William Lustig is a legend whose name should be readily on the lips of all horror fans. As a director, he has given us the likes of 'Maniac' and the 'Maniac Cop' series (no relation). As the head of Blue Underground, he has overseen the release of some eminent cult horror films including 'City of the Living Dead,' 'The Crazies' and 'Bird With the Crystal Plumage.' This week, the celebrated Alamo Drafthouse will be hosting screenings of 'Vigilante,' 'Maniac,' and 'Maniac Cop 2' with William Lustig in attendance. To commemorate the occasion, Mondo, the fine purveyors of some of the greatest movie collectibles in existence, will be creating a series of limited-edition posters for the films.
As this is an extensive collaboration with the Drafthouse, a trio of sites has been tasked with covering each of the three screening/poster combinations. We here at Cinematical recently had the great privilege of sitting down with Mr. Lustig and gathering his thoughts on the event, his film 'Maniac,' and the stellar Mondo poster it wrought (which we will exclusively premiere after the jump). Here's what he had to say...
Have a look at the gorgeous Mondo 'Maniac' poster by Ken Taylor as well as corresponding articles from Badass Digest and Bloody-Disgusting.
Cinematical: We're doing these interviews to coincide with the upcoming Alamo Drafthouse screenings. Have you been to the Drafthouse before?
William Lustig: Oh several times. I originally was there when it was just that one cinema that was in that kind of converted warehouse that Tim was able to cobble together. And I've been there in subsequent years, I've been down there at least a half dozen times.
The Alamo Drafthouse is doing screenings of 'Vigilante,' 'Maniac,' and 'Maniac Cop 2' as well as creating special edition posters. Have you had a chance to see the Mondo posters yet?
I did, they're beautiful.
Mondo always does such amazing work. But particularly with the 'Maniac' poster, I like how understated it is.
Lustig: Oh it's really good; it's a very good poster. Except for one glaring problem, it's got an R-rating on it, which is going to lead people to believe it's a cut version.
Wow, that's very true. The version we'll be seeing is of course not at all the R-rated version.
No, not at all.
The one thing that stands out about 'Maniac' is that, tonally, it's incredibly divergent from your other films. The 'Maniac Cop' series and even 'Vigilante' don't go to the dark places that 'Maniac' does. What attracted you to this project?
The origin of the project is that I met Joe Spinell when I was a production assistant on a movie called the 'Seven-Ups.' Joe was an actor in it, playing a supporting role. He and I chatted and bonded because of our mutual love of horror. If you're a horror fan, you realize what that means. Because you meet people in your life who aren't into horror and they look at you like you're nuts, but the people who are into it are really into it. You kind of gravitate to them because it's a mutual love of something that's, you know, not everyone's taste.
I can certainly sympathize.
Right. Joe and I began to see the horror films that were out at the time. We'd go to 42nd Street and watch the new releases. During this period I had directed my first adult movies, so now I was actually a bona fide filmmaker of some sort. So Joe and I decided that we were going to make a horror film together one day; he'd star and I'd direct. It was with that vision, that dream, that we came up with the movie 'Maniac.' What 'Maniac' was intended to be was a compilation of various serial killers from that time told from the point of view of the serial killer. And I guess that's what gives it its darkness is Joe's performance in which the audience finds themselves in fact sympathizing with this tortured killer. Which brings you to places emotionally that people don't expect to go when they see a horror film.
Yeah, the first time I saw it, people were describing it to me as an 80s slasher film. And you hear that and immediately there are certain tropes that you think of, certain expectations you form. But I didn't get that from 'Maniac' at all. It's a much more character-driven, introspective serial killer film, and I think that's what makes it so unique.
And that's because I had a wonderful actor. I couldn't have done it without Joe; his performance and insight into the character. 'Maniac,' to this day, 30 years after its release, consistently sells a lot on video and people still go to the cinemas to see it. It's really quite remarkable how it's resonated with now multiple generations.
Speaking of films resonating with younger generations, your distribution company Blue Underground has done such a phenomenal job in the area of film restoration and preservation with 'Maniac,' 'Django,' and 'City of the Living Dead,' all these movies being released on pristine Blu-ray and making them available for these newer generations to appreciate. What got you started in that area? Was it just due to a love of film?
Exactly. Well, it was sort of filling a need. In the 90s I was in to laserdics, remember those things?
Oh, yes. I own a few myself.
I was a big laserdisc collector and what I found was that if I wanted to get any of the Lucio Fulci films, or basically any of the European horror, I had to buy at exorbitant cost from Japan. It was that simple. I decided well, if nobody is putting them out in America, I'll go to Italy, I'll license the rights, and I'll put them out in America.
Wow, that's incredible resolve. You just bought the rights to films you wanted to own.
Yeah, sort of a pro-active collector. That was the whole impetus for me getting into, now, DVD and Blu-ray. It was just my love of film and wanting to see them treated with the same integrity as Criterion treats their Fellini movies. It was that simple, but I guess good ideas are that simple.
