If there were a Mt. Rushmore for B-movie all time greats, Maniac Cop would certainly claim a spot. The 1988 thriller is an exercise in grisly violence and slapdash production design, not to mention the fact the flick is loaded with some of the most legendary B-movie greats. But beyond its credentials as a midnight drive-in legend, Maniac Cop still feels eerily relevant today given its subject matter. Of course out of control cops these days aren’t gigantic cut up monsters stalking innocent civilians at night, but the notion of policemen abusing power has sadly never faded.
A nutcase in a police uniform is murdering innocents on New York City streets, seemingly without rhyme or reason. We see him first pick up a woman and snap her neck like a breadstick, then knife a driver with his billy-club blade. The murders draw the attention of detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins, the first in a cavalcade of shlock legends), who figures out in short order – because we don’t have the budget to stretch this thing beyond 90 minutes – the murderer is a former cop.
News gets out that this stalking psycho is a cop and the general public – represented by scant few extras because, again, budget stuff – goes berserk with paranoia and fright. A policeman has his head blown off during a traffic stop; if you look closely you can see the murdered patrolman is Ron Eldard. The police chief, played by Richard Roundtree (midnight marquee legend #2), implores McCrae to look elsewhere, but he is undeterred.
Then there is the case of the falsely accused officer, played by Bruce Campbell (#3). And speaking of Bruce Campbell, look closely and you’ll spot Sam Raimi as a reporter. None other than Jake LaMotta plays a detective. This thing is loaded with a specific kind of talent! McCrae’s investigation leads us into the backstory of our killer cop, Matt Cordell, a trigger-happy flatfoot who was sent to prison and subsequently attacked, sliced up, and left for dead. Only he didn’t die, he lived, and was reborn with an insatiable rage. The late, great Robert Z’Dar plays Cordell, and the guy’s chin is the stuff of legend. Z’Dar, a towering beast of a man, is silent and absolutely perfect, a low-rent version of Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers.
Maniac Cop is thrown together without much regard for sets, costume design, or art direction of any kind. The police station looks like an abandoned office building from a construction site, the costumes look thrown together from Goodwill, and the lighting is all fluorescent and weird. But all these elements make it perfectly imperfect. The haphazard nature of the film is the key element of its indelible charm. And the climactic showdown takes place in the middle of the day, a strange twist for films like these which exist primarily in the shadows. Perhaps that speaks again to budget constraints, but seeing Cordell in the light is also quite unsettling.
In 1988, the corruption of large metropolitan police departments had been rightfully exposed, so distrust was the status quo. Sadly, in most large cities, police confidence remains shaky at best, with unwarranted shootings dominating news cycles from time to time. Maniac Cop played off the disdain society had with The Force, but did so with such unbridled energy and camp violence it was able to separate itself from the headlines while still tapping into the paranoia-fueled undercurrent.
Two sequels sprang from the success of Maniac Cop, and Robert Z’Dar returned for both. And both sequels welcomed the wonderfully slimy Robert Davi into the fold (There’s a fourth out there, at least I think there is. Good luck finding it). A remake is also allegedly on its way in 2017, though very little has been said or done with it. Not that a remake needs more than a few weeks to get done.