Horror Movies

MANIAC. Excellent, dense slasher that inspired a famous song

One of the main manifestations of the 1980s fashion revival is the resurgence in popularity of songs from musicals that were chart-toppers three decades ago.

Grzegorz Fortuna

8 March 2024

MANIAC. Excellent, dense slasher that inspired a famous song

Almost every radio station is blasting tunes like Footloose, Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing, or the iconic Maniac by Michael Sembello, which once illustrated the struggles of a young Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. I always had a problem with the last mentioned track—despite sounding like typical, somewhat naive (yet very likable) pop kitsch characteristic of the eighties, it seemed oddly unsettling. As it turns out, not without reason.

You see, Maniac, a song telling the story of a girl “maniacally” in love with dance before it found its place in Flashdance, was nominated for an Oscar and captured the hearts of audiences. But it was actually inspired by another, popular in certain circles, film. A musical? A romantic comedy? A melodrama? Well, not quite.


It’s not a mistake, I didn’t paste the wrong excerpt. The inspiration for the sweet song Maniac was… Maniac, a low-budget slasher by William Lustig from the early eighties, which narrates the story of a childhood-abused psychopath who randomly murders and scalps his victims. How is it possible that a bloody horror influenced a song about a love for dance? Well, originally, the lyrics of Michael Sembello’s hit didn’t sound like this:

She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor
And she’s dancing like she’s never danced before.

Instead, they went like this:

He’s a maniac, maniac that’s for sure,
He will kill your cat and nail him to the door.


It was only after the singer’s producer rightly pointed out that pop music doesn’t go hand in hand with nailing household pets to doors that it would be much easier to sell a song whose lyrics somehow corresponded to the interests of the youth. Sembello heeded the advice, changed the concept, and his song became a hit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the full lyrics of the original version of Maniac anywhere, but these two lines alone demonstrate how unsettling such words must have sounded in combination with that kind of music.

“Disturbing” is indeed a fitting term for Maniac, the forgotten film by William Lustig from 1980. Forgotten today, one might add, entirely unjustly, because what Lustig presented to audiences thirty years ago (even before the gigantic success of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as before the total exhaustion of the genre, which occurred somewhere in the second half of the eighties) deserves sincere recognition. The fact that Maniac was crushed by critics after its premiere and never made it into the slasher “canon” greatly surprises me.


When William Lustig set out to make Maniac, he was a twenty-five-year-old amateur with two porn films under his belt (shot under a fictitious name, by the way). He had neither money nor special opportunities. Making a feature-length debut was therefore difficult and not necessarily safe— with a budget of $350,000, they couldn’t afford to buy filming rights on city streets, so the crew had to agree on a specific location at a specific time and shoot the planned scenes before anyone could notify the police. To save money on supporting roles, the director cast porn actresses, and he “borrowed” aerial shots from another film. However, Lustig was lucky enough to meet two very talented individuals on his way—Joe Spinell, a distinctive character actor (The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Rocky), who agreed to play the lead role and helped write the script, and Tom Savini, already a respected specialist in eerie makeup and bloody special effects. Despite all odds, the three men accomplished something almost impossible—they made a suggestive, dark slasher that focuses more on the psyche of the main character than on flashy ways of killing.


At the center of Lustig’s attention remains Frank Zito—a psychopath tortured in childhood by his mother. He is the driving force behind this film, and it is thanks to his narrative that Maniac is so intriguing. We hear his thoughts and pleas, masterfully combined with the scenery of his apartment—full of mannequins and dolls, somewhat surreal, heavily inspired by Italian giallo. At times, we even enter Frank’s mind enough to observe individual scenes from the perspective of the disease taking over him. I don’t want to reveal too much, but there is one amazing scene in Maniac, simultaneously so abstract and so realistic that even today, thirty years after its premiere, it causes accelerated heartbeats.

Additionally, Lustig builds a mood of horror suggestively, slowly, using innovative, very imaginative means. Several scenes are small masterpieces when it comes to suspense—they are interestingly filmed, brilliantly edited, and long enough to allow us to sympathize with the victim and start rooting for them.


Maniac, however, remains within the slasher framework, so it’s not on the same level as Angst or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – Lustig uses some gimmicky techniques, sometimes makes a narrative or editing mistake, and doesn’t draw any specific conclusions, which the creators of the aforementioned films didn’t shy away from. But it’s still an excellent, very dense, sometimes genuinely terrifying slasher, unjustly overlooked in most horror rankings. And that’s why I believe it’s worth remembering—maybe even here on the blog.