By Doug Brunell | September 22, 2005

Poor Joe Spinell. When you think of the movies he’s been in (“Taxi Driver,” “Rocky” and “The Godfather,” among others), you’d think the guy would be remembered for those roles. Maybe some folks remember him for them, but not me. Nope, I remember him from “Maniac.”

If you’ve never seen “Maniac,” I’ll spare you the trouble.

It’s not a great film. It’s not even a good film. It’s a slasher flick with special effects by Tom Savini (my ninth grade god), which made it notable in my eyes. The story, which offended some people at the time of its release, is about a schizophrenic killer named Frank Zito who scalps his female victims and then uses said scalps as wigs for the mannequins he’s got displayed around his apartment. Spinell played Zito, a role for which he was actually well-suited for some strange reason, and he also wrote the story.

I watched the film again recently just to see if it was how I remembered. The last time I saw it was soon after it arrived on video, and that era was filled with horror movies that had been cut worse than a Crystal Lake camp counselor. This time around it was on DVD with a better transfer and whatnot. Long story short, it was just like I remembered, only clearer and with better sound. I enjoyed Spinell’s performance more this time around, however, but the plot had not gotten any better. That said, it is still rawer than the bigger budget slasher flicks that have been thrust upon us. (And you fans of the film should check out Haute Tension. There is an excellent homage to “Maniac” thrown in there for good effect.)

One thing I saw on the DVD that got me thinking was the interviews conducted with people who knew Spinell. You got the idea that the guy was really well-loved by those around him. He seemed generous and caring, and it makes me wonder how the hell he ever came up with the idea for “Maniac.” We all have our demons, I guess, and Spinell was no different.

These days nobody blinks when you rent “Maniac.” There is worse stuff out there, and women’s rights groups are pretty silent on the subject of movies these days. Even religious groups tend to stay away from horror films now and focus instead on the real-life terrors of homosexuality and assisted suicide. (That was sarcasm for the two of you who didn’t notice.) Back in the day, saying you saw “Maniac” was like saying you participated in some hideous group sex crime. You got weird looks from people who knew about it, and those who didn’t would question why you’d ever see a movie with that kind of title. (Let’s face it, “Maniac” would never be mistaken for a Disney release.) And at the center of it all was Spinell.

Spinell is no longer doing movies. He died back in 1989 with little fanfare. Thinking about him, I find it sad that the only film I can remember him from is this one, an arguably crappy movie he wrote and starred in. Is it because his heart was really in it, or is it because the movie was so bad I can’t forget it? I don’t think it matters much. The fact that I remember him at all should be enough, and that should be what every actor strives for in his or her career: to be remembered after they’re gone. I just think most of them would prefer if it wasn’t for a film like “Maniac.”

So, Spinell, here’s a toast to you wherever you are. Heaven. Hell. Buried. You deserve some respect for taking a role anyone else would’ve hammed up. You made it believable, and that’s what really counts. If “Maniac” is all I have to remember you by, I’ll take it. Because as bad as it is, it’s still better than whatever Sandra Bullock will be remembered for. That, I can guarantee.

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