By nearly all accounts, the New York City of the late '70s and early '80s was a complete shithole. Crime-ridden, rundown and sketchy as fuck, it was the kind of place where you didn't want to find yourself alone late at night (or even in the middle of the day in some neighborhoods). I never saw the NYC of that time for myself -- I was just a kid, then, although it was still pretty sketchy when I went there in 1991 -- but you can find depositories of photographs from that era that do a pretty good job of communicating the squalor, the despair and the dangerous aura of the era. Or, better yet, you can watch the 1980 William Lustig film Maniac.
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For the uninitiated, Maniac follows the exploits of a paunchy, sallow creep by the name of Frank Zito who has the unfortunate hobby of murdering women, slicing off their scalps and then using thumbtacks to nail those scalps to the heads of mannequins. Like many a serial killer before him, Frank has some serious mommy issues and a propensity for having elaborate conversations with himself. The film stars veteran character actor Joe Spinell (you might recognize him from The Godfather or Rocky) as Zito, and he does a fantastic job of portraying a derelict, decaying hulk of man haunted by the demons of his past and driven to hunt and kill women to fulfill some bizarre, desperate need.
The diseased husk of late '70s New York City is the perfect habitat for Zito. Muttering, groaning and gasping to himself as he stalks his prey along deserted subway stations, grimy by-the-hour hotels and the dark spaces underneath the city's iconic bridges, Zito seems perfectly at home. Even in the daylight, no one gives his creepy, dead-eyed countenance even half a thought, despite the fact that he's exactly the kind of guy you'd cross the street to avoid pretty much anywhere else in space and/or time. It's more than the fact that Zito looks completely at home in the seedy, sketchy spaces of the city -- in truth, he's the figurative embodiment of the city. He is the city's unseemly desires, dark secrets and horrible truths come to life, and man, is it ugly.
The New York City of today is thoroughly cleaned up, gentrified and tourist-friendly. Our pal Frank Zito would look about as out of place there as the proverbial turd in the punchbowl. One can argue whether the brave new world of New York City circa 2014 is the ideal version of the city, as it drives out the artists, freaks and fringe dwellers that made the city's past so vibrant. There's a legitimate complaint to be made about the empty soullessness of the shiny, sanitized, Disneyfied version of the city that exists today, but if you can sit through Maniac and tell me you'd honestly prefer to live in that version of the city, well... let's just say I'm real fucking glad we aren't roommates.
There are certain movies that make you want to take a shower in hot water and maybe a little bleach after you watch them, and Maniac is definitely one of those movies. Some of it is the graphic violence -- Tom Savini did the effects, and his infamous shotgun-blast-to-the-head gag still holds up to scrutiny to this day -- but more than that, it's the aura of hopeless decay, joyless decadence and omnipresent danger that suffuses every frame of the film.
From Zito's grungy, bizarre one-room apartment to the graffitied bathroom where he guts a victim, the city is the Platonic ideal of misery, murder and squalor, and Zito is its human equivalent. There are plenty of reasons to see the movie, from the aforementioned classic shotgun scene to its status as a minor yet beloved slasher classic, but for my money the best reason is to see America's greatest city at perhaps its lowest modern point. It's doubtful the filmmakers aimed at creating a perfect time capsule of New York's putrid decay but some three decades later, there's no doubt at all that's exactly what they did, and that makes Maniac required viewing for horror fans and history buffs alike.
See Maniac at 10 p.m. Saturday, May 31 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Tickets are $11. For tickets and additional info, visit the Maniac event page at the Alamo Drafthouse website.
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