A Look Back at Cult Film Director, William Lustig

Can't wait for the Maniac re-make with Elijah Wood? Well then have a look at our comprehensive retrospective on revenge flick and exploitation innovator, William Lustig and his brutal body of work. If all you've seen is Maniac Cop, that's only the tip of the bloody iceberg!

Quentin Tarantino cites him as one of his favorite directors and wanted him to helm True Romance. He was an influence on Sam Raimi, who’s given him cameos in Darkman and Army of Darkness. He’s worked with Dario Argento.  Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, he kept the fine art of exploitation cinema alive, not by paying homage to it, but by actually and wholly unapologetically making exploitation films.

William Lustig was born and raised in The Bronx, the nephew of Jake (Raging Bull) LaMotta. When he was 15 he was working as an usher in a local movie theater where, he claims, he saw Deliverance some 60 times. That’s gotta have an affect on you. In the early ‘70s he began haunting the Times Square grindhouses, filling his head with the kinds of films you couldn’t easily see anyplace else. Blaxploitation pictures, Italian zombie films, Spanish vampire movies, obscure Spaghetti westerns, revenge films, women in prison films and endless horror movies. Grimy, sleazy and extremely violent low budget movies with very little by way of redeeming social value. Films that were shown in theaters where your feet stuck to the floor (though you didn’t want to know what was making the floors sticky) and where it was best to avoid the bathrooms, if at all possible.  He refers to that period as his “education.”

        In the late ‘70s Lustig took that education and that aesthetic and set out to make films that would show in those very same theaters. Like so many other people who would rather not talk about it, he found his earliest directing jobs in hardcore porn, but always with a mind toward stepping over the line into, if not exactly mainstream, at least more legitimate film making. He wanted to make a horror film, but an extreme horror film that included everything that scared him. After, he says, a friend suggested that he make “Jaws on Land,” Lustig started talking to his friend Joe Spinell.At the time Spinell was one of the most in-demand character actors in Hollywood. He’d had small roles in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II; Rocky and Rocky II; Taxi Driver, and if you listen closely you can even hear his voice in Jaws. But now he wanted his own film, a starring role that would put him on top. Together the two of them came up with Maniac. 

Released in 1980, Maniac was made in that magic period between Halloween and the flood of cartoon slasher films when things were wide open and filmmakers could go a little wild. It was an extremely dark, sleazy, ugly picture. A film (as one friend described it) where you can actually smell the piss. As brutal as it was, it was a smart and stylish character portrait of a serial killer long before Henry.Clearly influenced by everything from Psycho to the recent Son of Sam murders to Polanski; Spinell stars as Frank Zito, a sweaty, unbalanced man who was horribly abused as a child, is still tormented by the memories, lives in a miserable little apartment and kills Times Square hookers in his spare time. More than that, he scalps them (thanks to effects maestro Tom Savini), nails the scalps to mannequins in his room and then styles the hair (like Norman Bates says, everyone’s got to have a hobby). Things get a little complicated when Frank meets and falls for a photographer (Caroline Munro, from The Spy Who Loved Me and so many Hammer films). Showing that Frank really is human in spite of all the, y’know, killing and scalping and such, only makes it that much more disturbing.

