Given that the 1980s existed, one would assume that the action/horror subgenre is a thing that exists. It only makes sense that at the height of the neon decade some sleazy/greedy producers would be more than happy to finance movies that combined the charms of the two genres driven by gore and explosions. However, aside from James Cameron’s iconic career launching duo of The Terminator/Aliens and John Carpenter’s They Live, there aren’t many movies that combine action thrills and horror chills for crowd-pleasing exploitation. There’s really only one series that did the action/horror mash up right: the Maniac Cop trilogy. In particular, the sequel delivers genuine B-movie brilliance that far too few have fallen in love with.
The Maniac Cop trilogy was the brainchild of two unfairly forgotten genre geniuses: Larry Cohen and Bill Lustig. Larry Cohen was a no-budget New York indie filmmaker who created a series of oddball movies shot on the streets of Manhattan without permission like Black Caesar, God Told Me To, and Q: The Winged Serpent. William Lustig was another New York grindhouse guru who made the leap from porn into exploitation with titles like Maniac and Vigilante. The pair got together for lunch one day and dreamed up the title Maniac Cop. Lustig soon started shooting scenes with Bruce Campbell before Cohen even wrote the script. The money fell into place quickly and after scoring a modest profit at the box office, the flick went on to become a big video rental favorite. It’s an enjoyable little romp held back by its miniscule budget and a wonky tone. However, it made enough dough to justify a sequel with twice the budget that finally deliver on the concept.
In a brilliant money saving move, Maniac Cop 2 opens with the climax of the original film as Bruce Campbell inadvertently stops the Maniac Cop’s initial reign of terror by crashing a Brinks truck off a bridge in a stunt so spectacular, it could only have been executed by a non-union crew unburdened by safety laws. From there, the NYC police force assumes that the Maniac Cop is dead and his crimes must be covered up to save the face of the men in blue. That obviously doesn’t please the original movie’s heroes Campbell and Laurene Landon, but the Commissioner (a slumming Michael Lerner) insists and the staff psychologist (Claudia Christian) agrees, so the lie sticks. Unfortunately, that pesky Maniac Cop (the late, great Robert Z’Dar) is far from dead. In fact, he’s back in zombie Jason Voorhees mode and deadlier than ever. His slasher shtick involves finding crimes, murdering the potential victims and then killing the criminals even more harshly. After announcing his arrival to the audience with a few killings, good ol’ MC then offs both Campbell and Landon to get the sequel cooking. From there we’re introduced to a gritty new detective hero played by Robert Davi (aka the older, eviler brother from The Goonies) and the hunt begins anew.
While screenwriter Larry Cohen usually invests his B-movies with a level of unexpected intelligence, Maniac Cop 2 doesn’t have much on its mind. Sure, there’s a certain sly subversion to having a cop as a slasher and presenting a corrupt police force as heroes, but the brains of the movie end there. That’s why Bill Lustig was a perfect choice to direct in favor of the run-and-gun Cohen. Lustig was a dirty B-movie lover who knew exactly what his 42
street target audience wanted because he was part of the crowd. He’s got a slickness to his style that Cohen lacks as well as a brazen willingness to top his sleazy influences. Maniac Cop 2 is essentially a set-piece factory and has a collection of stunners that’ll knock your socks off even 25-years later.
Ever wanted to see a car chase featuring a vehicle with no tires firing sparks from the wheels throughout? You’ll get that here. How about the sight of a woman handcuffed to a runaway car with no driver, forced to try and climb inside of a vehicle spinning out of control into oncoming traffic? Ditto. Lustig crafts a slasher-as-action-movie in which all of the kills involve spectacular action sequences. It’s what he hoped to achieve in Maniac Cop 1, but didn’t quite have the resources to pull off. In Maniac Cop 2 he not only had the money, but a talented young stunt supervisor who now runs the Fast & Furious franchise, a collection of crazy 80s stuntmen unconcerned with personal safety, and he strategically shot around Christmas so that the cops supervising the set were willing to allow extra insanity in exchange for X-mas bonuses (true story). It all builds to one of the most amazing climaxes in the history of genre film featuring a variety of flaming stuntman, a breakaway concrete wall, and a multistory fall into a bus that explodes. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Cohen’s snappy script and Lustig’s fluid visuals fly by with effortless intensity. The central detective story has some nice twists and an ideal grizzled, growling lead in the underrated Robert Davi. Even better, the Maniac Cop is even afforded his own secondary plot so he’s more than a hulking menace. In an unfortunate coincidence, New York is also plagued by a stripper serial killer during this action packed Christmas. Leo Rossi and his Charlie Manson beard assume that role, slicing up strippers until the Maniac Cop arrives. You’d think that MC would dispense slasher justice, but instead the pair become unlikely allies. Somehow the Maniac Cop turns into a sadsack Frankenstein’s monster, while that slime ball killer assumes the role of his manic Igor sidekick. It’s a ludicrously entertaining side plot that lends another subgenre to Maniac Cop 2, which is part slasher, part action flick, part monster movie, and all genre joy.
It takes approximately 3.5 brain cells to appreciate the pleasures of Maniac Cop 2, but true B-movies are rarely this deliriously entertaining. It’s the rare exception of a VHS horror unit shifter that actually delivers on the title and then goes ahead and exceeds all expectations. It’s about as good as any movie called Maniac Cop 2 could possibly be and pretty well every country outside of North America considers it a cult classic. Why? Because in North America it was more profitable for Lustig and his investors to sell the sequel to the lucrative direct-to-video market in 1990 than attempt a theatrical release. Everywhere else in the world played the flick in theaters to packed houses and big profits, but in North America it was shoved onto video shelves for indiscriminate audiences expecting a Leprechaun In The Hood quality experience. That’s a shame because anyone who is a fan of vintage 80s action and horror movies is already a fan of Maniac Cop 2. They just don’t know it yet.