Maniac Cop is an often overlooked film from the classical era of the slasher genre. From 1978 to 1993, a new age of iconic boogeymen graced the screens: Michael, Jason, Freddy, Pinhead among others. They were seemingly an unstoppable disruption of social order that commanded fright just by standing still in the shadows (or getting in the last word over your dying breath). The slashers were everywhere, the comic book movies of their time. Enter 1988’s Maniac Cop, a collaboration between the late exploitation film icon, Larry Cohen, and Blue Underground CEO, William Lustig (best known at the time for directing the controversial slasher, Maniac, in 1980).
The film opens and we see out titular villain, Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar), in slow motion, a figure dawning his uniform for “patrol.” It’s been recently cleaned; buttons shined. Right off the bat, you gather the sense of pride this character takes in his role. The story begins with a waitress, played by Cohen’s daughter, as she walks home from her night shift. She’s mugged by two thugs, and puts up a surprising fight, able to get in a few hits and then takes off running (even removing her shoes so as not to make noise). Gaining significant distance, she runs to the first cop she sees, a silhouetted giant, who picks her up and snaps her neck with no resistance. The mood is set, and the question is asked. Who’s more dangerous, the bad guy or the cop?
With random killings piling up, we are then introduced to our lead, Frank McCrae, played by the mad mustache, Tom Atkins, a detective who doesn’t comply with the immediate NYPD cover up and leaks the killing to the press. This understandably leads to more distrust in cops, and even a few defensive killings from random citizens when approached. Atkins gives his always welcome “make my day” performance, introducing us to a world of blunt characters who say exactly what’s on their mind. He has a commanding presence and all but solves the case, before being brutally killed off before the third act. This is a bold choice, similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which reinforces the killer’s presence.
Taking over for the climax of Maniac Cop is our secondary lead, Jack Forrest, played by Bruce Campbell. Coming right off of Evil Dead II, Campbell subverts the character we’ve come to associate with him, delivering a very subdued performance for the minimal screen time he’s given. We’re introduced to his character early on as a red herring for the killer, due to his wife’s suspicions. Upon her own investigation, she finds that her husband is having an affair with another officer, our third lead Theresa Mallory, played by Laurene Landon. This is still a devastating revelation for Campbell’s wife, who is unceremoniously the next victim. Now the prime suspect, Campbell spends a good portion of the film detained by police until the third act, leaving Landon and Atkins to find our slasher.
After all, at the end of the day, a slasher film is only as good as its killer. In Maniac Cop, Matt Cordell is portrayed by the late Robert Z'Dar. A former Chicago police officer, Z’Dar stands six feet, with a jaw worthy of Bond henchmen, and he brings a level of stoic menace to the screen that rivals Kane Hodder’s tenure as Jason (Maniac Cop and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood premiered on the same day in 1988). Cordell is a “hero cop” who shot first and asked questions later, making him top dog at the precinct and feared by the criminals. When he’s taken to court for excessive force, the local politicians make an example of him and lock him up with many of the criminals he put away.
Sometime later, Cordell is shanked, sliced, and left for dead. Despite copious blood loss, brain, and nerve damage, Cordell remains alive and his body given to the care of a loved one. Now poorly stitched up and clinging to a perverse sense of justice, Cordell kills indiscriminately, slowly making his way to those he deems responsible. His slasher weapon of choice: a baton with a concealed sword inside. But he’s not opposed to picking you up with his bare hands and smashing you through a wall. Primarily hidden under the shadow of night, the extent of Cordell’s appearance is made known by the third act, revealing deep scars and rotten teeth. A lasting reveal, that is undercut as the sequels chose to turn Cordell into a full-blown Jason clone.
Maniac Cop could stand on the back of its killer alone, but its strength also lies in the atmosphere of its location, New York City. Slashers are not normally associated with major metropolitan areas, mainly sticking to the Halloween formula as a disruption of small-town peace and harmony. Still, Maniac Cop is not the first city-based slasher; there’s Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, and Lustig’s own Maniac. But these films still kept the scope of the city limited, where Maniac Cop is able to really explore The Big Apple, spreading the fear that Cordell could strike anywhere. This New York also feels desolate and cold, taking place in the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, when winter is ending but the temperature is still low. This level of atmosphere would be later over-shadowed by the first Child’s Play that debuted later in November, giving Chicago similar treatment.
For a film that doesn’t even cap 90 minutes, Maniac Cop is able to deliver pure suspense, action when needed, and leave you with something at the end. We’re given a hero who isn’t virtuous and a villain who was once a hero. We’re shown corrupt cops and politicians who are more than willing to wash their hands of people they once championed, and we have a monster hiding behind an image of protection. Cordell’s backstory even raises some red flags, with his use of excessive force and even boastfulness of his escapades which paint a picture of a questionable individual. When sent to prison, Cordell willingly puts his pride before his safety and doesn’t isolate himself, leading to his attack and disfigurement. These aspects make a film worth revisiting today.
The film was successful enough to spawn two sequels, both with Lustig returning as director, and Cohen as writer and producer. There has been recent talk of a reboot, in a planned HBO series, with the help of Drive director, Nicolas Winding Refn. Reboots are one of the best ways to bring attention to the original so hopefully, soon, we’ll be seeing more of the potential of this story.
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