Reviews

William Lustig

USA, 1988

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 21 October 2007

Source Synapse Video DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror

Cineastes can lend a whiff of respectability to their affection for dismemberment-heavy flicks like Sam Raimi’s splatteriffic Evil Dead trilogy by pointing out how ambitious, clever, and technically accomplished those films really are underneath their blood-drenched horror trappings. “Don’t let the title fool you!” we might say. “Ignore the exploitative poster art and give it a shot!” But as any hardcore fan of B-movies knows, for every Evil Dead II there are dozens of films that can be judged with some accuracy by their sensational taglines and outlandish titles. This brings us to 1988’s Maniac Cop.

The film is indeed blessed with a giddily absurd tagline (“You have the right to remain silent – FOREVER!”) to match its drive-in marquee title. It features Evil Dead’s own Bruce Campbell as Jack Forrest, a cop who, despite his wife’s early suspicions, is not the maniac of the title. That role belongs to Robert Z’Dar, a performer best known for his considerable height and unusually large facial features, which more or less do the talking for him here. Z’Dar’s character Matt Cordell is a shoot-first type of New York City cop whose backstory runs thusly: eventually brought up on criminal charges for all that use of excessive force, he was sent to prison and predictably, brutally murdered. Or was he? Drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, a man who knows from whence he speaks when it comes to a film like this one, writes that Maniac Cop is “basically what it sounds like” and sums it up succinctly: “Jason with a badge.” That isn’t a dig coming from Briggs, who gave the film four stars, but Caryn James of the New York Times was less kind, writing that the most intriguing moment at the screening that she attended was “when the film broke” because the “flaring orange on screen at least livened up this amateurish effort.” Unsurprisingly, Maniac Cop is not one for the wine-and-cheese crowd.

But for those willing to roll with the B-movie punches, including the straight-faced delivery of some unabashedly hackneyed dialogue (“This isn’t about romance. This is about murder.”), Maniac Cop does have its pleasures. It is essentially an eighties slasher picture dressed up in a blue uniform, but that very premise carries a glimmer of originality and even subversion. While Jason, Freddy, and Co. have always been boogeyman stand-ins for parental authority, mowing down teens for breaking the rules, there are numerous instances in which Officer Matt Cordell murders innocent people more or less at random after his apparent return from the grave. The film opens with a girl fleeing from muggers and smack into Cordell, thinking she’s been saved until he wraps his hands around her neck. Talk about a perversion of power.

Director William Lustig and screenwriter Larry Cohen have a bit of fun with their premise, suggesting early on that Cordell’s reign of terror has its benefits – crime is way down, after all – and including a reel of news interviews where citizens sound off about the crimes. “Cops like killing,” one interviewee offers. “That’s why they’re cops.” The negative effects of the bloodbath are also served up with a trace of humor: people are growing hysterical with fear—and it’s just killing the tourist trade. The misplaced priorities of city officials even as the city is gripped with terror lands the film some of its best comic moments, especially when Richard Roundtree’s irritated police commissioner shuts down speculation about Cordell in order to uphold a St. Patrick’s Day tradition. “Enough of this shit.” He bites off. “I’ve got a parade to attend.”

Nevertheless, Maniac Cop never gets quite as funny or as scary as it might have. It simply remains a competently made slasher film with a dollop of wit and a good sense of fun. Lustig previously helmed 1980’s Maniac, a serial killer film of squirm-inducing realism, and by comparison, Cop feels like a lighthearted romp. Where Maniac excels at making the audience deeply uncomfortable with its scummy realism, Maniac Cop feels like genre flick comfort food, marked by convention. Even the general haplessness and impotence of Campbell’s nominal hero (Forrest spends much of the film’s climax handcuffed and bouncing off the walls in the back of an armored car; Ash he ain’t) is in line with the leading men of horrors past, would-be saviors who are lucky to limp safely to the end credits with all of their internal organs intact. The film tests the rules but never really breaks them. Eric Henderson of Slant Magazine expresses his displeasure with this tactic, writing that “the end result is that you feel guilty for wishing for something more perverted.” Faced with Z’Dar’s imposing and ghoulishly made-up mug, I couldn’t help but wonder if the film mightn’t be more disturbing if clean-cut, handsome Jack Forrest really was the killer, a normal-looking officer who abuses his position in place of an undead, vengeance-obsessed, and ultimately routine creepshow like Cordell. But that would be a much different, much nastier film than this.

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