Maniac on the loose!

Looking for a real cool time? Trash Film Orgy at the Crest is just your kinda tingler.

Scenes from <i>Maniac</i>: Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, demonstrating an impromptu Heimlich maneuver on Kelly Piper in a subway restroom.

Scenes from Maniac: Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, demonstrating an impromptu Heimlich maneuver on Kelly Piper in a subway restroom.

A piano soundtrack loop reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which straddles that uncomfortable border between the creepy and the laughably obnoxious, builds to a crescendo. Onscreen, two men in a battered blue Peugeot station wagon bump along a deserted forest road; the porn-star mustache on one dates the film to around the late ’70s.

A naked blond woman bathes beside a creek. The station wagon stops. (Quick—when did you ever see a federal agent driving anything other than a stripped-down Ford or Chrysler product, much less a clattery, French-made, diesel-powered hooptie more suited to tweedy college professors?) As she dresses, one of the men takes aim: Blam!

Immediately the two agents realize their mistake. Too late—they’re quickly whacked by backwoods pot growers who look more like Carter-era college students than the kind of hippie misanthropes that periodically used to stumble out of the Santa Cruz Mountains toting a blood-encrusted Bowie knife, a head full of LSD and a pocketful of severed human knuckles.

Meanwhile, back at headquarters, deputies assume the bust has gone awry, so they immediately telephone a drunken hillbilly mutant and cajole him into spraying a top-secret government herbicide à la paraquat on the hippies’ illicit crop from his biplane. The mutant argues with his vicious shrew of a wife, who hurls raw chicken innards at him, then he takes a few massive swigs off his bottle of Old Grandpappy killdevil and goes airborne—while the hippies, sensing trouble, race to harvest their greenbud.

Rita Montone, playing a hooker who learns the meaning of the word “scalped.”

Wow, man, what’s that groovy white powder falling from the sky? Guess we’ll soon find out, eh?

A family camps nearby: a tent, a red Volkswagen microbus. Dad, sporting the kind of yellow fishing hat Cake frontman John McCrea might kill for, barbecues weenies and beans and tells the wife that, by golly, it’s good to get those bratty kids out to experience real wilderness. Nearby, a teenage daughter, who looks closer to 35 than 15, leads her retarded brother, a 20-something who clings to some sort of stuffed rodent, down a trail.

Now, this is a film where the director doesn’t waste much time developing characters; most of these warm bodies function more as foreshadowing, like a shotgun hanging over the mantel in the first act of a play—you know it’ll be fired by curtain call. And if there’s a man onscreen blithely roasting frankfurters, you can bank that he’ll make for a rather gruesome anatomy lesson by the time the credits roll.

Whiffing blood, the audience begins to stir. Or at least a few hecklers do. Onscreen, an agent dictates a telegram for his secretary to dispatch to headquarters in Washington. Soon the hecklers are yelling, “Stop!” each time he finishes a sentence. And by the time the blood and entrails start flying toward the screen with a vengeance, a good portion of the crowd is whipped up into a midnight-movie frenzy.

Welcome to this summer’s Trash Film Orgy festival at the Crest Theatre. The six-week, midnight every Saturday series favors such directors as Chuck McCrann (whose 1980 film described above, Bloodeaters, also was released as Blood Butchers and Toxic Zombies and, on video in the U.K., as Forest of Fear), William Lustig and Ray Dennis Steckler over better-known names like Spielberg and Scorcese.

Spinell as Zito, looking for a warm body—his own.

While suburban multiplex theatres, and the giant entertainment colossi that service them, still cater to thrill-hungry teens with what director Lustig calls “Roman numeral dead teenager films,” those movies tend to rehash a formula that’s long on shock value and short on actual gore content. Sure, they may share an insectile attitude toward character development with their more low-budget brethren. And that guy in the ski mask may be gleefully slashing his way through a cabin full of jiggly undie-clad airheads, which you won’t see in the latest après-shopping spree chick flick starring Helen Hunt. But you’re not going to watch mask boy pause to experience the sensual pleasures of rubbing himself with warm and bloody body parts once he’s finished a-hacking and a-hewing.

