Violence please!

William Lustig reflects on 30 years of Maniac

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Frank (Joe Spinell) teeters between sanity and total raging lunacy in Maniac.

Christmas is here early, horror geeks: not only is a brand-new print of 1980's Maniac playing the Castro Theatre, but director William Lustig will be in attendance. After the big-screen experience, make sure Santa knows you want the extras-packed 30th anniversary DVD, released by Lustig's own Blue Underground label, wrapped in bloody butcher paper under the tree.

For the uninitiated, Maniac — the tale of a mommy-haunted New York City creep who stalks and kills women, using their body parts to accessorize his mannequin collection — features a tour de force performance by the late Joe Spinell, who co-wrote the screenplay. Spinell was a grindhouse favorite who also appeared in the first two Rocky movies, the first two Godfather movies, and Taxi Driver (1976). Lustig directed Spinell in 1983's Vigilante; he also helmed the Maniac Cop series. He hasn't directed a feature since 1997's horror comedy Uncle Sam ("I want you ... DEAD!"), but he's still very much involved in the world of genre films. Since I'm a Maniac maniac, I gave him a call at his New York City office to talk about exploding heads and other topics.

SFBG How long have you been planning Maniac's 30th anniversary celebration?

William Lustig About 18 months ago, the idea popped into my head that it was time to freshen up the movie. Six months ago, somebody came up with the idea of testing it as a theatrical release. We started playing it in Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles, and it's done quite well, so we're going to be rolling it out over the next three or four months in about 50 cities throughout North America.

SFBG Are most audiences already familiar with the movie, or are you getting some first-timers?

WL People who have seen it on video make up a good portion of the audience, but the other portion are seeing it for the first time. It's amazing — you know, when you make a movie like this, I guess it's like somebody who makes a comedy. After a while, you don't find it funny anymore. As a person who made a horrific movie, I can't imagine anybody finding it scary, and yet people do. They still respond as strongly as people did 30 years ago. It feels great!

SFBG Are you surprised that Maniac became such a cult favorite?

WL Somebody recently asked me, when did I realize it was a classic? I guess it must have been about 18 months ago when I realized that this movie continues to sell, continues to intrigue people. I think a portion of it is the mystique of its star, Joe Spinell, who's become kind of a cult figure for people who are rediscovering movies from the '70s. But Maniac is not a film that was lost and now it's been found — it's been around and it continues to attract audiences and to please them.

SFBG What was Joe Spinell like in real life?

WL Like any great actor, there was a part of Joe in every role he played. Joe was a loner, and he was an insomiac. He would roam the streets of New York and be at bars until all hours. He was a troubled soul, but at the same time, he was one of the most brilliant people I ever met. He had a charisma that would attract beautiful women even though he wasn't a classically handsome guy. He had a magic about him. So when you see Maniac, there are aspects of his personality in there.

SFBG Maniac was quite controversial when it was released. Did that surprise you?

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