Years before popular indie filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were paying loving homage to the grindhouse films which they remembered and loved from their youth, there were directors from the grindhouse era that were still producing great and shocking films long past the heyday of the exploitation and grindhouse film boom. One such director, influenced by classic exploitation films and arguably one of the beacons of preservation for the entire movement, is William Lustig.
From his beginnings as a film fan working in the shady movie theaters in Manhattan, Lustig worked his way into the industry in a two-pronged approach, serving as a production assistant on more well-known and mainstream fare such as “The Seven-Ups” and “Death Wish,” while simultaneously working as a director (albeit with the hilarious pseudonym Billy Bagg) in hardcore porn features.
In 1980, as exploitation theaters were waning in popularity and home video was just around the bend, Lustig became (in)famous for directing the original “Maniac,” which combined some of the skills he honed as porn director with the ultra-violence he saw as an usher in the grindhouse theaters.
Lustig followed that up with “Vigilante,” a blaxploitation film that would have made future collaborator Larry Cohen proud, and boasted appearances from such genre luminaries as Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, and Woody Strode.
Lustig continued his streak of dark and surprising films with his first Larry Cohen collaboration, “Maniac Cop.” Starring a young Bruce Campbell and a classily mustachioed Tom Atkins, the film followed a manhunt in New York City chasing a crazed cop on a rampage. This would lead to several more successful pairings between Lustig and Cohen.
In the new millennium, Lustig has been more focused on producing and restoring work through his release company Blue Underground. Doing excellent conversions, creating in-depth and interesting behind-the-scenes features, and making obscure and hard-to-find films available to the mainstream DVD audience has become their mission, and they have succeeded impressively (a quick tour through their library will have an exploitation fan running for their credit card). And though Lustig is far from too old to return to directing films (and there are occasional rumors that a new “Maniac Cop” film might be the one to get him back in the director’s chair), it is arguable that the three classic horror films he made have been nearly eclipsed by all the work he has done in the world of restoration and preservation. Nearly.
One of the few grimy grindhouse films to receive such a surprisingly effective and artistic reimagining, “Maniac” was the brainchild of Lustig and lead actor Joe Spinell, who met while working as production assistants on other films. Still unnerving after thirty-three years, the film captures a time and place in the history of New York that only exists in movies now, and displayed a glimpse into the potential of Lustig’s directing skill.
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The perfect pairing of sensibilities came together with Lustig and Larry Cohen, both filmmakers with exploitation cred who knew how to make a workable and inventive premise fly with a low budget. Boasting two of the best chins in the business, lead actors Bruce Campbell and Robert Z’Dar brought surprising depth to their cop characters, and the bluntness of the plot and the violence made for an impactful little gem of a thriller.
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After working together for three “Maniac Cop” movies and one action film that was taken away from them, Lustig and Cohen came together again for the ultimate in horror revenge films. Bringing aboard some old exploitation friends from earlier films (such as Isaac Hayes and Robert Forster), this film is a black as night satire of society and culture in the politically correct 1990’s. A soldier killed in Desert Storm returns from the grave to exact revenge, but not from who you would think. Funny coincidence: actor Timothy Bottoms, who plays Mr. Crandall in this film, would go on to play President George W. Bush in both the serious television movie “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis” and “That’s My Bush!”, the Comedy Central sitcom about the president from the creators of “South Park.”
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