Lt. Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) is hot on the trail of a serial killer whom he suspects is a cop. The first big break in the case comes when Officer Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is arrested. However, it isn’t long before McCrae and Officer Mallory (Laurene Landon) are onto the real killer, a cop (Robert Z’Dar) sent to Sing Sing where he was thought murdered by his fellow inmates.
Maniac Cop (1988) is a classic Larry Cohen production. It’s an action packed, pulpy and sometimes sleazy thriller full of gritty locations and gore. Director William Lustig brings to the film the same keen sense of subtle genre subversion as he did to his masterpiece Vigilante (1982). Maniac Cop breaks the rules of its genre in a number of ways, but most notably in how the film discards its protagonist, McCrae, two-thirds of the way through.
Watching Maniac Cop as the world continues to cry out for the defunding of the police one can’t help but read the film as a warning about the truths we all now know. Z’Dar’s killer cop, before being sent to the big house, was aided and abetted by city hall in his use of excessive force. To avoid scandal the powers that be sent him away presuming that he’d be killed in prison. But this kind of systemic violent oppression has a way of coming back.
In the dialogue during the scenes of McCrae’s investigation, police complain that it’s not like the good old days; signifying a nostalgia for a time when brutality was permissible. This is juxtaposed by a sequence of TV news interviews where people, black and white, speak about the atrocities they have witnessed the NYPD commit. The world of Maniac Cop is a closed circuit of police violence just like our own except for the titular villain himself.
Maniac Cop is the anti-Dirty Harry (1971) and a precursor to a political movement too long in the making. The relevancy of Cohen’s exploitation classic cannot be understated nor can it be believed in some ways. Perhaps the meaning of Manic Cop escaped its makers at the time because it seems unfathomable that a picture that is so anti-cop could have been made in the conservative eighties.