Director William Lustig and screenwriter Larry Cohen created the iconic grindhouse B-movie Maniac Cop in 1988. It’s pretty fun — a slasher with cop trappings, which basically means he uses handcuffs, billy clubs, revolvers and other implements of “justice” to deadly ends. Insert contemporary ACAB jokes as you must, but the original is pretty unsparing on the police force of the late 1980s. Its titular character is a decent cop punished by corrupt superiors, and the only two members of the force who can stop him happen to be engaged in an extramarital affair. There are plenty of jokes about members of the public not trusting the police to have their best interests at heart as the cops reckon with a serial killer who makes them targets in the public eye. That first film isn’t the best work from the duo, but It has a lot of fun kills and a great, grimy atmosphere.
They followed the success of their first film with 1990’s Maniac Cop 2, which eschewed the horror angle in favor of a more action-oriented approach. It’s widely regarded as better than the first; I disagree, but more on that in a second. The two subsequently made 1993’s Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence, but its production was so troubled by the demands of their financial partners that Lustig ultimately removed his name from the film. The director’s commentary still credits him as Alan Smithee, the classic pseudonym used by directors to disown their work.
In interviews, Lustig has stated Maniac Cop 2 might be the best film he’s made, a stark difference from how he feels about Maniac Cop 3. Nonetheless, the two have now been given deluxe upgraded 4K UHD releases via Lustig’s own cult restoration label, Blue Underground. I was fortunate enough to be provided review copies of these releases. Here are my thoughts on each of them — the films, the restorations, the entire package.
Maniac Cop 2
Maniac Cop 2 is a lateral step from Maniac Cop, much in the same way other classic sequels have redefined themselves. It’s comparable to the transition from The Evil Dead to Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, the classic films by Lustig’s friend and occasional collaborator Sam Raimi, although that comparison also overstates the level of relative quality between the two series. Maniac Cop is not The Evil Dead and Maniac Cop 2 is certainly no Evil Dead 2. That’s not to say it’s without merit, only that I don’t want to misrepresent Maniac Cop 2 except to say it’s a swerve from the first in unexpected ways.
First and foremost is the decision to tone down the relative amount of murders committed by our beloved Maniac Cop. The first film reveals his origin: He was an honest cop betrayed by the commissioner and sent to prison, where he was “murdered” by other inmates. His resurrection of sorts gave him some level of invulnerability, and in 2, he’s even more deformed and vengeful. There are still some good kills here, of course, and the final action scene features one hell of a great fire-suit scene.
But most of the film is taken up by our new protagonist, police detective Sean Cunningham (Robert Davi), as he pursues the Cop and another serial killer who is actively praying on exotic dancers. The “creepy guy who looks like Mick Foley killing hot women” angle allows for an extra layer of sleaze, but for the most part, the movie lacks the same bonkers slasher energy as the first. At the same time, your mileage may vary, as it’s a classic among fans of the series and fans of late-’80s action-horror.
The 4K restoration looks great although it’s not as drastic an improvement as the new scan of Maniac Cop 3. The Blu-ray included in the package is the same released by Blue Underground in 2013. Special features are substantial and include a commentary with director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose involvement in a rumored Maniac Cop remake is now a decade or so old. I do hope it still happens.
Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence
Time heals all wounds, an adage that apparently applies to Maniac Cop 3 which has been long disowned by its creators. In terms of quality, deservedly so: There are a few good kills here, but they can’t save a movie more mutilated than any victim of Maniac Cop. Davi returns because the moneymen wanted him but plays an entirely different character because the role was written that way. Filler scenes stitch together a quasi-Bride of Maniac Cop plot that takes too long to start and never gets particularly interesting. Voodoo is involved in the Cop’s resurrection this time, a relic of when the movie was supposed to feature a Black lead before the moneymen, worried about returns on investments, told them “no.” It’s neither a good movie nor an adequate capper to the if-nothing-else entertaining first two entries.
In contrast to the film itself, the restoration here is astounding compared to previous releases. Despite its infamy, Maniac Cop 3 got a lot of play on late-night channels and it isn’t hard to find nostalgic retrospectives of it online. There’s an audience out there that isn’t coming to this series fresh and who want to see the film they remember in their mind’s eye. The new 4K UHD release of Maniac Cop 3 is the freshest, clearest version that has ever existed on a home-video format, and it’s honestly shocking how much better it looks than previous releases.
Lustig started Blue Underground to restore the kinds of grindhouse / cult entertainment he himself made in the 1980s and 1990s. Beyond the economics of it, it’s a noble endeavor; even the films that may not play to contemporary audiences have a place in someone’s history and it’s worth preserving them. In that regard, he’s done an incredible job with Maniac Cop 2 and Maniac Cop 3, creating definitive editions of both films for fans new and old. It’s a shame he doesn’t have the rights to do the same with the first film, which remains my favorite of the three and also deserves this kind of love and attention.
Special features include trailers, as well as a director’s commentary with Lustig under the name Alan Smithee.