, even if they didn't share many scenes together visually. America Olivo showed her boobs as Frank's slutty mom. Thank you very much for that, Ms. Olivo.


- Frank Zito gets off on his women posing before sex. This season of America's Next Top Model is really desperate for ratings.

- Frank uses mannequins to replace the female victims he murdered. After seeing that he has so many, nothing's gonna stop him now...

- A dude on his date got his entire cranium splattered by a shotgun. When he was hoping for head earlier in the day, I don't think he meant this.

- In 1980, certain serial killers murdered women to preserve their youth and beauty forever. In 2013, we have botox for that.

- Frank tortured a young model named Mia. This is the most competitive season of America's Next Top Model. Needs more smizing though.

- Frank dry humps his victims after he murders them, thinking they're his mother. Even Norman Bates thinks this dude is batshit crazy.

- Frank finds female victims through cyber dating. This is the most extreme episode of Catfish ever.

- One of Frank's dates enjoys listening to "Goodbye Horses" by Q Lazzarus before sex. I guess this chick rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

- Frank slapped and strangled a date after she performed oral sex on him. She must have used teeth.

- A girl got her foot sliced by Frank while trying to escape. Who knew Elijah Wood would be this girl's Achilles' Heel?

- Frank was corrupted by his coke snorting, double penetrated, slutty mom, who made him watch her have sex. Sometimes it's not worth being THE GOOD SON in this SIN CITY.

- Frank thinks it's perfectly acceptable to scare his love interest. Then again, his best friend is an Australian guy dressed in a bunny outfit. So what do I know?

Two different versions of the same narrative, both takes on MANIAC work on various levels. The 1980 film is a gritty, sleazy affair that's driven by Joe Spinell's incredible lead performance and Tom Savini's gore. The 2012 remake is a more horror-arthouse deal with a very good performance by Elijah Wood, a better love story, and direction that might not work for everyone [but the first person point-of-view angle for the killer worked more than I thought it would personally]. Not everyone loves the original. Not everyone loves the remake. I personally love both, and I think each film does things better than the other. I believe both versions of MANIAC are worth watching, even if they aren't entertaining films on a popcorn level.

MANIAC (1980) & MANIAC (2012)
3.5 Howls Outta 4




  1. Great double review!

    When I first heard about Elijah Wood's casting, I laughed, but then I remembered his performance in Sin City, and I immediately had faith in his performance here. Granted, the POV gimmick does shaft him as an actor here.

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, I was unsure as well, even though I loved him in SIN CITY. He's very good in this film, but Spinell still owns the role. And I can see how the POV gimmick would shaft him. But I loved the visual presentation and thought it added rather than take away.


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