William Lustig reflects on 30 years of 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?
WL You know, when you're making a movie and you're throwing ketchup around, it's almost kind of comical. It's not intended to be serious — you intend it to be a kind of roller-coaster ride for an audience. And when people take a movie like that so seriously, and look at it as being a political statement, and look at it as being some kind an outcry for violence against women and things like that, it kind of takes you aback. When I made the film, I was 24 years old and I was just trying to survive the experience. I wasn't thinking about the wider implications of what we were doing. And I think we've gone beyond that in the world today. I think we kind of look at it as being make-believe.
SFBG I have to ask you about the famous exploding head, courtesy of effects wizard Tom Savini. Did you realize that would be Maniac's defining moment?
WL I think after we made the movie, we realized it had a tremendous impact. But when we were doing it, we were like burglars in the night. First off, there is no permit in existence, in any part of New York City, or I would imagine in any part of the country, that allows to you fire a live gun on a movie set and on public streets. Which is what we did — we actually filmed that in that parking lot, under the Verrazano Bridge, with a live shotgun, double-loaded. That was our major concern: would we get busted? It wasn't until later, when we saw the dailies, that we realized, "Holy shit! It actually turned out to be something!" We rigged up three cameras and we just went for it.
SFBG You're the owner of Blue Underground, which has released top-notch DVDs and Blu-rays of Maniac and other grindhouse movies. Why did you become such a champion of these films?
WL It was kind of satisfying my own need. I always loved having people over to my house, showing them these obscure grindhouse movies that I had seen on 42nd Street in the late '60s and early '70s, and I would see their [enthusiastic] reactions. One of the things that bothered me back in the '80s and the '90s was that these movies were never really treated with any respect. So it was my intention to treat grindhouse movies the same way Criterion treats its Fellini movies.
MIDNITES FOR MANIACS: PUSH IT TO THE LIMIT TRIPLE FEATURE
Just One of the Guys (1985), Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Point Break (1991), Fri., 9:30 p.m.;
Maniac: The Restored Director's Cut (1980), Fri., midnight, $12
429 Castro, SF
(415) 621-6120 www.castrotheatre.com