A Bloody Badge of Silence: The Maniac Cop Trilogy


Larry Cohen deals in subversion; not only of genre tropes, but also in how he smuggles radical ideas via pulp constructs. There’s a knowingness to each of his screenplays that alerts the viewer to the bubbling mockery that festers just below his stories’ surfaces. Cohen is a man displeased with America’s fanatical facade of idealism – a smokescreen that hides an ugly center. 

In the ’70s, he helmed famed Blaxploitation entries (Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem), working within a movement to help mold icons for African American cinemagoers, most of who were notoriously disregarded by major studios. His giant monster movie, Q: The Winged Serpent, features a con man as its “hero” (Michael Moriarty), out to shame a city he believes wronged him time and again. All the while, Moriarty’s Slick Willy piano player is hoping to make a quick buck off of the titular beast’s carnivorous presence. The Stuff puts forth the notion that the brands we fall for in a collective haze of consumer hive mind can literally devour us. When viewed as a whole, his body of work contains as much howling satire as it does horror iconography.

Yet none of his pictures are as bluntly insurrectionary as the Maniac Cop trilogy he penned for notorious Joe Spinell advocate, Bill Lustig. Much how John Carpenter took an American symbol synonymous with safety (the suburbs) and tore it asunder, Cohen morphs a badge and blue uniform into something no less terrifying than Michael Myers’ Shatner mask or Jason Voorhees’ goalie fetish. That which safeguards is suddenly spun, like a rabid dog biting the hand that feeds. While Maniac Cop may superficially appear to be another routine slasher, it is anything but repetitive. Cohen is working with a fear that had already been deeply seated in the public’s brain by 1988 – that cops were killers and had no interest in protecting or serving.

ManiacCopFeatMANIAC COP [1988] (d. William Lustig, w. Larry Cohen)

Maniac Cop opens with an arresting sequence of images which borrows directly from James William Guercio’s one-and-done 1973 masterwork, Electra Glide in Blue. A faceless officer buttons up his uniform while blood red credits roll, like a soldier readying himself for war. Moments later, we’re knee deep in the streets of NYC, watching Cassie Philips (Jill Gatsby) exit the saloon she slings drinks for and get instantaneously attacked by “two Puerto Rican kids” (as the queasy investigating officer would later refer to them). Cassie fights the hoods off, dashing through the streets as a portly witness can only helplessly grimace at the all too familiar scene. In the middle of a park, she spots an officer. But instead of helping her, the beast in blue (Robert Z’Dar) lifts Cassie up off the street and crushes her larynx with white-gloved hands. “I bet you were so scared,” Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) says as he later stares down at her lifeless body in the morgue, “and then you saw a cop.”

New York City was littered with instances of police brutality throughout the 70s and 80s; a fact Cohen and Lustig (both New York natives) were quite aware of. While enjoying an off duty drink, McCrae and a fellow brother in the fraternal order of police watch a nightly news collection of “man on the street” talking head clips, each recounting specific instances of corruption. This might be the only moment in Maniac Cop that feels wholly unnecessary, as by 1988 the reality of New York City police depravity was well documented. Clifford Glover was an unarmed black boy in Jamaica, Queens in 1973, shot dead by Thomas Shea – a white, undercover police officer who believed the child had a gun. Michael Stewart was spray painting a wall in the First Street subway station when confronted, beaten and strangled to death by officers in 1983. Eleanor Bumpurs was a sixty-six year old black woman who, after failing to pay her $98.64 rent for four months, had her door kicked in by unannounced members of the NYPD who were aiding in her eviction. While being “subdued,” the police shot her twice with a 12-gauge, killing the woman instantly. Mostly white juries acquitted the cops indicted for these heinous acts of their crimes. The only compensation given to the families of Mr. Stewart and Miss Bumpurs came monetarily: a whopping $1.9 million combined for two human lives.

