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Q+A: WILLIAM LUSTIG, director of the original “MANIAC” and Big Boss of Blue Underground

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UK correspondent Tristan Thompson talks to Filmmaker, Italian Horror Movie fanatic, Anchor Bay entrepreneur and Blue Underground Honcho Bill Lustig about MANIAC, VIGILANTE, THE VIOLATION OF CLAUDIA and more!

“Like Ringing the Dinner Bell for the Horror Fans!”

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William Lustig

FANGORIA: What kind of cinema did you enjoy growing up with, Bill?

WILLIAM LUSTIG: Well, Italian movies were very strong during my younger years during the late sixties and seventies.  I was really bombarded with Italian exploitation movies in New York.  I saw BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE when I was just 13 and I think that was probably the most influential film for me.  I mean I was actually scared during that movie.  It was terrifying to watch.

FANG: All Italian exploitation?

LUSTIG: Man…I got hooked on Sergio Leone big time.  Spaghetti Westerns, giallo, horror, I would just wander into the cinema.  I just loved Italian exploitation.  Just give me Franco Nero, I’d love to work with that guy.  I met him once.

FANG: You’d probably want to ask him about that Enzo Castellari movie ANONYMOUS AVENGER getting a UK video release as VIGILANTE 2!

LUSTIG: Oh…I was thrilled…I couldn’t believe it!  Cheap video labels ripping off Italian rip offs….beautiful.  First off, let me say I love this movie!  It was called STREET LAW in the States.

FANG: I have the video sleeve with me.  I always thought it was cool, what’s written on the back…awesome!

LUSTIG: Yeah, yeah, yeah (reciting the words) “Both barrels buck shot ripping through their murderous bodies.  It’s the only way to stop the lousy bastards robbing, killing and maiming!”  Oh great…I was so thrilled when I picked this up, out of all the videos I’ve collected…this VIGILANTE 2 is the only one I have framed in my house.

FANG: You’ve been one of the most vocal supporters of ’Poliziotteschi’ totally underrated!  Of course you have you very own VIGILANTE you directed in 1983!

LUSTIG: It was strange for VIGILANTE, it did extremely well in Europe and it did ok in the States.  It’s continued to gain a certain amount of popularity ever since through video.

FANG: What a cast!  Robert Forster, Woody Strode, Rutanya Alda.  Fred Williamson must have been a blast to work with!

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VIGILANTE

 

LUSTIG: Fred Williamson is a smart man, so much different from his on-screen personality.  He’s a sophisticated businessman, he’s multi-lingual, we can sit in an Italian restaurant and he can speak fluent Italian.  When we worked together on VIGILANTE I was so surprised at his level of sophistication.  Great guy, always kidding around, we sometimes get together for a round of golf.

violclaFANG: I must ask you about another movie you worked on – 1977’s THE VIOLATION OF CLAUDIA.

LUSTIG: Oh no, no, no, why you ask me of this (laughing).  You said you wanted to talk about Joe and MANIAC (laughing).  Yes, that was when I was involved in the making of porno movies when I was at an age where I was too young to see them.  I was 17 for God’s sake!  I was working in different production companies.  I was only 19 when I started to direct, not whole movies, which were the linking scenes…the in-between stuff!

FANG: The in-between stuff?

LUSTIG: The non-sex scenes (laughing).  The beauty of it all at the time was it was all 35mm.  It was great hands-on experience, it was real production stuff.  I wasn’t any part of any ‘video-age’ …that was the next generation.  Looking back…it was terribly sophisticated or even sexually attractive.  Here I was making movies for older men with dirty minds and I was at an age where…if I got laid it was like…WOW…THAT WAS IT!!!!!

FANG: Considering the multi-billion dollar pornography industry, did you ever think about continuing in that direction?

LUSTIG: Porno movies, man that was just BOOM town!  It was the one and only ever genre where guys could literally become millionaires overnight.  For myself I was disinterested.  I put all my resources into THE VIOLATION OF CLAUDIA on the production aspect of it.  Direction, production, promotion and distribution…it was very successful.  It also gave me credibility at a time when credibility was hard to earn.

