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The Test of Time: Maniac Cop (1988)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY WILLIAM LUSTIG

STARRING TOM ATKINS, BRUCE CAMPBELL, ROBERT Z'DAR, RICHARD ROUNDTREE, LAURENE LANDON

You have the right to remain silent…forever! F*cking hell, we’ve been having such a bloody blast reveling in the halcyon horror flicks of good old 1988 that we see no reason to keep the train from rolling on. You onboard? That’s the ticket! Last time out we tried THE BLOB in the court of durability, which passed with flying pink colors, and now we’re putting William Lustig’s unapologetically grim MANIAC COP under the hot interrogation lamp. Now, I realize MANIAC COP hasn’t the unanimous greatness we usually reserve for time examinations. And yet, it has garnered far more love than your typical Black Sheep. As such, we’re locking MANIAC COP in the slammer on the former charge!

Indeed, 30 years seems a light sentence to acquit a murderous maniac who has caught more bodies than a crowd of moshing concertgoers, but hey, what are you gonna do, this mother*cker’s up for appeal. This piece of murderous metal-faced street-trash wants his day in court. So let’s give it to him. After all, a lot has changed in the past 30 years. We’ve got Stand Your Ground, Stop and Frisk, Carry and Conceal. Hell, is this sick f*ck even a maniac anymore? Let’s find out when we book MANIAC COP and put him in a block with the Test of Time!

THE STORY: Written by Larry Cohen (Q, IT’S ALIVE), MANIAC COP opens with a beautiful montage of a man donning a police uniform, replete with accredited freeze-frames. It’s as if director William Lustig (MANIAC) is highlighting the weighted honor of putting on the uniform, and the significance it brings. When the picture begins in earnest, a woman in NYC evades a pair of muggers and solicits the aid a police officer (Robert Z’Dar). Uh uh. Her neck is snapped like a twig by the swollen-jawed psycho who so pristinely attired himself in the blue-boy uniform to start. This kicks off a sick and sordid rampage of abject slaughter, in which designated death-dealing of all shades, shapes and varieties go on full display. Our man, dubbed the Maniac Cop, goes on an indiscriminate killing spree in which innocent victims are viciously waylaid. This f*cker breaks necks, stabs torsos, hangs necks, blasts firearms, launches bodies out the window…the f*cking works!

Assigned to the case is Frank McCrae (the great Tom Atkins), who is also tasked with suppressing the word that a killer in a cop uniform is murdering ordinary citizens. When the word gets out, paranoia escalates, trust wanes, and nowhere is it safe to trust a police officer in NYC (sound familiar?). A woman named Ellen Forrest (Victoria Jackson) suspects her husband Jack (the great Bruce Campbell) to be the killer. She follows Jack to a hotel, only to find him banging another girl before being slashed from ear-to-ear by the Maniac shortly after. Jack, McCrae and Mallory (Jack’s new squeeze) team up to bring the Maniac down, who we learn is named Matt Cordell…a former police officer that was badly beaten to near death by fellow officers in a Sing Sing shower. Legally declared dead, Matt pulls a full on Voorhees from JASON LIVES en route to becoming a formidable zombie-slasher with superhuman strength who overruns the city with stark raving maniacal murder!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Straight up, the pure premise of MANIAC COP is one that will never get old. The mere idea of subverting a figure so inherently trustworthy, so intrinsically linked with law-abiding honor and decorous behavior, so on the right side of goodness – a police officer – and turning such an iconic symbol of justice and protection into the exact opposite, a bastion of barbarous butchery – is simply too brilliant to impugn. The same went for BAD LIEUTENANT, though his transgressions were far more self-destructive than anything else, here Cohen and Lustig upend the notion of the good-guy in favor of exploring how law enforcement can actually be far harder and more horrifying than you may think. This efficacious hook of the high-concept premise alone cannot be overstated. Cops are supposed to protect and serve, not dissect and unnerve…and by simply subverting the dynamic, a wonderful conceit is born.

Carried over from Lustig’s even more brazen brand of searing psychosis in MANIAC (1980), there is such a ruthlessly mean-spirited vibe to MANIAC COP that, despite some of the technical flaws rendered by a scant $1.1 million budget, actually preserves a tone of nasty nihilism and evilly energetic bleakness that cannot be dismissed when viewing the film with fresh eyes. Really, there’s a deep-seeded malevolence to the look and feel of the film that goes a long way in keeping the film cemented as a cult-favorite. This is not a cutesy, winking and nodding, self-referential, look how witty I am horror flick…hell no…MANIAC COP is the exact opposite.