Maniac remains Lustig’s best and most singular film, in part as a result of several accidents and happy coincidences. Because they had no money to pay for things like permits, they had to shoot the film guerilla style around the streets and subways of Manhattan. The budget also forced them to shoot in 16mm, which allowed them to shoot with a lot more natural light and the small camera made handheld shots easy and at times, necessary. It gave the film not only a beautifully realistic atmosphere, but also a direct immediacy you wouldn’t find with 35mm.Because they had no studio or producers looking over their shoulder they were free to push things as far as they wanted (and they got pretty nasty). And there’s no underestimating Spinell’s contribution to the script and the character, who’s much more complicated than your run of the mill Michael Myers or Jason. The film really is a showcase for Spinell and he’s fantastic and terrifying.There are also a number of nice, deliberate touches here as well: the sometimes fuzzy line between Frank’s inner life and the outside world, the fact that inside his apartment you never hear any external noise and a sidewalk shot of Frank looking in a store window that’s subtle but telling, like Travis Bickle on the pay phone. The score too, spare as it is, only feeds the warped atmosphere that permeates the whole picture.The film was a surprise hit at Cannes. Not so surprising, though, Maniac caused a bit of an uproar among feminist groups who considered it misogynist, even though in one scene Frank blows off Tom Savini’s head with a shotgun. What they might have found more troubling than the film itself was the ad campaign that blanketed New York at the time of its release. In the poster, we see a man from the knees to the chest. He’s wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. In one hand he’s clutching a hunting knife, in the other a bloody, blonde scalp. It was a bit extreme, yes, but probably wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows on the subway if the man didn’t also have an obvious hard-on under his jeans.Like so many Italian genre directors who moved easily from Westerns to zombie films to crime thrillers, Lustig stepped away from realistic horror to a straightforward revenge film in 1983’s Vigilante. Nine years after Michael Winner’s Death Wish (a film Lustig worked on as an apprentice editor), there was nothing too subtle or complicated about Vigilante. In fact it was pretty heavy-handed. But it knew its audience and was custom made to have people in the 42nd St. theaters hooting, tearing up the seats and firing guns in the air.While still set in NYC, the film is much brighter, flatter and blander-looking than its predecessor. In fact it almost feels like a TV movie. Given that the locations are much more suburban this time around (despite the pimps and thugs who roam the streets), maybe brighter cinematography and the standard musical score were intentionally commenting on that. Or maybe Lustig wasn’t wrestling with the same sorts of accidents that gave Maniac its filthy charm.Vigilante opens with an angry monologue from football player-turned-action hero Fred Williamson: “There are 40 murders a day in this city. Over 2 million illegal guns on the streets; enough to invade a damn country. They shoot cops and don’t even think about it…”

He goes on to argue that since the cops, the courts and the prisons have all failed the citizens, it’s time citizens took the law into their own hands and started blowing away ne’er-do-wells and hooligans. Every time I hear that speech I find myself wondering if it’s a pro- or anti-gun message. I’m still not sure.Well, after Vicki Marino (Rutanya Alda) interferes when she sees a group of thugs beating up a gas station attendant, they follow her home. She calls 911 and is told there’s nothing the police can do. So of course the thugs break in, beat her nearly to death and kill her young son. When her husband Eddie (Robert Forster), a mechanic, returns home that night he finds cops everywhere and they break the news to him in a less than sensitive manner. Much to everyone’s surprise, the members of the gang are picked up almost immediately.When Eddie meets with the D.A. (Carol Lynley) to prepare a case, she tosses out a bunch of statistics letting him know how hopeless and pointless it all is. (Lynnley has never been a very good actress and she’s apparently not a very good lawyer either.) Every step of the way, Lustig is planting a big red flag to point out the uselessness of the system, then smacking the audience across the back of the head to make sure they notice.Eddie’s starting to notice the red flags himself, but still believes in the system, trusting that if you work hard and play by the rules things will work out for you. Nevertheless, he still takes a meeting with Nick (Williamson), the head of the local vigilante mob, who lays out the plan to clean up the streets by kicking the shit out of dealers and pimps and thugs. Eddie replies to the recruiting speech with a very simple and logical question, “What makes this any different from the scum?” Nick tells him it’s ‘just something you need to figure out for yourself,” which is really no answer at all. Eddie goes away justifiably unconvinced, still believing in the American Dream.Right up until the courtroom scene anyway.This is where Lustig runs in with a big armload of those red flags and starts slapping everyone on the head. Court officers and lawyers are taking bribes. The judge is a liberal (and a woman!), the lawyers cut a deal, nobody gives a rat’s ass about the victims and in the end the creep who was facing a first degree murder rap for killing Eddie’s little boy is set free on a suspended sentence for assault. No, there’s nothing subtle about it. It’s a hamfisted bit of audience manipulation and it gets hilariously worse when Eddie attacks the suspect as he’s leaving the courtroom and finds himself sent to Riker’s Island while the thug goes free.As Eddie rots in prison, Nick and his boys go about their daily business torturing pimps and killing mob bosses and the cops continue to prove themselves less than useless. Oh, but it all has a bloody and happy, if abrupt ending, which I’ve always found a bit unsatisfying. Although a number of viewers have gotten upset about the film’s perceived ultraconservative message, I never really took it all that seriously. Lustig knew what he was doing and he laid all his cards out face up. He was trying to rile up the audience and in that he was successful on both ends of the political spectrum. The Times Square crowd tended to be a bloodthirsty lot and those liberals can be pretty thin-skinned. Lustig trod much the same ground in 1989’s Hit List. It’s another bright, flat revenge film, another film in which a man loses his family and is unjustly imprisoned and a film in which the cops and the courts are impotent at best, corrupt and shameless at worst. But this time Lustig rounded up a great cast, including Lance Henrikson, Leo Rossi, Charles Napier, Jan-Michael Vincent and the great and insane Rip Torn. 

