Maniac Cop
U.S.A. | 1988
Directed by William Lustig
Tom Atkins
Bruce Campbell
Robert Z'Dar
| 87 Minutes | R
Format: DVD(R0 - NTSC)
Synapse Films
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    7   10 = Highest Rating  
In the DVD's audio commentary (see below) director William Lustig calls his action/horror thriller Maniac Cop a "tight little B-movie". While Lustig isn't exactly in a position to offer an unbiased assessment, the description couldn't be more apt.
In New York City a tall, silent man in a police uniform launches a reign of terror, slaughtering innocent people seemingly at random. NYPD bigwigs Commissioner Pike (Shaft's Richard Roundtree) and Captain Ripley (William Smith of Fast Company) are convinced that the murderer is impersonating a cop to disparage the force. The lead detective on the case, Lt. McCrae (Night of the Creeps' Tom Atkins), isn't so sure he has a hunch that the killer could indeed be a police officer gone psycho. Either way, the higher-ups want the perp caught or killed ASAP. With the body count rising, citizens begin to fear the police... Who's going to call a cop when the flatfoot responding may cut your throat rather than serve and protect?
    With pressure mounting to solve the case, Pike and Ripley finally start listening to McCrae's theories. A convenient suspect is found in a young patrolman, Officer Jack Forrest (Bubba Ho-Tep's Bruce Campbell), when his wife's mutilated body turns up in a cheap motel room a room that he paid for. If he'd mangle his old lady like that, why couldn't he be the "Maniac Cop" as well? Of course Jack isn't the killer (he's Bruce Campbell, for pete's sake!); the motel room was for a rendezvous with Theresa Malloy (plucky Laurene Landon), a fellow police officer he'd rather not see dragged into the inquiry. After Jack is arrested and thrown in jail, Lt. McCrae begins to realize that he's telling the truth. Jack's mistress, a respected cop, backs up his story. Obviously, someone with knowledge of their adulterous affair is trying to set him up.
    So it's not Jack, but the killer is a cop or rather, was a cop. He's supposedly dead, having been murdered in prison after being sent up the river for using excessive force. Officer Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar) was a legendary supercop in the Dirty Harry mold, who stepped on too many prominent toes at city hall. His death in prison at the hands of shiv-wielding inmates conveniently got him out of the headlines, permanently. But Cordell isn't dead... He's undead. (Or something to that effect.) Filled with blind rage, the hulking lunatic has once again donned police blue to clean up the streets with extreme prejudice. And to him, everyone is guilty.
    Lean and fast-paced, Maniac Cop doesn't try to be anything more than an entertaining action pic with horror elements there isn't a pretentious bone in its cinematic body. It thankfully avoids the temptation to bite off more than it can chew. Lustig (1980's Maniac) makes maximum use of his small budget, relying on a top-drawer cast of B-movie veterans to sell writer Larry Cohen's quirky if derivative script. (Cordell's attack on the police station, which kicks off the action-packed third act, is an obvious riff on the original Terminator even though the villain uses brute force rather than firearms to wreak murder and mayhem.) He also does a fine job of camouflaging Los Angeles locations standing in for New York; I was surprised to learn that only four days of shooting actually took place in the Big Apple. (I never noticed the palm trees in the background of one scene until Cohen pointed them out in the commentary.) The stalking/murder scenes are well-executed and Ludwig demonstrates real flair as an action director it can't be easy to render simple and inexpensive vehicle chases in an exciting manner (lacking multiple rolls and pipe ramp aerobatics, lots of explosions, etc.), but he pulls it off.
    The films chugs along so well that you don't bother to think about the gaping plot holes, chiefly those involving the nature of our titular monster. Just how did Cordell come back from the dead, immune to bullets and possessing superhuman strength? The script indicates that he's not actually the walking dead at all, what with the prison doctor (Erik Holland) later confessing that Cordell was still alive when he falsified the death certificate... But the Maniac Cop is clearly some kind of zombie. Not the slightest reference is made, not even in passing, as to what could've reanimated him. Nonetheless, the imposing, granite-jawed Z'Dar (Samurai Cop) made enough of an impression in the role to return for two sequels, 1990's Maniac Cop 2 and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993).

Previously released on DVD by Elite Entertainment, Maniac Cop returns to the medium in this new and improved edition from Synapse Films. Aside from a light sheen of grain the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is practically pristine, looking exceptionally good. (Details in the numerous nighttime scenes often obscured in VHS editions and cable TV airings are no longer lost in the gloom.) The terrific visuals are fully complemented with a choice of audio options, including newly-engineered 5.1 Surround and 6.1 DTS sound mixes; the original Dolby 2.0 stereo is also on hand for traditionalists. (Yours truly isn't equipped for DTS but I can attest to the excellence of the 5.1 track.)
The disc's main bonus feature, the aforementioned audio commentary with director William Lustig, appears to have been ported over from the long out-of-print Elite DVD. (Because the term "laserdisc" is used by the participants, the track may have originally been intended for a laserdisc version that may or may not have been released I have no idea if this is indeed the case.) Joining Lustig in the discussion are Cohen, Campbell and Maniac Cop's score composer Jay Chattaway. They examine the film from the main angles of production, with each of the participants weighing in on their respective contributions in addition to discussing various cast members, union problems, special effects, stunt work, and the like. Cohen, Lustig and Campbell make for a lively troika (Chattaway stays relatively quiet throughout); there's very little dead air here. This commentary track may be 10 years old but if you're interested enough to buy or rent the DVD then it's well worth a listen.
Beyond the commentary the disc offers three theatrical trailers (one of them French), two U.S. TV spots and a Spanish-language radio spot. A reel of additional footage shot for Japanese TV features a character and subplot (the city's mayor) which add nothing to the story and were thankfully not incorporated into the film's digital presentation. Finally, a 12-minute featurette sits down with actor Robert Z'Dar for a recently-conducted interview. He sketches out the beginnings of his career and subsequent participation in Maniac Cop, with some interesting anecdotes about the production and fellow cast members. 12/05/06