Bill Lustig's 1980 film Maniac has long been one of my favorite slasher movies--it's sleazy, it features a fantastic performance from the late Joe Spinell, and most importantly, it boasts some fine special effects work courtesy of Tom Savini. Maniac isn't a great film in the traditional sense of the term, but it is a fantastic exercise in gore and exploitation. How unpleasant is Lustig's creation? So unpleasant that Gene Siskel reportedly left the screening thirty minutes into it. That's the sort of factoid that should be boldly emblazoned on the cover of every DVD version of the film.

What makes Maniac such a difficult viewing experience isn't easily quantified. There's a synergy happening in this flick, a cosmic convergence of elements that combine into a perfect storm of pure exploitation. Lustig's grimy guerrilla filmmaking style, coupled with Spinell's creepy and disturbing performance, and Savini's penchant for splatter works in concert to create a film that's greater than the sum of its individual parts. No one component is more important than the other, but for this particular retrospective we'll be examining a very specific scene--the sequence everyone who sees Maniac remembers--the Tom Savini shotgun blast to the head. In the film, Spinell plays Frank Zito--a psychopathic killer who hates women, has mother issues, and loves to scalp his victims. Things seem like they may get better for Frank when he meets fashion photographer Anna (the lovely Caroline Munro). However, it wouldn't be much of a movie if Frank suddenly got over his psychosis, so you can kinda guess how this all eventually plays out.

According to various interviews with Savini, scalping wasn't the original concept for Frank's fetish. Instead, the FX wizard tells Slasherama, the initial plan was for Frank to perform oral clitoridectomies on his victims. Savini refused to create the effect, which is probably for the best since one can imagine that Siskel wouldn't have even made it thirty minutes into the film if that had happened.

However, just because Savini wasn't down for brutal sexual violence doesn't mean that Maniac is any less gory. The film's calling card scene is undoubtedly the shotgun blast to the head sequence. The segment is memorable for a number of reasons: it's an incredibly well-executed exploding head gag, the fact that Savini was the victim, and that Savini was also the killer. It's not every day that one gets a chance to brutally murder themselves on film...

In the scene, Savini (known to fans as "Disco Boy" based on his attire) and a young woman are parked on the beach, make out session in full swing. When the girl spots Zito watching them, she panics and insists they leave. Savini fires up the car, but when he hits the high beams you can see a shadowy figure barely illuminated in the cones of light. Frank, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, rushes the car and hops on the hood. Things switch to slow-motion from that moment forward as our killer draws down and fires right through the windhshield, exploding Savini's head in a gooey shower of blood, brain, and bone. Lustig clearly knows how great the effect is, because he makes sure to show us the aftermath in several subsequent shots. There's nothing worse than seeing a great gore effect in a movie and then realizing the director isn't going to let you get a good look at it. Lustig certainly earns my respect for not flinching from Savini's finely crafted carnage.

In the pantheon of exploding head gags, Savini's work ranks at the top of the class--taking a position of honor right alongside the exploding cranium in Cronenberg's Scanners. Check out the clip below and see for yourself.


CATEGORIES Features, Horror