Contains mild spoilers.
Not your typical zombie film this one, though just because vengeance from beyond the grave doesn't come in a brainless, shuffling and highly infectious box doesn't mean we should pass it up. That he also seems to have some capacity for free-will and independent and cognisant, albeit downright sociopathic and nasty thought, shouldn't necessary rule it out either; nor the fact he can drive, shoot guns, get around in broad daylight, and understand the intricacies of a complicated stitch up… That he might not be actually dead, however, might be a bit of a problem….
Director William Lustig, and writer, director Larry Cohen's cult eighties slasher is a nasty, uncompromising police thriller / slasher that immediately evokes parallels to all the great, albeit cheesy, early eighties gratuitous in your face murder-fun, most especially Friday the 13th. Like Friday the 13th there's the endless barrage of indiscriminate killings, a faceless enemy who always has the upper hand, newspaper cuttings and a mystery pointing to someone who might be (of course is) behind it all, and a hapless hero, seemingly picked at random, who just might save the day. The thing is, as good as Maniac Cop is, and it is, unlike Friday the 13th, or even Halloween, it has actually all kind of been done before and not being fresh does count. Even maniac cop himself aka Officer Matthew Cordell (Robert Z'Dar) is strikingly alike in build, temperament and the rather generic manner in which he quietly goes about stabbing, slashing, throttling, with both supernatural strength and unnaturally compliant support.
Is he dead though and does it matter? I do tend to try and get as close as one can, what with such inherently ambiguous life and death play, to the some kind of answers. He's billed as 'vengeance' from 'beyond the grave', yet there's a scene where it's clearly intimated he's still alive, albeit pretty broken and brain-dead after his prison beat down, and his doctor does point out he was technically alive when he handed him over to girlfriend Sally Noland (Sheree North). Yet, for someone who's got a pulse he a) can't half take a lot of damage, even shots to the head, b) does appear deliberately macabre and corpse like, c) does seem to have a strange supernatural knack to be both in the right place at the right time and have an influence on his surroundings, and d) takes quite the blow at the end and is definitely dead in the two sequels. Anyway, undead / brain-dead / ambiguous / left unanswered; to my questions, don't no, no, probably semantics and doesn't really matter.
For a film that cost just $1m the sets, scenes and action is all surprisingly fleshed out; with plenty of coherent and expansive shots set across the city complimenting the tight, claustrophobic trauma of a focused unstoppable psychopath on the public streets or inside a supposed fortress. For such an array of acting talent; Bruce Campbell as Officer Jack W. Forrest, Jr, Tom Atkins as Detective Lieutenant Frank McCrae and Laurene Landon as Officer Theresa Mallory the standout three; the performances are solid and professional if maybe not a lot more. Campbell especially, for someone on the back of Evil Dead II is rather subdued, even deflated and other than for a lively and brief chase scene near the end demonstrates none of his trademark eccentricity or enthusiasm.
Maniac Cop ticks a lot of the right boxes. A well told, interesting, pacey story with plenty of hack and slash, suspense, intrigue, and twists and turns; yet it's all rather safe and dare I say mostly derivative, even in the murder scenes. I'm not saying it’s a bad film; far from it; for a near hour and half of silly eighties slasher fun I can heartily recommend it, especially as a short reprise from Friday the 13th reruns; just don't expect anything particularly new. Is it a zombie film? No; but it's not clear and he is dead, mysterious and inhuman enough to warrant a look even if I have now probably opened the proverbial can of worms to all vengeance from grave horror fun, including main man, Jason, himself - 6/10.