At some point during the mid-1980s, the whole world turned neon. Every boiler room shootout or smoke-strewn alleyway inexplicably glowed with it. We had neon fashion, neon nightclubs, and a relatively new phenomenon named MTV that peddled neon like it was the planet’s fifth element. We even had a fifty-eight year old Roger Moore shooting lasers at neon-painted women in what many consider to be one of the most underwhelming Bond movies of all time. Neon, it seemed, was on the verge of becoming passé.
Enter the Neon Maniacs. In a year teeming with slasher sequels that embraced the censor-defying realms of self-awareness, many attempting to exploit past glories in a way that was bloodless enough to displease genre traditionalists, the cheapjack, under the radar Neon Maniacs was a breath of fresh air — at least for the few who managed to see it. That’s not to say it was any good, but it was at least original in the respect that it introduced not one, but twelve new antagonists to the horror lexicon.
It’s all a bit messy. In fact, it’s downright ludicrous for the most part, treading a peculiar line between bloodthirsty horror and teen-led silliness, with a level of illogicality that is truly startling. It can be pretty damn hilarious. This can be attributed to the kind of severe financial problems that stopped production in its tracks multiple times. So drawn-out was one hiatus that several of the maniacs had to be recast due to prior obligations. Insufficient funds meant that the script had to be shortened or revised and the original ending scrapped completely, something made clear by the film’s oddly abrupt conclusion.
The Neon Maniacs, as far as I can gather, are a mishmash of periodically ambiguous creatures reminiscent of the He-Man action figure range. With names such as Ape, Archer, Axe, Decapitator and Hangman, they are more Return of the Living Dead than The Hills Have Eyes, with an undercurrent of humour that is, at least in part, intentional. But don’t let their comical antics fool you. For every bumbling ape man there is a demented zombie doctor with a penchant for human organs, and the Maniacs make short work of a group of teenagers within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, hanging one kid from a tree and decapitating another mid-fellatio.
It’s a rather odd, if fascinating blend of slasher excess and pure buffoonery, a charmingly cheap concoction that simply doesn’t exist in today’s cookie cutter industry. It also features the kind of painstaking make-up that CGI has all but wiped out, but the movie’s true calling card is its infantile approach to horror, and a gaggle of colourful mutants who are ripping off heads one minute and giddily riding subway trains the next. Even the movie’s protagonist is distinctly juvenile, tackling the gore-laden mystery with the light-hearted pragmatism of a Scooby-Doo episode.
After the initial carnage of a parkside massacre settles, heroine Natalie (Leilani Sarelle) is the only remaining survivor, and since the brutalised bodies of her former friends have mysteriously vanished, the neon ooze left in the Maniacs’ wake is the only evidence of their existence, a toxic substance that is safely stored in an easy-seal sandwich bag (the script doesn’t even attempt the usual horror-based pseudo-science). This isn’t enough to convince the predictably dubious San Francisco police force, who for some reason find it hard to believe that a gang of grossly deformed mutants have been residing in a tower of the Golden Gate Bridge while they’ve been out eating doughnuts.
To be fair to the cops, the Neon Maniacs only seem to come out when the respectable adults of suburban America are tucked away safely in their beds, reserving their bloodlust for loaded teenagers and vagrants who conveniently slip under the social radar. For a rabble of braindead mutants, they’re certainly a crafty bunch. Why the Maniacs only have eyes for teenagers is never explained. Michael Myers longed to return to the scene of his first murder, Krueger and Voorhees sought revenge for being burned and drowned respectively, but as for the Maniacs… I can only assume that the movie’s producers managed to convince them it would make a sound marketing strategy. As the movie’s undisclosed box office will attest, they were well off. And that’s assuming it even made it into theatres.
There are two people who believe Natalie’s wild tales of eclectic zombie killers: her classmate, Steven (Clyde Hayes), and a strange, horror-obsessed girl named Paula (Donna Locke), who looks about twenty-five but dresses and acts like a twelve-year-old. She is also a tenacious wee lass with an uncanny knack for presupposition, the kind that makes her a fearsome opponent for a gang of homicidal mutants approximately twice her size — though the Maniacs do have quite the debilitating weakness for a rabble who set about ravaging a planet which is made up of approximately 71% water (there’s a clue in there somewhere, though a more obvious one happens during the movie’s opening scenes courtesy of a truly surreal blood rainstorm). I think they call that foreshadowing.
Since Natalie is now firmly in the throes of self-denial, Paula decides to take matters into her own hands and follows the slime trail to the Golden Gate Bridge, where the aspiring cinematographer decides to film the Maniacs bumbling around like apes before the dawn of man. It is there that Paula discovers their Achilles heel, one that presumably played a part in their decision to frequent the rainy, water-strewn locale of the San Francisco Bay Area. By the time Paula disposes of one of the Maniacs by means of the family shower, you begin to envisage a solution to her previously hopeless predicament.
With the cops still refusing to play hardball, Paula then decides to arm the students of her high school with fully loaded water pistols, presuming (quite rightly) that the neon ones will show up to the annual ‘Battle of the Bands’, a locally organised event where teen musicians rock like pussies and the pursuing ‘Maniacs’ pray for the rain to hold off for just one evening. In what proves a blessing for their stealth aspirations, the Battle of the Bands happens to be a fancy dress party, but will our resident monsters take advantage of such a fortuitous predicament? History tells us No.
It’s not hyperbole when I write that the Neon Maniacs are some of the most elusive, intriguing and nonsensical villains in horrordom, a ludicrous rabble with absolutely no rhyme or reason. It has been suggested that fleshed-out backstories, motivations and origins were included in the original script, though due to reasons already stated they failed to materialise on the big screen. Copies of the original script are presumed lost or destroyed, and none of the cast have been able to shed further light on the matter, while others remain bitter about the film’s troubled production and presumably don’t care enough to recall. If the movie had run smoothly, I doubt it would have garnered such a cult following among genre aficionados. Sometimes chaos can be a blessing in disguise.