The most darkly hilarious aspect of Cohen and Lustig’s slasher is the fact that almost all of the victims that murderous ex-officer Matt Cordell lays claim to are white. Though there’s a melancholy motivation behind Cordell’s vicious spree, the creators of Maniac Cop are wise enough to realize that only Caucasian victims would work New York City into a state of such overwhelming panic. This adds a sick, mean-spirited sarcasm to a scene in which a white woman, scared to death after an NYC cruiser pulls up behind her broken down vehicle, shoots an innocent young cadet in the face. Those least likely to be brutalized by the NYPD now irrationally fear them the most, their privilege no longer a shield against the white-gloved hands of the Reaper.

Where Maniac Cop starts to slightly sag is in its “wrong man” frame job B-Plot, which finds Officer Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell, in maybe the only movie where his chin is outmatched) being set up to take the fall for Cordell. Thankfully, Cohen and Lustig keep the movie barreling at such a breakneck pace that any of the less thematically interesting elements breeze by. Accenting it all is James Lemmo’s cinematography (with an assist by Vincent J. Rabe), cementing the young DP as being perhaps the premier documentarian of NYC during its grimy, 42nd Street heyday. Lemmo shot Ms. 45 and Fear City for Abel Ferrara, as well as Vigilante for Lustig. Though it only filmed on location for three days (the rest of the production took place on the West Coast), you’d never be able to tell the difference, as Lemmo’s camera gets down in the city’s gutters, capturing every last grain of filth they contained.

But the biggest joy of Maniac Cop (beyond mining it for subtext), is watching this troupe of character actors really chomp into the scenery surrounding them. Atkins is at his weathered, stoic best, delivering lines with his trademark deadpan ferocity as his Commissioner (Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree) questions the cop’s sanity. Campbell is game for just about everything Lustig and Cohen throw at him, the Evil Dead star bringing his usual flair for physical comedy to the moments where his fellow officers slam him into seemingly every solid object available to them. Most importantly, Z’Dar (may he rest in peace) molds Matt Cordell into a fully fleshed human being, adding a sad humanity to the monster’s backstory. If it weren’t for the big lug’s brilliant performance (which really surpasses murder icons like Kane Hodder in terms of subtle body language alone), the Maniac Cop series would’ve never existed, as he truly finds the brute’s vengeful, beating heart.

This “sympathy for the Devil” attitude morphs into the movie’s calculated genius. Once Cordell’s cruel past is revealed, the titular baddie becomes the nightmare of every dirty cop come true: punishment for a life spent violating others’ freedoms. Yet Z’Dar, Lustig and Cohen are not only able to make you feel sorry for this walking civil rights violation, in the end you’re actually rooting for him to get his revenge. For that alone, Cohen and Lustig’s picture stands head and shoulders above most of its genre peers, marking it as being one of the most undervalued horror movies in the genre’s history. The movie plays audience prejudices like a fiddle, ultimately rendering viewers just as guilty as Cordell.

ManiacCop2AMANIAC COP 2 [1990] (d. William Lustig, w. Larry Cohen)

Maniac Cop 2 is working on a completely different cinematic wavelength than its progenitor. Gone completely is the satirical bent, replaced by an anti-realist comic book sheen that keeps building with every successive scene. Lustig isn’t interested at all in repeating what he’d done before, opting instead to adhere to the sequel maxim “bigger is most certainly fucking better.” Playing like a base head’s half-recollected memories of EC Comics, Son of Frankenstein and that time he was hit on the dome with a billy club, it’s a fever dream of sleaze, gore, bullets and smash ‘em up car chases. Larry Cohen is completely checked out from creating any kind of societal comment, opting instead to provide Lustig loose sketches, from which the director can create ludicrous (and often dangerous-looking) set pieces.