Going back to 'Maniac,' the one thing that everyone seems to latch onto with 'Maniac' is the violence. There's even a quote on the Blu-ray about how it's the most detailed depictions of violence anyone has ever seen. And I gotta tell you, even all these years later and in the face of the extreme horror films released recently, it's still tremendously powerful. Can you talk a little about working with Tom Savini on that?
Well, the beauty of 'Maniac' and some of the reason why it's still so shocking, is that we did the effects practically. We didn't use CGI, it wasn't around then. So I think there's sort of a feeling that it looks more real without using digital enhancement because it isn't perfect; it's imperfect. And that lends a certain uncomfortable nature to it. I met Tom Savini on the set of 'Friday the 13th.' I had seen an advance screening of 'Dawn of the Dead' and thought the effects in it were the most incredible I had ever seen.
Absolutely amazing, no doubt.
So I tracked down Tom, he was shooting the original 'Friday the 13th' in New Jersey. So Joe, Andy Garroni, and myself drove to the set to talk to Tom. I don't think Tom was really interested so much in the script, it was he had just broken up with a girl in Pittsburgh and didn't want to return there right away. He asked if he could come stay with me in New York after he finished 'Friday the 13th' and, in exchange, he would do the movie. So he did, we made a deal like that. Tom came aboard and then he got into the project. He started to invent some of the effects that were never in the script; some of them were of Tom's invention. He became integral in the creative process, and it was just a lot of fun. Tom is a man-child and always a lot of fun to be with; always enthusiastic, energetic, ready to do anything to make the project the best it could possibly be.
Truly outstanding effects in that movie. I especially love, and I'm sure this has been noted a thousand times, the shotgun head explosion.
And that was...what it is. It was a shotgun that Tom Savini actually fired, doubling Joe, into his own head. It was a live, double-barreled shotgun and in New York City, or I guess actually anywhere in the world, you can't fire a live gun on a movie set. Here we were on location next to one of the busiest highways in New York, the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, under the Verrazano Bridge, which happened to be the scene of one of the Son of Sam's murders, and we're firing a double-load live shotgun. So what you see is what it is. In fact if you look very carefully you'll see that Tom's feet come out from under him from the force of the blast and you'll see him tumbling backwards. He falls off the hood of the car and onto the ground. But I was so concerned about us getting arrested for firing this gun that all I cared about was grabbing the gun out of Tom's hands, throwing it into the trunk of an awaiting car, and having it driven to New Jersey.
Did you attract a lot of attention firing a double-barreled shotgun in the middle of the night in New York City?
Well funny enough, no cops came around so we were actually ok. The funny thing about a shotgun is that it doesn't make as much noise as you expect it to. It's the same thing with pistols. The sound effect of pistols in genre movies, they exaggerate them, but when you hear a pistol in real life you know it's not that loud. It's more like a pop. But yeah, fortunately we got away with it.
And that's a good thing because it's a fantastic shot.
Yeah, it is. When we saw the dailies we knew we had something.
If you could tell these newbies one thing about 'Maniac,' what is something that you'd like them know going into their first screening?
Firstly, it was a passion project of all of us who were involved with it. For better or worse, we had complete freedom to make the picture we made. But I think what they should look at mostly is the incredible performance that Joe gives. There's a lot of nuance in his performance, people focused a lot on his crying and whining, but if you look at other scenes, it's quite nuanced and interesting. It's almost like an animal when you watch his performance, they way he touches things it's like he smells his prey. If you watch it carefully, you'll see that. It's very interesting.
It's fascinating to watch, especially the way certain shots are framed. You have all this action going on in the foreground, and Joe is sitting alone in the background. But you cannot stop looking at him no matter what is going on around him.
That was Joe, he was just this incredible, instinctual actor. He was just amazing. You know what's incredible about it too? A lot of times people will ask, "what was Joe like on the set?" And the truth is, Joe wasn't a method actor. Before we'd yell action and before we yelled cut, Joe was joking around with everybody. He wasn't like this intense, brooding figure. He was a jokester and would kid around with everyone on the crew. That was the way he was. And then as soon as you yelled action, he just gets right into it.
You have worked, throughout your career, with some genre legends. You've worked with Fred Williamson, Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Richard Roundtree, William Smith, Robert Forster, and more. If you had to select just one person to work with again, who would you most want to work with?
I've worked repeatedly with Robert Forster. I love Bob, we're close friends. He's a very dear friend of mine. I'm trying to think; because there are so many people I enjoyed working with. Tom Atkins, Robert Davi, there was just a slew of people that I've worked with that were just wonderful. I guess, to pick one, it would be Robert Forster because I really enjoy working with him. He's a great actor, he's a wonderful human being, and it's like a vacation when we're working together.
I've actually had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Forster at the Alamo Drafthouse, actually during a screening of another of your films, 'Vigilante.' He just the nicest guy, he's such a sweetheart.
