Hollywood is still reeling from last week’s passing of actor Robert Z’Dar at the age of 64. Born Robert James Zdarsky, Z’Dar carved himself a niche in the film industry by becoming the quintessential villain and had roles in such big-budget movies as Tango & Cash and Mobsters. Z’Dar’s most famous role, however, was that of the title character in the 1988 cult classic slasher movie Maniac Cop.
Maniac Cop begins with New York City being terrorized by a madman who kills his victims while wearing a police uniform. Police Lieutenant Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins from The Fog and Halloween III: Season of the Witch) is put in charge of investigating the homicides, but once word gets out that a crooked cop is responsible, the city flies into a panic. Officer Jack Forrest (The Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell) is suspected of being the killer by his wife, Ellen (Victoria Catlin from Ghoulies), but it turns out that he is just having an affair with a fellow officer named Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon from Hundra).
When Ellen turns up murdered, Jack is arrested and the police think that they’ve got their man – all of them except for McCrae and Mallory, who learn that Jack is innocent when they discover that the real Maniac Cop is a disgraced officer named Matt Cordell (Z’Dar) who was presumed to have been killed in prison. McCrae and Mallory fight to free Jack and stop the real killer before he can strike again.
Maniac Cop, 80s Horror Icons, and Robert Z’Dar
A seemingly perfect storm of eighties horror icons, Maniac Cop was written by Larry Cohen (Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff), directed by William Lustig (Maniac, Uncle Sam), and shot by the under-appreciated exploitation grindhouse cinematographer James Lemmo (Madman, Ms .45). Add to that the onscreen one-two punch of Tom Atkins, who was quickly becoming horror royalty even without help from his John Carpenter roles because of movies like Night of the Creeps and The New Kids, and Bruce Campbell, who was in his prime right between Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, and Maniac Cop becomes a schlock horror fan’s dream. The film itself is part slasher and part cop drama, but it’s all bloody good fun, and it’s lovingly and carefully constructed by a bunch of Masters of Horror.
Despite the charismatic presences of Atkins and Campbell, the real star of Maniac Cop is Robert Z’Dar. Suffering from a medical condition called Cherubism that gave the actor an enlarged and prominent jaw, Z’Dar had a distinct look that lent itself well to a villainous appearance, so he was often cast as the antagonists in his movies. He’s played everything from the Angel of Death in Soultaker to a rampaging punk rocker in Grotesque, but Maniac Cop is the film by which he will be remembered – and fondly, too. The role of Matt Cordell required a recognizable look, a physical presence, and some surprisingly versatile acting ability, and Z’Dar brought it all to his performance. It’s impossible to imagine the title character in Maniac Cop being portrayed by anyone other than Robert Z’Dar.
There are two slightly different versions of Maniac Cop: the American theatrical release, and the Japanese television version. The Japanese cut of the film, which has since been released on DVD in the States, is about six minutes longer and contains a handful of slightly extended scenes. The most significant difference is the ending; the original release has the type of cliffhanger ending that is typical of the American slasher movie, while the Japanese version has an additional scene that leaves less to the imagination of the audience. Both versions are readily available, so there’s nothing really sought-after in the longer edition, but viewers should still be aware of which cut of Maniac Cop that they’re seeing.
A Slasher-Rooted Cop Drama
Because Maniac Cop is, at its root, a slasher movie, it boasts some pretty cool special effects makeup. The effects were done by John Naulin (Night Train to Terror, Deadly Blessing), and they include all sorts of fun stuff like swords through the throat and gunshots to the head. There are also some more creative kills, such as in one scene where Cordell presses a victim’s face into a patch of wet cement until the guy suffocates (and is jackhammered out of the dried sidewalk the next day by workers). In addition to the blood and guts effects, Naulin adds scars and wounds to Robert Z’Dar’s already imposing face, making him look as horrifying as, well, a Maniac Cop. An eighties slasher movie is only as good as its practical makeup effects, and John Naulin’s work in Maniac Cop is up there with the best.
The music to Maniac Cop was composed by Jay Chattaway (Silver Bullet, Maniac), and it is both suspenseful and exciting, the perfect marriage of a cop show soundtrack and a horror movie score. Like most low-budget eighties horror movie scores, the score is mostly electronic, and it slips effortlessly from heart-pounding rhythmic sequences that drive the action scenes to spine-chilling ethereal pieces that add uncomfortable dissonance during the more creepy segments. Whether it’s there to excite or terrify, every note of Chattaway’s score drips with suspense and tension, and his synthesized, nightmare-inducing music is a big part of why Maniac Cop is the cult classic that it is today.
Robert Z’Dar would reprise his role as Matt Cordell in two Maniac Cop sequels, Maniac Cop 2 and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence. Although he worked steadily from the mid-eighties until the time of his death, Robert Z’Dar will be remembered mostly for the Maniac Cop movies, and that’s not a bad thing; he holds an unforgettable place in popular culture with his spot-on performance of a well-loved character.