Picking up quite literally where the original left off, Maniac Cop 2 relentlessly races to the finish line of each remaining character’s story, just so it can introduce you to a fresh batch of NYC badasses. Die Hard vet Robert Davi fills the shoes of those left behind and then some, bringing craggy cool to Detective Sean McKinney as he teams with the precinct’s shrink (Claudia Christian) in order to track down the now inexplicably undead Cordell. If you’re looking for any kind of enlightenment behind the resurrection of everybody’s favorite NYPD murder machine, you’re watching the wrong movie, as Lustig seems more fascinated with integrating aspects of Hong Kong cinema (the scene where Christian is handcuffed to a runaway cruiser is inspired by Jackie Chan’s Police Story) than providing any kind of coherent narrative. This is action/horror at its absolute nonsensical finest, as future Fast and the Furious stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos launches cars and human bodies through the air with reckless abandon. Capping it all off is a police station massacre that rivals Schwarzenegger’s iconic bloodletting in The Terminator, as Cordell trudges through glass doors before unloading clips from an automatic weapon.

Strangest of all is the jokey, preposterous second act, during which the Maniac Cop befriends a local serial killer (Leo Rossi) who has been collecting quite the stripper body count. It’s here that Lustig’s love for cinema is at its most unwieldy. The grindhouse guru transforms his pervert killer into a character akin to Bela Lugosi’s Ygor from Universal Studios’ 1939 classic, Son of Frankenstein. Much how Ygor was enamored with the Monster and utilized it to kill the jurors who sentenced the grave-robbing ghoul to a failed hanging, Rossi’s bearded sociopath embarks on a quest with Cordell to help break out the local Death Row inmates (don’t ask, it really doesn’t make any sense). There’s a playful vibe to Rossi’s scenes, as Z’Dar gets to do his best Karloff impersonation, grimacing through pounds of goofy, grey makeup he reportedly hated wearing. It’s here that Maniac Cop 2 totally abandons any resemblance to the original outside of setting and the titular giant. This is a gonzo slice of bulldozing, batshit genre cinema, complete with a literal firefight that goes on for so long it’s a wonder nobody ended up in the hospital.

Outside of the utter abandonment of traditional narrative logic, there are certainly other elements of Maniac Cop 2 that don’t work in any conventional sense. The tonal shifts are jarring, as if each day’s shoot was randomly thrown together with whatever pages Larry Cohen could come up with on set. Not helping is the fact that Lustig cut the film utilizing a team of editors in a marathon March to May splice, just so he could have a print ready for the 1990 Cannes Film Festival (yes, you read that sentence correctly). The rushed construction is certainly felt in the final cut, as the movie never once takes a knee to let the characters have tiny, defining moments like the original did. But what Maniac Cop 2 lacks in coherency, it more than makes up for in sheer madness. This is a midnight movie best experienced with a rowdy crowd of cop hating creeps, all ready to cheer on Cordell as he seemingly lays waste to an entire police force. You are not prepared.

maniac cop 3 6MANIAC COP 3 [1993] (d. Alan Smithee & Joel Soisson [Uncredited], w. Larry Cohen)

Bill Lustig disowns Maniac Cop 3, and it’s not hard to comprehend why. It was a movie made by committee, as Overseas Filmgroup obtained the rights to the franchise while Lustig was attempting to get other projects off of the ground. The third picture was supposed to be Cohen and Lustig’s Bride of Frankenstein, featuring a black lead instead of Robert Davi. The financiers pulled out at the last minute (due to the character’s race), and Davi returned to the role of Detective McKinney. Now the script Cohen originally wrote for the movie was completely worthless, and every new producer who signed on wanted to “piss in the pot” (as Lustig so succinctly puts it in the Making-Of featurette on the Blue Underground disc). Cohen never turned in a script to replace his original story idea and, in the end, Lustig only ended up shooting fifty-one minutes before quitting and being replaced by producer Joel Soisson, who only wanted to finish the movie so that the money men would have a product to sell.

