Actor Robert Z’Dar died on Monday, March 30 2015, age 64, of a cardiac arrest in Pensacola, Florida, while attending a local comic convention. In his time he had been a football player, Chippendale dancer, Chicago cop, but most certainly the jut-jawed giant (the result of a medical condition called cherubism) was known for his acting, and though he had featured roles in movies such as TANGO AND CASH and THE NIGHT STALKER, he was better known for his low-budget work, and for taking the titular role in what has become the MANIAC COP trilogy. And while the character may not have reached the public recognition of Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger or even Chucky, he still deserves some notice.
The idea for MANIAC COP came from the twisted mind of filmmaker Larry Cohen, who always possessed this knack for coming up with terrific B-movie plots that play on people’s innate fears (“What if the ambulance that comes to help you instead takes you to be killed?” “What if you gave birth to a monstrous mutant?” “What if there was a foodstuff that devoured you as you devoured it?”). In this instance, Cohen came up with the notion of the idea that a policeman, a guardian of law and order we’re (usually) raised to turn to for protection, might be the last one you should approach.
The script he produced was eventually made by William Lustig (MANIAC, VIGILANTE), who came up with the tagline “You have the right to remain silent… forever!”). Together Lustig and Cohen would work on all three MANIAC COP movies, as well as UNCLE SAM. The MANIAC COP movies would be Lustig’s most famous work (though it’d be tough to ignore the unrelated MANIAC, for its sheer sleaze value.
And Sleaze Rules with the first MANIAC COP (which, along with the Twin Towers shots, huge hair, characters who smoke and synthesiser music, fixes the movie in its time period). It opens with a waitress leaving work to have some movie punks hassle her. She fights them off, gets chased by them, and runs to the figure of a uniformed cop swinging his nightstick. Bad move: he lifts her up by the throat and strangles her, without going after the punks.
But nobody believes the punks’ story of a cop doing it, except for Lt Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS), though of course no one believes him or the witnesses left behind, or at least they want to keep it quiet – why? More civilians die in creative ways, and the public begins to arm themselves and pre-emptively shoot dead innocent cops. Now we’re introduced to cop Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell – anyone heard of him?), who becomes prime suspect because of his short temper and the fact that his wife is killed after she catches him in a motel room with another woman. But is Jack really the killer?
(Spoiler: of course not. It’s former cop Matt Cordell (Z’Dar), whose zeal for the law made Judge Dredd look like Notorious B.I.G., and who ended up in prison by a cabal of corrupt judges and politicians. There, Cordell was slashed to f**k in the showers, declared dead by a sympathetic coroner, and eventually made his way back to the Big Apple to exact some vengeance on… well, I’m not quite sure why Cordell is mostly attacking innocent crime victims.)
MANIAC COP works primarily because it plays more like an ’80s action movie than a horror/slasher film, complete with gunfights and car chases. It also benefits from a cool cast, including Campbell (who is still early enough in his career at this point not to simply play himself), Atkins, Richard Roundtree as the Police Commissioner (Commissioner Shaft? I’d vote for him!), Larry Cohen collaborator Laurene Landon (THE STUFF) as a policewoman and Campbell’s lover, and B-movie veteran William Smith as a corrupt police captain. There’s also a fast pace and a sly black humour (one victim, who ends up face down in wet cement, has to be jackhammered out by the coroners).
MANIAC COP 2 picks up right after the events of the first film (one of the advantages of keeping the same filmmaking team together), when Cordell’s body is not found, and no one believes Campbell’s and Landon’s story that it was Cordell (everyone else in the first film who might have supported them was killed). And soon, they too are killed off by Cordell, leading us to the next stars: grizzled Detective McKinney (Robert Davi, THE GOONIES) and police psychiatrist Susan Riley (BABYLON 5’s Claudia Christensen), both of whom become the subsequent witnesses no one else believes.
Cordell, meanwhile, teams up with serial killer Turkell (Leo Rossi, RELENTLESS), so much so that when Turkell is arrested and locked up, Cordell bursts into the police station and does a Terminator-style rampage (the highlight of the movie), taking him, Riley and several other criminals with him to the prison where Cordell was locked up, ostensibly to free the others and lead an army of crooks. McKinney, meanwhile, tries to strongarm some of the corrupt judges and politicians into confessing and hopefully ending Cordell’s rampage and letting him rest in peace.
MANIAC COP 2 proves to be a superior movie to the first one, with a more consistent tone and pace, as it more fully embraces its slasher movie roots and makes Cordell Jason With A Badge: super strong, silent (except for one scene where he speaks his name) and invincible, though unlike his murderous brethren he isn’t afraid to use guns. With the first movie, there was at least an attempt to make Cordell a believable character, but this is abandoned, and this works in its favour.
MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE picks up immediately where the second one left off, with Cordell being laid to rest after several corrupt bad guys confessed to setting him up. But a voodoo priest (Julian Harris) resurrects him once more to do his bidding, we’re introduced to another policewoman, Katie Sullivan (Gretchen Becker), whom Cordell takes a shine to. I could go into more detail, but the third one is a distinct disappointment, unnecessary and aimless, making little of Cordell. It’s good to see Davi in a straight hero role instead of the drug barons and mercenaries he usually plays, and there are a few creative deaths worthy of the era, but there’s little else to recommend it. If you get it as part of a cheap DVD box seat as I had, so be it, but otherwise…
There is talk of Lustig and Cohen remaking MANIAC COP, but I’m hoping that they don’t go through with it, and not just because of Z’dar’s death. It’s a product of its time, and maybe the idea of a homicidal cop would be seen in a different light today.
The trilogy is available now on DVD and VOD, and the trailers for the three movies are below.
Director: William Lustig
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars (average)
Gore: 3 out of 10 skulls (average)
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. You have the right to remain Silent but Deadly.