Indicted mob boss Vic Luca (Torn at his snakey best) is about to go to trial when he gets his hands on a list of all the proposed witnesses for the prosecution. He hands the list off to a couple of his boys with instructions to track them all down and kill them and their families. Unfortunately hit men are often hit men because they aren’t smart enough to be engineers or cab drivers. To top everything else off, these hit men are also dyslexic.Regular good guy and family man Jack Collins (Vincent) probably thought he had it made in the shade security-wise, living in the suburbs across the street from a gangster who was about to testify against Luca. Well the next thing you know Jack’s wife and a friend have been brutally murdered and his son’s been kidnapped. To add insult to horrible grief, when the cops arrive they arrest him for the murders and send him to prison (the “wrong man imprisoned” became a regular theme in many of Lustig’s films). So he devises an escape plan and sets out to find the men responsible and, needless to say, kill them.Before he can do this, though, he’s struck and killed by a FedEx truck.No, not really, I’m just yanking your chain. But you know where all this is headed. You knew where this was headed ten minutes into the film. The film is no more subtle than Vigilante, but here Lustig offers a few more interesting twists and it’s always fun to watch actors like Torn and Napier and Henrikson.        One interesting thing about the production that maybe I shouldn’t bring up. At the time, see, Jan-Michael Vincent was apparently a bit of a drinker. Well, he was apparently a bit of a drinker like Ralph Meeker was apparently a bit of a drinker. And if you watch carefully, you’ll note that in every one of his scenes, he had something to lean on (a wall, a doorway, a table), as Vincent had trouble standing upright on his own. But you didn’t hear that from me.Something else I’ve always wondered about and revenge films in general. What happens after the closing credits roll? We’re presented with heroes who break out of prison and kill people. It doesn’t matter how rotten and guilty the people are, it’s still first degree murder with a prison break capper. Do they end up spending the rest of their lives back in prison? I mean sure, it must’ve felt great at the time, but 15 years later when you’re sitting in that same cell, is it worth it? I wonder about these things sometimes.That isn’t much of an issue in the rest of these pictures.In 1988, a year before Hit List, Lustig teamed up with fellow indie maverick Larry Cohen for a string of films that would carry them into the mid-90s. It was an interesting pairing.  Lustig’s films, politicized beyond his control, had been called hamfisted, obvious right wing trash and misogynistic. Cohen (It’s Alive, God Told Me Too), on the other hand, was an outspoken anti-authoritarian whose films were genre-blending weirdies with conspiratorial elements. The films they made together (with Cohen writing and producing and Lustig directing) combined all those elements somehow into a mix that gave audiences something to ponder and sort out afterward.Undoubtedly their first collaboration was their best known. ‘88’s Maniac Cop brought together a bunch of Cohen’s regular actors (Laurene Landon) with some Lustig favorites (William Smith) and even a few from the Raimi camp (Bruce Campbell) and turned audience expectations on their heads within the first five minutes.

