With a title like Maniac Cop, there’s no way this movie is going to be good, right? The title is simple and to the point, and instantly conveys a large amount of plot to any potential viewer that happens to pass by the marquee. But boy, oh boy, it sounds like a first draft title. If all other films had used their initial titles, we wouldn’t have Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Unforgiven. Instead we would have Star Beast, Journey Beyond the Stars, and The Cut-Whore Killings (although it would have been ballsy for Clint Eastwood and company to try that last one).
From 1988, Maniac Cop is writer Larry Cohen and director William Lustig’s gritty tale of a uniformed slasher stalking the streets of New York City. The first time we see the titular maniac (played by the late Robert Z’Dar), he appears to be coming to the aid of a young woman fleeing a pair of muggers. But this early appearance establishes this mysterious assailant as the murderous wretch he is. He strangles the poor girl, leaving the muggers as the only witnesses.
Of course, the police don’t buy their story that a gigantic cop killed the woman they were pursuing, but one officer has doubts about the official line. He is Detective Lieutenant Frank McCrae, played by horror flick veteran Tom Atkins. He’s just the gruff, no-nonsense, no-time-for-rules cop a movie like this calls for. He’s a film noir cop in the 1980s assembled from leftover tropes and clichés from the 1940s. He is also a casual acquaintance of the victim, so he pursues her case with more than the usual vigor.
All the evidence points to the murderer, who racks up more victims as the movie progresses, being a police officer. Eventually, even the commissioner, played by Richard Roundtree, comes to believe Atkins’ theory. But the maniac cop, instead of being currently on the force, is an ex-officer, whose motivations are tragic, and even a little heavy for a b-movie.
Bruce Campbell and Laurene Landon eventually get introduced as a pair of police officers also on the trail of the killer cop. Their inclusion in the plot was so convoluted, though, that for a while Maniac Cop turned into a completely different movie. Cohen managed to bring it back, and the whole enterprise makes sense when the reasons are revealed, but Sirens of Titan, this is not.
What makes this movie memorable at all is Robert Z’Dar. Fans of gratuitous ’80s action flicks might remember Z’Dar’s epic appearance in as the gigantically be-jawed criminal nicknamed Face in Tango & Cash. There’s no other way to say it — Bob had a huge face. The result of a genetic abnormality called cherubism, Z’Dar’s lower jaw grew to a disproportionate size, giving him, in combination with his powerful physique, a very imposing presence. Z’Dar was made to play bad guys. His lack of lines in Maniac Cop might point to his abilities as an actor, but he made such an impression on the film that I can’t picture anyone else in the role.
In the decades since its release, Maniac Cop has become something of a cult film. Between the provocative title, Z’Dar, and the presence of horror royalty Bruce Campbell in the cast, that’s not surprising. But there’s so much more promise to this film than what viewers get. In the way that Killer Klowns From Outer Space exceeds the expectations of its silly premise, Maniac Cop fails to live up to its own. That title conveys so much possibility, and while the final result is an entertaining if not spectacularly shitty film, it is something that fans of shitty movies, and horror movies, should have in their experience. It’s even a better movie than Alien: Resurrection.