It's difficult to gauge, overall, where Maniac Cop and it's two fairly decent but more action orientated sequels sit in the grand scheme of 80s horror and just how popular it was, is and why it never seemed to reach the success or following of something like Friday the 13th, probably it's closest horror companion in style and content. In fact this film came out just one year before that other knife wielding loony zombie Jason also 'took' Manhattan, Maniac Cop, I am glad to report though, is the far superior movie. It's makers are director William Lustig, who is most famous for his controversial serial killer flick 'Maniac' and writer Larry Cohen whose career started writing some of the more famous Blaxploitation films and whose biggest writing credit to date is on the underrated Phone Booth, if only they'd cast someone other than Colin bloody Farrell. If Raimi, Craven and Carpenter were mainstream horror (as mainstream as horror ever gets) then Lustig and Cohen were certainly secondary or B level players much akin to Don Coscarelli, who was busy making the Phantasm series at the time and with whom Bruce Campbell would later work with superb results in Bubba Ho-Tep.
The film, essentially, is a stalk and slash film but with the twist that the person you'd usually run to help for, a cop, is the one doing the stalking and slashing.
As if that wasn't groovy enough, there's a back story that dares you to almost sympathise with the killer, or at least attempts to explain his actions, complete with the wounded girlfriend who still loves him despite him essentially being a big shambling zombie with a face you wouldn't so much hold in your hands lovingly as scale like a mountain.
There's a sub plot about a regular beat cop, his wife driven paranoid by anonymous calls into believing her husband is really the maniac, when he's actually having an affair but is still framed as the maniac cop later when his wife shows up dead.
There's the detective with the tragic past trying to make sense of a whole heap of loose ends, the hard bitten squad commander a few days from retirement, a ton of pen pushers up in city hall screwing it up for everyone, ably lead by the Police Commissioner played by Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree and all this taking place in a city full of panicky people, mistrusting the cops so much now that one of them even shoots a perfectly innocent one dead.
For a little 85 minute horror this film has a pretty dense plot, even if it does resort to explaining away huge leaps of logic by basically hoping the audience is sitting there thinking, oh yeah it's just a movie.
The plot aside though, you also get to witness a proper horror film on the actual streets of New York in the gritty and seedy 80s and not just some franchise that's run out of ideas and decides to send it's hockey mask wearing killer first to New York, then to hell and finally to space! but a film in which the people and the place feel authentically shabby and where the city plays a part, right down to them filming the actual St.Patrick's day parade for the finale.
For whatever reason, probably the logistics and cost of shooting there, New York does not get used very often in the Horror genre, except apartment horrors like The Sentinel or Rosemary's Baby and that's partly what gives Maniac Cop its edge and slightly unique feeling.
Now, to the cast: The lead, essentially, for the first half of the movie at least, is Tom Atkins' troubled but thorough detective and despite not looking 100% the part and being forced to wear some truly ludicrous jackets, he is solid enough and has enough conviction in the character that he does carry the film nicely. Laurene Landon is mostly awful and I don't buy her as a scream queen or as a, "I can look after myself", tough female cop but I've always just accepted that's pretty much the standard in this genre and while her voice and hair threaten to spoil the movie, they never truly do. Robert Z'Dar, who plays the titular maniac cop, is possibly the most bizarre looking man ever to grace the silver screen, his face looks like a really bad make-up attempt, like a person with a normal sized head wearing a ludicrous prosthetic chin. His jaw line closely resembles the plow and front bumper of an ice moving truck. It is genuinely a wonder that Campbell ever became known for his chin after he starred in a film with Z'Dar whose chin has it's own postal code. That said, he plays the part perfectly adequately but it's not like he has a whole lot to do other than stand on his mark and strangle the right stunt man. He is, after all, a combination of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees in a police uniform.
So that, finally, brings us to Bruce Campbell. Out of all of the merry band of characters his is the most normal and the least cliche and so, while it may disappoint some fans of his more over-the-top comedy work, Campbell does his best job of playing it straight in this film, which, in its own way, is quite refreshing. The rest of the film is so full of off-kilter, slightly strange or slightly over-the-top genre staples and crazy camera work that it is Campbell's portrayal of the character that anchors the film nicely.
People think I am crazy or just saying it in some tongue-in-cheek way because I am a fan but I honestly believe that the reason Campbell gets the cult attention that he does, or is hailed as king of B movies when there are other character actors who equally tread the same path in sometimes better films, is that he can really act and more than that, genuinely is an interesting screen presence. Everyone knows him as the brash, one liner spouting, Ashley J Williams from Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, which also fed into his performance of Autolycus in Xena but he is very capable of playing it straight and even subtle sometimes.
Maniac Cop is interesting though because, if you are familiar with his other films, the first time you watch it, you keep expecting Bruce, in the final act, to strap on an enormous machine gun and take the rampaging zombie policeman down. The fact that he doesn't and gets very few 'hero' moments can be disappointing at first glance but once you come to terms with the fact that the real starring role of the flick is the Maniac Cop himself and that the other parts are more or less going to play themselves out as realistically as possible, in a setting like this, it makes for a much more enjoyable viewing experience.
Considering it's relatively short running time Maniac Cop packs a lot in, plot wise, has a good economy of dialogue, where people say what they have to, tag the end with a little quip or one liner and then leave, has some nice slasher moments, the occasional bit of inventive camera work, a good score and manages to get the most from it's modest budget.
There is not much to say on the negative side except that, it's not particularly scary and plays a bit more like an action film in places, the female lead in the film could've been more convincing and, throughout the film, there are moments that completely defy any sort of logic, even phony movie logic. That said, that's probably half its charm.
Maniac Cop is far from the worst movie Bruce Campbell has ever been in, in fact it's not really a "Bruce Campbell" movie at all (in the sense that we have come to expect), and far from the worst horror/comedy/action movie that has ever been made, it is a good little, fast paced romp that really wears its B movie credentials proudly on it's bloody sleeve.
6.5 out of 10 egg benedicts
Points from The Misses 5 out of 10 egg benedicts