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When a young woman is mugged by a couple punks she’s relieved to see that for once there really is a cop around when you need one. A big one, two, in his full dress blues. While given the title and a history of films like Magnum Force, you’d expect the cop to chase the muggers down and kill them in cold blood. Instead, though, this cop kills the confused victim. Right there, Cohen’s script begins to lay out his own fear and mistrust of the police. At the same time it’s the very clever flipside to the likes of Vigilante, with a cop who isn’t impotent at all and becomes judge, jury and executioner like Vigilante’s nick, but who happens to be killing the wrong people.After examining the body, Det. Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins of Halloween III), a cop with a history of mental problems, comes to the strange and immediate  conclusion that a cop must have done it. When two more people are killed after a simple traffic stop McCrae, not finding any believers within the department, leaks the story to the press and all hell breaks out in New York. People start telling their kids to stay away from cops, while others simply shoot policemen out of fear. As more civilians are killed, even the cops come to believe a cop with inside knowledge must be doing it.Det. Jack Forrest (Campbell), meantime, is having a fling with undercover vice cop Theresa Mallory (Landon, a beautiful woman who simply cannot act worth a damn) and is arrested for the savage murder of his wife. His wife was another victim of the Maniac Cop and now Forrest finds himself under suspicion for all the killings. So once again we have the innocent man tossed in the pen. Not for so long this time, though. I mean, you take one look at Bruce Campbell and it’s clear he’s not out there slicing up innocent people. I mean, LOOK at him.

Well, then things start to get complicated and lively as McCrae, Forrest and Mallory close in on the conclusion that the large, disfigured and apparently unkillable cop they’re looking for is Matt Cordell (Robert Z’Dar), a once legendary NYPD cop who’d been framed by politicians, sent to Sing-Sing, and was supposedly murdered by other inmates several years earlier.It’s a much slicker film than any of Lustig’s previous numbers, but at the same time it has a grittiness and a rough edge to it that glances back to Maniac (though you can’t smell the piss in this one). And Cohen delivers up the kind of genre mish-mash we’d come to love from him in what is essentially a police procedural/slasher/zombie film with, yes, hints of a conspiracy that’s never fully explained. There are even some touches of the conservative frustration people read into films like Vigilante, as we hear cops bitching about being accused of “violating people’s rights,” and see signs of a corrupt justice system. It’s a film that leaves viewers wondering (those who choose to anyway) just what kind of point was being made about the police. So you get a bit of everything here, including a St. Patrick’s Day parade (as in God Told Me To), a slaughter at police headquarters (as in Terminator), a wild car chase (as in, ummm…) and as would become tradition as the series rolled merrily along, a central character is violently dispatched on or before the halfway point. The creepy, whistled theme can really get under your skin after a while, there are plenty of jokes, which is always a relief and best of all the film ends with an obvious opening for a sequel.Sure enough, after taking a break to do Hit List, in 1990 Lustig and Cohen returned (as did Campbell and Landon) with Maniac Cop 2. Cohen usually has a knack for going in a different direction with his sequels, but here we get more of the same. We get a few new characters (Claudia Christian as a police shrink, Robert Davi as a good-hearted but frustrated cop and the always wonderful Michael Lerner as the Police Commissioner), but Cohen and Lustig pull a lot of the same tricks, like killing off a major character early in the film only to replace him or her with a new one. What it mostly boils down to is that Matt Cordell is still out there doing his crazy undead vengeance thing again. The one interesting twist here (and part of the reason this is probably my favorite of the series) is the arrival of a star struck and fame hungry serial killer who’s been murdering hookers in Times Square. Well, he and Matt Cordell become roommates see, which leads to all kinds of wacky hijinx. The film is funnier than the original, but also has a darker, sleazier edge to it. There’s also more action afoot, culminating in a massive fire stunt at the end, followed by a proper funeral for Cordell. It doesn’t seem to leave much room for another sequel, but when has that ever mattered before?We get more cop frustration as 1993’s third go-around opens. When a pair of cutthroat, freelance video journalists edit footage of a hostage situation to make it look like a female cop used excessive force, the officer (Gretchen Becker) comes to be known both within the precinct house and in the media as a “Maniac Lady Cop.” As the film rolls on she does in fact become a bit of a vigilante, but that’s neither here nor there. A Santeria priest, see, has grabbed Cordell’s body and promptly resurrects him, so off we go again. As Cordell continues seeking revenge against, oh, whoever, Maniac Lady Cop teams up with the skeptical police shrink (Caitlin Dulany), another major character gets knocked off and the whole thing ends with another big fire stunt.The frustrating thing about Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence is that it contains so many bits that could have made the film much more interesting had they been developed a little more. The Santeria priest could’ve added a weird little twist if he’d been allowed more than a couple quick cameos. The hints of a potential bride of Frankenstein scenario at the end could’ve been fun, even opened the way for another more interesting sequel that went in a completely different direction. But as I said before, I guess Lustig knows his audience.

