An Archangel With an Automatic Weapon: Bill Lustig’s MANIAC COP 2

Twenty-five years later, Lustig's sequel is still one of the greatest horror-action movies ever made.

Maniac Cop is one of the all-time great horror films.

Together, director Bill Lustig (Maniac, Vigilante) and screenwriter Larry Cohen (The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent) created a subversive slice of genre cinema that collected a city’s fear of law enforcement (in the wake of atrocities committed against African-American NYC civilians like Clifford Glover, Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs) and turned the racial element of these hate crimes on its head. Maniac Cop is the seedy chronicle of once good patrolman, Matt Cordell (cherubic-chinned Robert Z’Dar, may he rest in peace), taking revenge on the blue (and white) society that left him for dead, all while cementing himself as a murder icon to be placed alongside the likes of Jason Voorhees. Only in Lustig and Cohen’s slasher, we root for this monster, and not just because of the sick thrill component body count pictures usually play up. Instead, our allegiance to this psycho lawman is gained due to his punishing of an institution we once put our trust in, but now fear. All cops are bastards, and Matt Cordell is a disfigured avenging angel, laying waste to their badges of silence.

Maniac Cop 2 isn’t terribly concerned with replicating the social commentary of its predecessor. Like the very best sequels, it takes elements of what worked in the original and then cranks them to eleven, slightly switching gears in terms of general genre. The movie’s relentless violence is reminiscent of Aliens when compared to the first’s meager set pieces. An urban gothic, EC Comics tone is still accounted for, but then also mashed up with a white-knuckle nightmare. The action director living inside of Bill Lustig (who poked his head out during production on the underappreciated Hit List) has possessed the filmmaker completely, allowing him to unleash magnificent chaotic mayhem upon NYC. It’s glorious; an anti-human juggernaut of a motion picture, in which our NYPD archangel wields a machine gun instead of a flaming sword.

Opening with a Friday the 13th style “previously on” intro (recapping the first’s climactic pier showdown with Bruce Campbell’s frame-job dupe), Maniac Cop 2 finds Lustig more interested in integrating ingredients of Hong Kong cinema (look for a scene that directly lifts the “handcuffed to a moving vehicle” gag from Jackie Chan’s Police Story) than providing any semblance of intelligible storyline. Cohen’s script is essentially just a loose blueprint, providing connective tissue between Lustig’s dangerous-looking (and sometimes illegally staged) set pieces. Eventual Fast and the Furious stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos crashes vehicles into one another and shoots stuntmen into space with reckless abandon. However, Lustig’s mean-spirited view of the city’s scummy peacekeepers remains, as the movie peaks with a police station massacre that may best Schwarzenegger’s iconic Terminator bloodletting. Cordell lumbers through glass doors like a demonic, shell-dispensing take on Frankenstein’s monster, his blasts resulting in the craziest wire work this side of a balletic wuxia battle.

Lustig continues his adoration of craggy character actors (see: Spinell in Maniac and Robert Forster in Vigilante), as he casts Die Hard alum Robert Davi as Tom Atkins’ (unceremonious) replacement on the Cordell case, Detective Sean McKinney. Davi looks like he’s one roll of RKO black and white film stock away from stepping out of a classic film noir -- a trench coat-donning, cigarette-puffing man of action. With him the entire way is Claudia Christian (The Hidden), a tough police psychiatrist unafraid to face down a relentless strangler. It’s the perfect pairing to replace Jack Forrest (Campbell) and Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon), as Cohen injects these civil servant avengers with just enough hard ass braggadocio.

Lustig and Cohen’s horror cinephilia is most present during the jokey, tonally juddering second act, during which Matt Cordell takes on a sidekick in local serial killer, Turkell (Leo Rossi), who has been choking his way through New York’s stripper population. During the numerous interviews given regarding the Maniac Cop series, both the director and screenwriter have name-dropped Universal Horror as a key inspiration behind the sequels. Where the third film (which Lustig brusquely quit after delivering less than an hour of usable footage) is their Bride of Frankenstein, Maniac Cop 2 is the franchise’s Son. Rossi plays the perverted murderer like Bela Lugosi’s Ygor, setting himself and his destructive golem on a wrecking crew path to release Sing Sing’s Death Row inmates. Z’Dar and Rossi are having a ball in these moments, while cinematographer James Lemmo (Ms. 45, Fear City) captures it all with an eye of cartoonish mise-en-scène. It’s a rejection of realism that feels organic and earned; a natural expansion upon the first’s already heightened pulp horror sensibility.

What probably accounts for the movie’s utter breathlessness is the fact that Lustig cut the picture in only three months utilizing a team of editors, just so he could have a print ready for the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. That’s right -- Bill Lustig wanted Maniac Cop 2 to premiere alongside Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vauge, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Sadly, the film wasn’t accepted into the prestigious fest, and the choppy, rushed construction is felt, especially in the film’s final reels. Where the first movie was allowed to pump the brakes from time to time in order to establish more thoroughly realized characters, Maniac Cop 2 doesn’t give a shit with whom the audience emotionally identifies. Yet this complete disregard for life is also what makes the movie sadistically special. The satire may have been eschewed, but anger and anti-authoritarianism are still the main fuel driving Maniac Cop 2. This is a 42nd Street Hellscape, where our “hero” hates you to your very core. Duck and cover, creep; Matt Cordell’s coming to clean house.

This was originally published in the August issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. Maniac Cop 2 is presented by Chiller and Mondo at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.