Tagline: You have the right to remain silent. Forever.
Director: William Lustig
Writer: Larry Cohen
Starring: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon, Richard Roundtree, Robert Z’Dar, Sheree North, Nina Arvesen, Nick Barbaro, Lou Bonacki
18 | 1hr 25min | Action, Horror
Budget: $1,100,000 (estimated)
When we talk about cinema’s most underrated monsters, Matt Cordell must be right up there with the best of them.
Known simply as Maniac Cop, Cordell is a brute of a killer, a zombified variation of Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees, with the same superhuman strength and nondiscriminatory appetite for murder. Directed by exploitation junkie William Lustig (Maniac) and written by the delightfully satirical Roger Corman (The Stuff), the movie would prove a financial failure at a time when slasher movies had become largely generic and commercially passé, but Maniac Cop is the perfect antidote to the visually neutered Friday the 13th entries of the late 1980s, and if the film had been released half a decade earlier, I’m convinced we would be talking about Cordell in the same breath as Krueger and co. The character has all the ingredients of a bona fide horror icon, with a delicious pretence that has victims flocking to their deaths like lambs to the punitive slaughter.
Much of the credit has to go to B-movie legend Robert Z’Dar, a man mountain with the kind of monolithic features that belong in a Dick Tracy comic. Lustig had seen Z’Dar play a serial killer in Max Kleven’s The Night Stalker (1986) and had been ensnared by his fearsome aura. In an interview with WithoutYourHead.com, the director would explain, “He was frightening. And when it came to casting Maniac Cop he was always in my mind. I didn’t know him and had the casting person bring him in and frankly, the day I was to meet him, I was a little nervous because he made such an impression on me.”
The man tasked with stopping Cordell is genre legend Tom Atkins, typically likeable as whiskey-swilling detective Frank McCrae, a man who lives and breathes his profession with a pulp charm that proves hugely endearing. As bodies fall thick and fast, he and the cops are baffled by a seemingly motiveless killing spree, and when news hits the streets about our homicidal boy in blue, innocent cops are gunned down by terrified citizens fearing the very worst. With city officials in a panic, the law is desperate to land their man and bring peace to the streets of New York City, so when officer Jack Forrest (Campbell) is framed for the murder of his wife, they are only too eager to condemn him.
Luckily for Forrest, McCrae remains unconvinced, and when investigations lead him to a trigger-happy super cop supposedly killed in prison, it becomes increasingly apparent that Cordell has risen from the dead to enact his revenge on the city officials who sealed his fate, taking to the streets like an undead Schwarzenegger veiled in curmudgeon mystique and exuding the midnight smut of a grubby Grindhouse theatre on its last legs. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Z’Dar would embrace the role wholeheartedly, bringing a strange sympathy to a marauding beast whose vengeful path leads not only to the death of those who orchestrated his downfall, but anyone else who is unlucky enough to cross his path, resulting in the kind of insane body count (21) that puts all of his slasher counterparts to shame. In an interview featured on the Synapse Films’ Special Edition DVD of Maniac Cop, Z’Dar would say of his most infamous character, “I love the idea that you have to sell your character based on body language only…I keep thinking of the persecution. Me as Matt Cordell. He’s a great cop who was just totally screwed by his own system. And I think that’s why he became so twisted. Hell, he’s killing good people!”
In spite of its commercial shortcomings, Maniac Cop has achieved a lofty cult status in the years since its release, and would spawn a couple of increasingly ludicrous and highly enjoyable sequels, each descending further into the realms of the self-reflexive. The movie is about as cheapskate as they come beyond the realms of dross, with the kind of cost-cutting ventures that saw Lustig hire his real-life doctor as the movie’s coroner, but much of the film’s status can be attributed to a wonderful supporting cast that reads like a who’s who of B-movie royalty. As well as the always appealing Atkins we have Evil Dead icon Bruce Campbell in his first non-Raimi role, one he would begrudgingly take for financial reasons. We also have a couple of Cohen mainstays in Blaxplotation icon Richard Roundtree, going against his anarchic roots as the self-serving Commissioner Pike, and the sumptuous and effervescent Laurene Landon as Forrest’s resourceful squeeze, a close friend of the writer who came as part of the package.
For a movie centred on police corruption that sees a cop killing other cops, there was always concern that Lustig’s grainy slice of slasher excess would cause quite the stir with the notoriously chop-happy MPAA, but according to the director that wasn’t the case. In fact, Lustig’s own brother — an LA prosecutor who made a brief cameo in the movie — has a Maniac Cop poster hanging proudly in his office, one that his cop associates often smile at. Quizzed on the movie’s capacity for causing outrage, the director would retort, “Honestly, I don’t think so. I think people see it as a satire. It was a satire, and they see it for what it is.”
A satire it may be, but make no mistake about it, Cordell is as brutal as they come. Suited and booted and armed with a nifty sword that doubles up as a standard issue nightstick, our eponymous maniac is as intangible as Krueger and as relentless as Voorhees, with an infectious mystique that has franchise written all over it. An upcoming reboot may prove an interesting prospect for fans of the series, finally giving the character the mainstream platform he so richly deserves, although something tells me the concept works best as the grainy dose of exploitation it was first conceived as.
Editor’s note: the reboot has since been committed to the slush pile. For this I think we can all be thankful.
Stopping to accost a young couple stuck at some traffic lights, our zombie law enforcer requests the man’s presence outside his vehicle, a request his girlfriend urges him to acquiesce with. Moments later, our savage brute grabs the citizen by the throat and snaps his neck like a pencil, launching him like a flesh missile through the windscreen of his parked car.
Not even Jason possesses that kind of strength!
Most Absurd Moment
After handcuffing an innocent man who stumbles out of a bar, Cordell pursues his victim through the smoke-strewn city streets before ramming him face-first into some wet cement, leaving a rather curious death scene for the morning beat to attend to (see above image). But why would the cement still be wet at such a late hour? Perhaps the mixers had nipped off for a bit of late night supper, or maybe even a floodlight so they could see what in the hell they were doing.
Raging Bull‘s Jake LaMotta makes a brief cameo as an NYPD detective.
Most Absurd Dialogue
During the autopsy of Cornell’s first murder, detective Frank McCrae gets the wrong end of the proverbial stick.
Coroner: We have a C2/C3 fracture dislocation. The head was unstable and there was a sudden deceleration injury. The residual hanging where the head just “pops”; that’s not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is we have a crushed larynx. The head’s just flopping.
Frank McCrae: You’re tryin’ to tell me two kids did this?