He is, but that's not to say that other people aren't. You know, Fred Williamson is a terrific guy. I think about him a lot and wanting to work with him again some day. There are just been a lot of people I've been fortunate to have worked with. I agree with you, I've been blessed. Robert Loggia is another example; he's a wonderful person. Judd Nelson as well, he's great. I have to say there's only one actor I would never want to work with again, but I don't think that would ever be a problem, is Jan-Michael Vincent.
Oh, yes. I've heard stories about him.
Yeah, I would say I'd want to work with all of my actors again...except Jan-Michael Vincent. But hey, life's too short.
Well, that's very candid of you. I appreciate that.
Yeah that was a difficult situation. But everybody else, I never really had a problem with. Great people. You know it's funny, I watched 'Maniac Cop' recently and I forgot that Sheree North was in the film! I remembered just how wonderful was to work with and to be around; just such a dear person. She gave this terrific performance in the film. I think about these people, these were pros that really made these films better than they should have been in some ways. They took something that was absurd and made it real. I'm forever grateful to them.
And that's one of the great things about 'Maniac Cop.' Given the title and the absurdity inherent in the concept, you go into it expecting low quality. But it delivers on a level you would never expect. What was the inspiration for 'Maniac Cop'?
Well, it was simple. Larry Cohen and I were having lunch in New York and we were battering about ideas. And Larry asked why I didn't do a sequel to 'Maniac' and I told him I didn't think it was something "sequelizable" if there is such a word.
There is now.
At the time there was 'Robocop' out and 'Beverly Hills Cop' so he said, "well, what about 'Maniac Cop'?" Then he came up with the copy line, "you have the right to remain silent...forever." And I said, "Larry, that's a movie!" So this was in February and then in March they have the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York. We realized we wanted the St. Patrick's Day parade to play a role in the film in some way, shape, or form. But we didn't have a script. So I call up Bruce Campbell and I said, "Bruce, I'm making a movie called 'Maniac Cop,' I don't have a script. But there's the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York. I'd like you to fly to New York and wear clothes that we can double later when we shoot the rest of the movie." So, I don't know why, but he did it. He got on a plane, came to New York. We shot these scenes with him and Sam Raimi who's playing a reporter and doing this dialogue where he's talking about characters that we had yet to script. Larry was just faxing pages to me in New York and we were just shooting this stuff and then we'd figure out how to make sense of it later.
Sort of the Roger Corman approach to filmmaking: Start with the tagline and shoot around it.
That aspect was Roger Corman, American International Pictures, school of filmmaking, but I don't know if Roger Corman would have started a movie without a script. But we did.
That's pretty brave, I have to applaud you. So, you mentioned you are a horror fan. I am an obsessive horror fan and I would love to know what some of your favorite titles are if you don't mind shooting the breeze with me for a moment.
I'm probably going to be boring here, but my favorite titles are 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' 'Night of the Living Dead,' 'Psycho' of course. Those are some of my favorites. My favorites that are a little more offbeat would be things like 'The Haunting,' which I always felt was one of the great horror films of all time, and things like 'The Innocents.' And I'm a big Dario Argento fan and I love 'Deep Red.' I think that's a great thriller. But I'm pretty much along the lines of what most people consider to be the great horror films.
Well, there's a reason there is such a consensus there. Those films are truly great. So of the holy triumvirate, as it were, Argento, Fulci, and Bava would you say your favorite is Argento?
Yes, definitely Argento.
I tend to lean toward Fulci myself, but they are all amazing.
These guys, they made some wonderful films. There was that golden age in Italian horror, in the 70s and early 80s, where they were just making these terrific films.
Are there any of those particular films that have yet to receive the high-def treatment that you'd like to see on Blu or that you're working on?
Well I'm working on 'Zombie' right now and that's going to come out later this year. And I'm also working on 'House by the Cemetery,' which will be coming out in late Summer/Fall.
Here's a quote about the greatness of William Lustig and 'Maniac' from the Alamo's own Zack Carlson:
"William Lustig is easily one of our nation's greatest living filmmakers. His savage action and horror films ('Vigilante;' 'Maniac Cop') tore through the screen to assault the audience with blood, bullets and sheer hatred burning through every frame. And with this -- inarguably his exploitation masterpiece -- he plumbs the depths of the cinematic sewers like never before. Also accountable for the film's multiple offenses is its titular leading man(iac) Joe Spinell, a deeply talented character actor who makes this the role of his lifetime. If I was the type of guy who used the phrase "tour de force performance," I'd do it here. His character is a self-loathing, seemingly rabid force of human extermination, a flesh-destroyer whose brain practically boils out of his skull with every human interaction. His world is drowned in perpetual darkness, and he lashes out at anything within reach. Really, REALLY strong stuff, and featuring the shockingly convincing effects work of Tom Savini ... including a particular scene that -- when watched on the big screen -- will have people doing backflips and/or puking down the front of their shirts."