Maniac Cop is set in New York City. Not the bustling metropolis of today, but the seedy, dangerous cesspool Hollywood liked to conjure during the 70s and 80s. A vicious jungle where street punks, pimps, and pushers lurked around every darkened corner. The film embraces this atmosphere. Everything feels worn, lived-in, and used.
The story concerns a series of killings perpetrated by a uniformed police officer. The victims aren’t criminals, but random innocent people. The killer frames young beat cop Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) for the murders. Grizzled detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) doesn’t buy it.
Along with Jack’s cop girlfriend, McCrae tracks the killings to former cop Matt Cordell. Cordell was a legend on the force. A super-cop whose shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality landed him on the wrong side of the law. The only trouble? Cordell died in prison.
Or did he? There’s no explicit supernatural element, but Cordell’s resilience is superhuman. Think Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Though one wonders about the scars lacing his face. He recovers from a prison assault that saw him stabbed to a bloody pulp, but a few slashes to the face are a bridge too far? Does his body draw the line at cosmetic wounds?
Jack soon realizes Cordell is out to kill the mayor and police commissioner. The film feints staging this during the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade spectacle, but betrays its budget by engineering a car chase to an abandoned warehouse.
At least it’s an entertaining car chase. The POV shots are reminiscent of Campbell’s friend, director Sam Raimi, who turns up as a newsman introducing the parade.
Despite its meager budget, Maniac Cop is a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s the cast. Campbell never takes himself too seriously, always acting as if he were impersonating a B-movie actor. And Atkins has made a career out of playing the same grizzled, hard-drinking cop. He delivers a conscious, but not condescending, stereotype. Just because the performance is familiar, doesn’t mean it’s any less welcome. Atkins plays McCrae with the perfect amount of gravitas. His reaction during the scene where Richard Roundtree, as the police commissioner, tells him “You don’t smile very much,” made me laugh out loud.
Along those lines, director William Lustig injects a streak of black comedy. Consider the scene where Cordell asphyxiates a man in a block of wet concrete. Lustig smash cuts to the following morning as jackhammers work to extract the face-down corpse.
That said, Maniac Cop is not perfect. Cordell’s big reveal is something of a letdown. Robert Z’Dar is fine, but I couldn’t help thinking of Brian Thompson. The bigger problem is Jack’s girlfriend. Despite being a vice cop, she acts like a teenage girl, shrieking at every development. Not what you’d expect from a trained officer familiar with life-threatening situations. I don’t fault actress Laurene Landon. She’s convincing in some scenes and ridiculous in others. This falls on Lustig.
Still, Maniac Cop is that rarest of B-movies, one made by folks who seem to enjoy the work. Like most horror films of that era, Maniac Cop got a sequel. Unlike most, this one deserved it.