Maniac, released in 1980 and well before its clear imitator (though still very good/great) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, appeared almost during the breaking point of the horror film, the moment where it leapt from any sense of hope in thwarting a threat to decency and, essentially, gave in. Thus, the urban nightmare is born. Horror moves out of the castles of Hammer, even the backwoods and suburbs of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween and into the heart of the city, a ticking time bomb full of sloth, lust, excess and trauma.
Serial killer Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) embodies that idea. In the opening sequence (an homage to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom), Zito deposits a quarter into the mechanical binoculars, "paying" for his right to look at a sleeping couple on a beach. Everything has its price, here. After picking up a hooker for a room, the night manager says $25 for the room. A color TV will be another $5. $35 with the tax. So long as you pay, it seems that anything goes. The hooker tells him: "C'mon honey. Meter's tickin'," Zito flashes the bills: "I got money." The desire for "just a little more" erases all sense of human worth. Zito kills (brutally) by night, slumbering back to his small apartment, then talking with his "women" - mannequins that wear the scalped hair of his female victims. He curses after a murder - crying and wailing at himself. Yet, when walking the streets or bumping into someone, he can remain perfectly calm and normal. His isolation and fractured psyche stem from childhood - apparently his mother (a prostitute) locked him in the closet while she turned tricks. Maniac would quickly succumb to this easy psychological explanation if it were used as a crutch, a glib excuse to wallow in gruesome, male domination murders. Maniac is certainly misogynistic - or, as one should always be careful to point out, its main character is. Lustig finds no way to present this without horribly punishing the female victims (nary any filmmaker has), but that does not deflect his film's ability to express an all-encompassing terror of debased modernity, where women, vulnerable because they are forced to sell their bodies in order to "make the rent" allow Zito to play out his maternal anguish.
Moreover, Maniac has some of the most memorable make-up effects work in film history. In a non-female related death, Zito mounts the hood of a car, takes aim with a double barrel shotgun, and obliterates the head/face of the male driver (ironically played by legendary make-up artist Tom Savini). An unsuspecting viewer (as I was) could only verbally express their disgust and (more so) excitement at such an audacious choice. As if to try and top that (which cannot be done), the penultimate sequence of the film, as Zito is attacked by his anthropomorphic mannequins and dismembered/decapitated, solidifies Lustig's tongue-in-cheek stance, making a dynamic (and mostly implicit) social statement, while retaining the goofier, subversive tropes that substantiate the genre.