A brutal killer is stalking the streets of New York City. A man dressed as a police officer, who uses the uniform to lure victims in with a false sense of security or to trap them with the authority the figure of an officer of the law commands. What a young couple believes to be a routine traffic stop turns deadly. When a tough young woman escapes from a pair of muggers and runs to this “cop” for help, he lifts her up off the ground by the throat and snaps her neck.
The maniac cop always leaves a witness alive to spread the word that it’s what appears to be a police officer committing these murders… But the city’s higher-ups suppress this information. Troubled and hard boiled detective Lieutenant Frank McCrae disagrees with this approach, so he leaks information on this uniformed killer to the press, which sends the city into a panic.
One of the city’s residents who gets the most concerned is Ellen Forrest, whose police officer husband Jack Forrest has been working a lot of overtime during the night lately, or at least that’s what he’s been telling her. The unusual hours he’s been keeping, his odd behavior at home, the problems they’ve been having in their marriage, and worst of all the taunting phone calls Ellen has been receiving, during which a woman tells her that Jack is the killer cop, have made her extremely suspicious that her husband may indeed be the cop gone wrong.
Jack isn’t a killer, but he is cheating on his wife with fellow police officer Theresa Mallory. When Ellen follows Jack out of their apartment one night, she gets killed by the real murderer, and Jack is framed for the murder.
To clear his name, Jack has to team up with Theresa and McCrae to dig up the identity of the true maniac cop and put a stop to his killing spree. The search for answers takes an unexpected turn along the way when they realize they’re not dealing with any ordinary psychopath, but with an undead slasher who’s out for revenge.
Directed by Maniac (1980)’s William Lustig and written by Larry Cohen, the screenwriter behind films like the It’s Alive trilogy, blaxploitation classic Black Caesar, God Told Me To, and Q: The Winged Serpent, Maniac Cop brings to us one of the last great horror icons to come out of the ’80s, Matt Cordell.
Cordell was a good, tough cop. Maybe a little too trigger happy, but he was a legend and a hero to his fellow police officers. But when he was convicted of violating the rights of suspects, Cordell was sentenced to serve hard time at Sing Sing. He didn’t survive very long in prison, being surrounded by criminals he had put away. He was attacked and stabbed to death in the shower… And now, Cordell is back from the dead, seeking vengeance on the Mayor, the Commissioner, and those other “bastards in City Hall” who sent him off to be killed.
Played by the hulking Robert Z’Dar, Cordell the Maniac Cop strikes a badass figure as he dispatches victims with both brute strength and a long blade that is kept hidden inside what appears to be a standard issue billy club. Like any good supernatural slasher, Cordell is impervious to bullets and anything else you want to throw at him, stopping at nothing to make those he feels wronged him pay for his death.
Cordell’s reputation as a horror heavyweight is helped out by the caliber of cast that Lustig and Cohen surrounded Z’Dar with. As McCrae is the great Tom Atkins (The Fog ’80, Escape from New York, Creepshow, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Night of the Creeps, My Bloody Valentine ’09, etc.), and for much of the running time McCrae is our hero, we’re confident that he’s the one who will ultimately bring Cordell down. But very late in the film there’s a Psycho-esque twist, and it’s the majorly flawed Jack Forrest who has to take up the mantle of hero. Genre fans know the actor in this role is quite capable of the job: Jack is played by the Evil Dead series’ Bruce Campbell.
Larry Cohen regular Laurence Landon portrays Theresa Mallory, who in one standout scene finds herself handcuffed to a corpse while being chased by Cordell. Prolific character actress Sheree North appears as an officer who has a history with Cordell, and two of Cordell’s main targets are played by Richard Roundtree (Shaft himself) and drive-in legend William Smith.
Campbell’s Evil Dead (and Intruder) cohorts Danny Hicks and Sam Raimi also show up in cameos, as does the always welcome George “Buck” Flower.
Maniac Cop is rather atypical for a slasher, with its big city setting, and this also allows for some bigger sequences, like a jailhouse raid and a climactic car chase.
The story is well-rounded, the mystery intriguing, and Lustig shot the film with a nice, dark, moody atmosphere, going for a noirish look. That atmosphere is greatly enhanced by a haunting score provided by Jay Chattaway, who gave Cordell a very unnerving, whistle-based theme.
Maniac Cop was successful enough to spawn two sequels, with rumors persisting that we may someday get another sequel, or a remake, or maybe a prequel, possibly with Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn involved in some capacity. Having been very young when the first movie came out, it wasn’t until the video release of Maniac Cop 2 in the summer of 1991 that its existence first came to my attention. Seeing an enticing poster for the upcoming part 2 at the local video store (which at that time was owned by a police officer), I had my mom inquire whether they had a copy of part 1 to rent. They did, and so I took that copy home with me to watch that night.
Seven years old and already a huge fan of the horror genre, I greatly enjoyed my first viewing of Maniac Cop, which got me properly caught up and fully hyped for its sequel. I was there to rent Maniac Cop 2 as soon as possible, and loved it just as much as the first movie, if not more.
Twenty-six years after its initial release, nearly twenty-three since my first viewing of it, Maniac Cop remains one of my favorite slasher movies and one which gets its fair share of viewings. It’s also appropriate viewing for this time of year, because it’s one of the few horror movies aside from the Leprechaun series with ties to the St. Patrick’s Day holiday.
The events of the film take place over the course of the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, while the third act takes place on the holiday, with the characters dealing with their horrific situation as the parade fills the streets of the city.
If you’re a fan of horror, especially of the genre entries that came out of the 1980s, and/or any of the actors involved, Maniac Cop is definitely one to check out. It’s worth watching at any time, but viewings of it make for a great St. Paddy’s tradition.