FANG: I guess that qualified you to direct Joe Spinell.

LUSTIG: Joe was a very important part of my life during those early years.  We met while I was working as a Production Assistant.  Out of the actors that I met Joe was the only one who’d talk to me.  He shared my love of horror movies and we’d go to the movies together and we began talking about doing a movie together.  I mean here I was…just 17 years old…talking about directing a movie.  It’s kind of dreamy.

FANG: But you managed it and delivered MANIAC upon the world!

LUSTIG: I believed in it.  I really wanted to do it.  While we were in pre-production of MANIAC Joe was offered a big part in a Spielberg produced film called USED CARS (1980).  He was offered a role that would pay him $10,000 a week which, for a character-actor, was very good.  And he turned it down because he was committed to MANIAC.

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Joe Spinell in MANIAC

 

FANG: How was making MANIAC for you personally?

LUSTIG: It is weird, there’s part of me that’s needs to struggle to appreciate a movie.  Like, if I’m committed then making a movie simply can’t be easy.  The struggle of it almost becomes part of the creation process.  This is a movie I’ve just watched grow and grow for over 20 years!

FANG: And you originally wanted Daria Nicolodi in the Caroline Munro role?

LUSTIG: Truth is…Caroline’s role was originally intended for Daria Nicolodi.  I had worked doing production service for Dario Argento the year before on INFERNO in New York.  While shooting the movie there was a Fangoria Convention in New York.  Both Caroline Munro and Tom Savini were guests.  Tom mentioned to her he was working on a horror film with Joe.  Joe and Caroline had worked together on STAR CRASH.  One thing led to another, we started talking and she came onboard for the movie.

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Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro

 

FANG: It must have been incredible taking MANIAC to Cannes.

LUSTIG: Thrill of my life.  It was completely wild.  I was offered a lot to go to festivals but the foreign sales agent was very selective of where we should attend.  In retrospect he was wrong.  Joe was a real showman….

FANG: Of course in a world of HOSTEL and A SERBIAN FILM it is difficult to imagine the barrage of criticism thrown at MANIAC in 1980.

LUSTIG: Oh, I didn’t start hearing all the negative…bad criticism until much later.  I mean, I knew we’d get buried in America but we also knew we had an exploitation film.  Overseas, the first country we opened up in was Germany and we actually got some good reviews.  Well, in the press anyway…I’m sure we got some bad reviews too.

FANG: MANIAC was heavily cut on the original 80’s British video release and even refused Exploited Video a certificate in the 90s.

LUSTIG: Well, most people know I’m opposed to censorship and that’s not because of MANIAC. Though I don’t think there’s anything in MANIAC profound or like I’m an artist being censored, I just feel adults should see what adults want to see. Adults shouldn’t be treated like children and I DON’T trust politicians. I don’t trust people who are put into an office to decide what I should and shouldn’t see…history has shown that these people are corruptible. I mean I totally hate the BBFC and I don’t know how people can accept this. I believe in a ratings system for theatres, cinemas and stores but that’s not censorship. I know the BBFC are letting more stuff through than before but I feel the day you’ve made progress is the day when the BBFC stop cutting movies for adults. The BBFC are being wined and dined by Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and Universal and they don’t give them guys and grief at all…that’s the reality…they’re corrupted people. They’re politicians. I remember some time ago I sent someone in the UK soundtrack CD-ROMS of MANIAC…music for God’s sake (!!!)…and they were seized by UK customs. Incredible…I couldn’t believe it…they just saw the cover of MANIAC and thought that’s banned and seized it. This is appalling…this is the Tailbahn with an English accent.

FANG: MANIAC broke some real barriers….no mysterious masked killers and endless POV shots…MANIAC gave us an insight into the killer’s mind…his life.

LUSTIG: Well, Joe did an incredible amount of research into the Frank Zito character.  He cherished that character.  To Joe…Frank Zito as to him what Frankenstein was to Karloff.  You know, I’m surprised that MANIAC has lasted over 20 years since its initial release anywhere.  It’s amazing.  For me, it was like ringing the dinner bell for the horror fans.

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Tom Savini and Joe Spinell with a special friend

 

FANG: Did Tom Savini and Joe Spinell get along?