Much of this has to do with Lustig’s muscular, no-frills directorial style. He paces the picture with a dynamic fluidity that rightly codifies the film in the horror/action subgenre. Indeed, there’s nary a boring minute in MANIAC COP, and in fact, the movie ramps up the action as it progresses, growing stronger as it unfolds. Movies usually peter out by the third act, but MANIAC COP hits its sinister stride with one incendiary set-piece after another. Granted, nothing quite matches the torrential police-station massacre the Maniac incurs in part 2, but that’s alight, few things do. The point is, the angered-aura of MANIAC COP and the concomitant directorial brusqueness of Lustig’s style make for a perfect marriage. A lasting 30 year marriage, no divorce or separation!

You know what though, and not to wax political, but it does seem that the most salient part of MANIAC COP in 2018 is its social commentary on police brutality. There’s one key scene in a barroom where a TV plays a news station interviewing a cadre of denizens. They’re asked what they think of Maniac Cop running roughshod over the NYC streets. The main argument suggests that, police officers no longer operate as they used to, that nowadays they are far quicker to shoot first and ask questions later. One interviewee laments how policemen used to enforce with their truncheons and bare hands. Now they’re too quick to fire a round in a suspect without proper interrogation, arrest, due process, etc.

Now, I cannot speak to the zeitgeist of 1988, but I do know that in the years since Trayvon Martin (or even Rodney King in the 90s), this very topic has been broached and rightly debated. And it’s an important discussion to be had. Sadly, it seems this issue has persisted for countless years now. In a way, Cohen and Lustig may have intentionally exaggerated this point to show how truly horrific such a reality could become. By extrapolating the premise to such mortifying heights, the filmmakers were likely commenting on a foreseen trend of police brutality they wanted to see end. Ask Larry Cohen about THE STUFF and social commentary…it’s not out of the realm.

Not for nothing, but mention ought to be made about the high death toll MANIAC COP mounts in a brisk 85 minutes, and how far that kind of thing goes in holding up in the eyes of blood-lusting horror fans. No joke, MANIAC COP rips, shreds, cracks, bashes, brains, stabs, chokes and flays a whole lot of mofos in the movie. If you include the off-screen slashing of Mayor Killium at the end of the extended cut, Maniac Cop tallied 17 corpses on his indiscriminant death-march. 17! Do the math, that’s one fresh slaying every five minutes of screen time. That’s doing Voorhees numbers!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Speaking of the death-scenes and the soaring body-count, the one thing that blows about MANIAC COP is the cutaway carnage (or lack thereof) of the murders as they’re happening. Sure we get plenty of gory after-shots, but at the moment of truth, we’re never given the graphic depiction of piercing penetration. This is by no means an intentional sidestepping of abject grue, just go and see Lustig’s MANIAC to see what he’s capable of and comfortable with showing onscreen. No, the real problem is the late 80s MPPAA crackdown by the Regan administration trying to make an example of Hollywood’s escalating violence.

Since we compared MANIAC COP to Voorhees, let’s compare 1988 apples to apples. FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: A NEW BLOOD suffered the exact same problem…neutered violence. 1987-1989 was an unkind period for horror films, where the exorbitant carnage and onscreen violence was at its absolute pinnacle around 1984 (think FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV: THE LAST CHAPTER, or SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT for that matter). MANIAC COP, if made just two years prior, would have likely gotten away with far more unflinchingly graphic gore.

THE VERDICT: While it may have never been a masterpiece to begin with, for what it is, MANIAC COP has certainly acquitted itself well enough over the past 30 years. What the movie lacks in onscreen carnage it more than makes up for in its exorbitant death-toll, various methods of murder, a mean-spirited energy, a dynamically paced tempo, and the inviolable overall conceit of turning a trusted serviceman into a vehicle of vile behavior. Above all, there’s a cautionary tale buried beneath the cheap sensationalism that heeds against the excessive force of rogue police officers.

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Extra Tidbit: Sam Raimi, who shot second unit during the St. Patrick's Day parade, also has a cameo as a news reporter in the film.
Source: AITH

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