“A lot of people perceive what we’re showing as an attempt at what the multiplexes are showing that failed,” says Keith Lowell Jensen, the series’ organizer. “They say, ‘Oh, it’s so bad, it’s such a failure that it’s funny.’ I don’t see it that way at all. These are independent filmmakers that had a really original idea where the idea was enough to carry it; they didn’t have a big budget to carry it, they didn’t have acting to carry it.”

Jensen, whose alter-ego Francois Fly hosts the Trash Film Orgy shows, honed his interactive approach to entertainment during a nine-month run at the Colonial Theatre on Stockton Boulevard a few years ago with his Grindhouse series, showing such films as Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1968 masterpiece She-Devils on Wheels—with real women riding motorcycles into the theater during the intermission. While you probably won’t see any bikers roaring into the Crest any time soon, Jensen and his current Trash Film Orgy crew of six have other surprises planned.

Lustig’s 1980 film Maniac will be screened this Saturday, and the filmmaker will be on hand to watch people respond to this prescient film. “A lot of things that people now realize are the common threads between serial killers are profiled in that movie,” Jensen says. “You know—the collecting, especially with his mom, the talking to himself.”

The late Joe Spinell, a Lester Bangs lookalike who’d been cast in bit parts in Taxi Driver and the first two Godfather and Rocky films, among others, here portrays a serial-murdering character named Frank Zito. Lustig seems to have loosely patterned Zito after David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam” killer who’d been active a few years earlier; both stalked their prey across New York’s underbelly, and both were obsessed with killing women.

Director William “Wild Bill” Lustig with the old Grindhouse crew. That’s Keith Jensen pointing at him.

“Somebody mentioned to me, ‘Why don’t you do Jaws on land?’ ” Lustig recalls. “And it was with that basic idea that Maniac came out of; that lit the fuse.”

Lustig, a New York native, now lives in L.A., where he produces DVD titles for Anchor Bay Entertainment; he also looks to acquire or license what he calls “Eurotrash cinema”—spaghetti Westerns, Hammer Studio horror films and the like. Although not currently directing, the 46-year-old Lustig’s filmography contains 12 titles, from a pair of 1977 porn movies (Hot Honey and The Violation of Claudia) credited to “Billy Bagg,” to his most recent horror flick, Uncle Sam (1997); included are three Maniac Cop movies.

His oeuvre contains a few cult classics, including Maniac. What makes Maniac work is that it isn’t afraid to take an unflinching look at a person most of us would rather not spend time with. Who wants to hang out with someone who’s obsessed with his dead mother—a prostitute who abused him as a child, then died in a car crash—who sets up a creepy shrine to mum in his small apartment, with lots of votive candles and department-store mannequins?

Since those dummies come without hair, Zito starts scalping victims to cover their heads—a couple at the beach, a very real-looking street hooker, a couple getting it on in the back seat of a Buick under the Verazzano Narrows Bridge (the man, played by makeup artist Tom Zavini, is splattered by Zito’s shotgun in one of the film’s gorier scenes), a nurse chased down into a deserted subway station. In the latter, one of Maniac’s more effective sequences, Jay Chattaway’s electronic music works to build suspense as Zito toys with his latest victim. Sure, it might be easier to just buy some wigs, but then there would be no movie.

Later, Zito meets a leggy English fashion photographer (Carolyn Munro) in the park. It seems strange, after watching him mumble through a few choice Norman Bates soliloquies directed at his mannequins, to see him show up at the photographer’s studio wearing one of the ugliest camel and brown leisure-suit combos ever committed to celluloid, carrying a teddy bear for a gift.

Weirder still, she buys it. In one of the more classic “huh?” moments on film, he asks her—on their first date—if they can swing by the cemetery on the way to the restaurant. “I, uh, gotta pay my respects,” he mutters.

If you figured their date went south right here, you’re correct. And while it would be a crime to give away the ending, suffice it to say that Zito finally loses his head over a girl, and that the color red is prominently featured.