That was the end of the Maniac Cop series, but three years later Lustig and Cohen returned with a film that was in many ways a rethinking of Maniac Cop, going over many of the same themes again but from a slightly different angle. Uncle Sam is a curious picture in political terms because I know people on the Right who see it as a celebration of American values, and people on the Left who see it as a dark satire of the dangers of extreme patriotism. Take your pick. 

If it is indeed a satire, it marks Lustig’s first break from horror and action. It was also the first of Lustig’s films to have no New York connection. (His ‘89 serial killer film Relentless took place in LA, but featured a New York cop). In fact it gets about as far from NYC as possible, taking place in a picture postcard model of small town America, complete with picket fences and a town-wide Fourth of July picnic in the park. The streets are clean and safe, the people are happy, the sun is always shining and finding all that in a William Lustig film immediately seems to scream “satire,” but maybe that’s just me.Sam Harper was a proud soldier, a True Believer, a real flag waver, who filled his nephew Jody’s head with a true blue American Spirit (as well as making clear to the boy who America’s enemies were, like those damned hippies and liberals). Thanks to his, yes, Uncle Sam Jody is bound and determined to become a soldier himself some day. Not too many other people around town liked Sam, especially his wife and sister. He was a drunk, a wife beater, a bully and an all-around asshole. So when he’s killed by friendly fire during the first Iraq War, nobody’s much broken up about it except Jody, whose patriotic fervor becomes more hardcore and self righteous than ever. There are few things in this world quite so annoying as a self-righteous 9-year-old.When Sam’s coffin arrives home and is placed in the living room, we begin to get the parade of America’s enemies: the army officer (Bo Hopkins) who helps with the arrangements while making moves on Sam’s widow; the lawyer who brags about cheating the government by setting up tax loopholes for his clients; a grade school teacher who was a draft dodger during Vietnam; a corrupt politician; disrespectful teenagers; pot smokers; perverts and everyone who isn’t currently enlisted. As in Vigilante, there’s nothing subtle about it, but beyond simple audience manipulation, here Lustig and Cohen are setting up a point.Enter Isaac Hayes, a retired soldier with a wooden leg who is filled with guilt for filling a young Sam’s head with war stories the way Sam later filled Jody’s. He’s since become disillusioned with the glories of war and hopes to make up for what he did to Sam by deprogramming Jody, who isn’t much interested.

As the film’s amazing poster and tagline might suggest, when some drunken, rebellious teens in a nearby park burn an American flag, Sam’s corpse crawls out of its coffin to take care of the above checklist in a way he’d never been able to when he was alive.Some pretty great scenes follow, but there’s just no topping a peeping tom on stilts being chased down the street by a vengeful murderous zombie soldier. Yes, it’s over the top and obvious, but it’s still sharp and funny, the pacing is snappy and it has a point to make. Leave it to Larry Cohen to write a slasher/zombie/revenge satire about patriotism gone mad (or celebration of American values).It was Lustig’s last feature. After that he moved on to the DVD distributor Anchor Bay, where he acquired cult films, both classic and obscure and produced featurettes. He later formed his own distribution company, Blue Underground, which has continued to focus on giving new life to the films he’d first come to know in the Times Square grindhouses.Although William Lustig never made any bones about the fact that his own films (however people chose to interpret them) were just exploitation movies, they remain some of the best and most stylish of the era. They had flair, he developed themes and he had a knack for driving audiences a little nutty in one way or another. They were also among the most quietly influential.If it wasn’t for William Lustig’s example who knows where the likes of Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino would be today?

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