We’ve lost a lot with the decline of the corner video store: a place for young cinephiles to gather, a readily accessible library of classics, and a viable market for movies like Maniac Cop. Though writer-producer Larry Cohen and director William Lustig had a token theatrical release for their slasher/policier, the movie’s true home was never the multiplex, but on the dusty shelf of a mom-’n’-pop, where the catchy name, lurid cover art, and clever tagline—“You Have The Right To Remain Silent… Forever.”—would be enough to separate a few curious shoppers from their two bucks. And so long as smart exploitation filmmakers like Cohen and Lustig supplied enough violence, sex, and easy laughs to their cheap space-fillers, they could add whatever relevant themes or general goofery they wanted.
Maniac Cop is heavier on the goofery than the relevance. The hulking Robert Z’Dar plays the title character, a zealous policeman who turns evil after being sent to prison on a trumped-up charge. When Z’Dar begins murdering innocent people on the streets of New York, grizzled detective Tom Atkins figures out fairly quickly that it must be a cop doing the killing. But Atkins’ attempts to go over the heads of his skeptical superiors and sound a general warning to the city backfires, as panicked citizens begin taking shots at anyone in a uniform. Meanwhile, a case of mistaken identity leads to wiry-looking young officer Bruce Campbell getting tagged as the maniac. Aside from Atkins, Campbell, and resourceful cop Laurene Landon, everybody on the force in Maniac Cop is a trigger-happy, presumptuous yahoo—and the citizens of New York aren’t much smarter.
Had Cohen and Lustig hit that satirical point a little harder, Maniac Cop would be as awesome as its title. Instead, it’s too often a routine ’80s genre piece, straight down to the synthesizer score, over-lit night scenes, and bandana-sporting street punks. But Cohen comes up with a few good lines, as when Atkins encourages a reporter to make the killer-cop story “bigger than AIDS… it’s the only way to get City Hall off their ass.” And Lustig encourages his bit players to chew the scenery, whether its a medical examiner who finds the decomposition of a dead body way too fascinating or a records-keeper (played by one-time Hollywood ingénue Sheree North) who hobbles around on a bum leg. Plus, the kill-scenes are pretty clever at times—especially the one where Z’Dar pushes a victim’s face into wet cement, so that in the morning the paramedics have to drill him out. That was the general idea of movies like Maniac Cop: to give the viewers a handful of memorable moments, so that when their friends asked what they rented last night, they could say, “This dumb movie called Maniac Cop. Although there was this one scene….”
Key features: Interviews with Z’Dar and Atkins, plus some bonus scenes shot for Japanese television. Noticeably (and inexplicably) absent are the special features from the past DVD editions, which had a commentary track by Lustig, Cohen, and Campbell. Was any foul play involved?