LUSTIG: Oh yeah (breaking into a grin) very much so!

FANG: Even though Joe Spinell was raving that he’d bust Savini’s nose in a PSYCHOTRONIC MAGAZINE interview?

LUSTIG: Well, what happened was, we started getting backlash from the genre press and Tom wanted to cover his tracks.  He wanted to disown MANIAC and said something like doing the film with sleazy guys and it was a sleazy picture…this and that.  This really hurt Joe because when we screened the movie for the very first time Savini was hugging us and saying “Wow, you kept everything in the movie!”  He loved it and was actually helping promote the movie.  All of a sudden the controversy began and it was like…whoa…I don’t know these people.

There’s one thing you learn in life and that’s you many say something, say, ten years ago, even five years ago or even just three months ago and you may, well, want to take it back.  Life goes on, can’t walk around having a grudge.  I met up with Savini for the audio commentary of Maniac and we’re still friends as we were back then.

FANG: Did you ever seriously consider the proposals for a possible MANIAC 2?

LUSTIG: I was approached so many times and to be honest I never quite knew what to do with it.  Joe was really wanted to do a sequel to MANIAC.  I had absolutely no desire to make a MANIAC 2, there was just no where to go with it.  MANIAC wasn’t Jason Vorhees in FRIDAY THE 13th.  Frank Zito and MANIAC wasn’t any mythical character.  Joe had based the character in reality…so where do you go with it.

FANG: There always was THE LAST HORROR FILM.

LUSTIG: Yeah, that was actually produced by Caroline Munro’s then-husband Judd Hamilton with the investors he had brought into MANIAC.  It was such a success that they had doubled their money within 6 months.

FANG: With that kind of success and Joe Spinell wanting it to go ahead, you must have been under some kind of pressure to take MANIAC 2 up!

LUSTIG: Yeah, well finally a company owned by Walter Manley came along and was willing to buy me out and have Joe star in the sequel.  I mean…what am I gonna do…I just said…go do the movie!

FANG: That was filmed by Buddy Giovinazzo as MANIAC 2: MR ROBBIE – some 8 minutes of footage was shot.

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MANIAC 2: MR. ROBBIE

 

LUSTIG: Yes, unfortunately and tragically Joe died in pre-production.  Just when the finance came through and when they were right on top of it.

FANG: This must have been a very painful time for you considering you closeness with Joe.  There were many stories and rumours circulating his death at the time.

LUSTIG: Well, sadly Joe was an alcoholic and a drug addict.  And when I say that, I say it in hope that maybe somebody somewhere can assess their life.  I would never try and exploit Joe’s death but I would give him dignity.  I tell you the kind of guy Joe was, the last time I was with him I gave him $50 and we walked along Broadway.  Along the streets they have these islands where the homeless guys sleep, Joe took that $50 and put it in the hand of one of these guys and it was one of the guys who wasn’t even asking for money.  That’s what kind of guy Joe was, he lived life to the full and had a bigger heart!

FANG: Did you see much of Joe before his death in ‘89?

LUSTIG: I was worried about him.  I had seen him in New York and he wasn’t looking good.  I called a mutual friend and said we’d have to do something.  Towards the end Joe was looking so out of it.  Next thing I heard…Joe’s gone!

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Please note this interview was conducted before the remake of MANIAC was completed and thus questions here focus on Lustig’s film itself.

Thanks to Trevor Barley @ Media Publications, Paul Brown @ Midnight Media, Buddy Giovinazzo & Peter Howse

SEE ALSO: Buddy Giovinazzo’s lovely tribute to the late Joe Spinell HERE.

About the author
Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson is the author of THE ILSA CHRONICLES (a study of the ILSA SHE WOLF OF THE SS movies) & BLAZING MAGNUMS (classic Italian Cop-Crime movies of the 70s). Former editor of IT'S ONLY A MOVIE fanzine and a contributing writer of many cult film publications including THE DARKSIDE, SHIVERS, NEON, DELIRIUM & IS IT UNCUT?. Tristan has been working with FAB Press on the UK cult-film festival circuit since 2003.
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