While all prints of Maniac Cop 3 were released with his name, Lustig has ensured that all home video releases from this point forward contain the nom de failure, Alan Smithee. But the third MC entry is still insanely entertaining; thanks mostly to Lustig’s refusal to focus on any sort of narrative arc, and Razatos’ relentless need to leave behind any standards of safety. Upping the ante on the fiery fistfight at the end of Maniac Cop 2, the final film in the trilogy opts to have an entire car chase with Matt Cordell (who is now a full blown voodoo zombie) as a literal driving fireball. What’s remarkable about both Maniac Cop sequels is that they stand as two of the greatest examples of how boring and bland CGI is when compared to stunt men putting their lives on the line to “get the shot.” No matter how many times the seams of this assembly line production may show, the practically accomplished combat is raw and thrilling. In an era known for producing the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, Robert Z’Dar delivered one of the best action hero performances in the genre, all while covered in pounds of facial prosthetics.

As for the rest of the second sequel, the actors keep the whole affair feeling unwaveringly professional. Even in the scenes that were so obviously shot to pad out to runtime (like the opening target practice flirtation between Davi and series newbie Gretchen Becker), there’s a playful chemistry shared between the performers. Jackie Earle Haley shows up as a complete psychopath, introduced during a live wire shootout in a convenience store. Nightmare on Elm Street cinematographer Jacques Haitkin captures all of the mayhem with a steady, wide frame and an eye for oppressive darkness. The gothic, undead romance that brews between Cordell and recently gunned down policewoman Katie Sullivan (Becker) is gorgeous and atmospheric, a reminder why the New Line Cinema vet helped define the aesthetic of 80s and early 90s genre pictures. These were movies made by people in love with movies, and though Lustig and Cohen bowed out early, Matt Cordell was still going to have his Bride of Frankenstein moment. Considering all of the catastrophes that happened behind the scenes, it’s a minor miracle Maniac Cop 3 is as relentlessly diverting as it is.

There have been stories circling for the last year that Lustig is hard at work attempting to produce a Maniac Cop remake (with the help of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn). Last we heard from the project, Winter Soldier mastermind Ed Brubaker was writing the redux, and a director was supposed to be announced at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (this never happened). Upon first glance, a reboot seems like a foolish endeavor – another cash-in from a man who has always considered himself more of a careerist than an artist (Lustig has said publicly that the sole motivation behind a new Maniac Cop movie is “making a living”). Yet now, possibly more than ever, a Maniac Cop picture feels like it could capture the subversive magic Larry Cohen generated with the first film.

This week, another unarmed black man was shot by a coward with a badge and a gun (may Walter Scott rest in peace). We live in a time when real life monsters patrol our streets, empowered by a “shoot first” mentality and the shield of juries unwilling to convict those who are supposed to protect and serve. Only where Lustig’s initial movie played on an air of forcefulness the NYPD brought to decades of patrolling the city’s streets with remorseless rage, now that wanton violence stretches out of major metropolitan arenas into locales like Ferguson, Missouri and North Charleston, South Carolina. We’ve become accustomed to accepting that cops are going to kill any who piss them off, and are powerless to do anything about it.

It seems somewhat silly to say, but a reintroduction of the Maniac Cop series could act as something of a pop culture rallying cry that we’re not going to take it any longer. Throughout history, horror films have reflected the fears of society, from the post-Vietnam angst of Texas Chain Saw to the War On Terror torture mirrored in Eli Roth’s Hostel pictures. If executed correctly, a new Maniac Cop could be this generation’s great, defining horror war cry, as we are bombarded by images of police brutality ostensibly on a weekly basis. Sometimes the most important pieces of art come from the least likely places. A Maniac Cop reboot could not only act as a great diversion, but also a primal ACAB howl of defiance, signaling a reckoning yet to come. Currently, the true enemies of freedom are those who are supposed to be protecting our liberties. Our art should be screaming “we will not be silenced by your badge and gun any longer.”

Jacob Knight is an Austin, Texas based film writer who moonlights as a clerk at Vulcan Video, one of the last great independent video stores in the US. You can find find him on Twitter @JacobQKnight.


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