Under the Radar: William Lustig

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My favorite aspect of being an online film journalist — or blogger, if you’re a fan of brevity — is the opportunities it offers to meet my heroes. When those heroes bear names few people have heard of, it’s all the more rewarding. Absent is the narcissistic desire for future name-dropping, and in its place grows the realization of a true movie-geek dream. That being said, William Lustig is a name every fan of exploitation and horror should know. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest things about Lustig is that his films are of such a high caliber that they resonate even with those who harbor no passion for grindhouse cinema. I recently interviewed Mr. Lustig for Cinematical in conjunction with his visit to Austin to host screenings of three of his films at the Alamo Drafthouse — each screening being immortalized with its very own limited edition Mondo Tees poster.

Here’s the interview that inspired me to provide this crash course in Lustigology.

Much like Martin Scorsese, William Lustig is a filmmaker whose identity is inextricably linked to New York City. His films explore the authentic grittiness of the big city as well as some absurdly magnificent supernatural elements. He never skimps on the genre-based shocks and thrills, but his films are sharper, more ambitious, and far more competent than the vast majority of the cult films of his era. Here are a few Lustig essentials with which you should acquaint yourself…

ManiacManiac (1980)

In what should have been a conventional serial-killer flick, Maniac is a masterpiece of low-budget artistry. Lustig gets an awe-inspiring, career-defining performance out of lead actor Joe Spinell, whose psychotic murderer Frank Zito is truly the stuff of nightmares. The entire story is told from Zito’s perspective, which lends a dark introspection to Maniac and dares you to sympathize with this monster. The cinematography is far more refined than one would expect from an exploitation film, and even the grisly horror effects are beautifully executed — a credit to the master of practical horror, Tom Savini. Lustig’s all-consuming love for horror shines through the grime and allows Maniac to stand out among its contemporaries.

vigilanteVigilante (1983)

Here, again, Lustig takes what should be painfully standard exploitation fare and hones it into something remarkable. This time it’s a revenge film about a blue-collar factory worker whose wife and son are attacked by a gangster. When that gangster manages to cheat the system and get released, the grieving father turns to his coworkers — who moonlight as, what else, vigilantes — for help. Once again, the performances and the photography really elevate the material. Your heart goes out to Robert Forster as he exhausts every legal recourse at his disposal and ends up having to venture into a bloodstained moral gray area to find justice. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is superb as the toughest member of this self-appointed law enforcement squad, and the fact that they ride around in a big black van gives the movie a sadistic A-Team vibe.

Maniac CopManiac Cop (1988)

Of the three films covered here, Maniac Cop is by far the most absurd. It’s about an NYPD super cop who gets too close to uncovering political corruption and is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. While in prison, he is murdered by the criminals he helped put there. But he returns from the grave to get his vengeance on the police force, politicians and anyone found guilty…of being in his way. Maniac Cop is 50 lbs of fun in a 20 lb bag. It’s one of the only times a slasher film and an action film find glorious communion in a single movie as the film features just as much amazing stunt work as it does brutal slayings. Maniac Cop is also a who’s who of cult icons: Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins, Robert Z’Dar, Richard Roundtree and William Smith. I dare you not to enjoy it.

William Lustig has proven himself a hero to movie geeks not only as a director but also as a distributor. His company, Blue Underground, has released stunning transfers of some of the greatest cult and horror films of all time. Sergio Corbucci’s off-the-wall Western, Django, Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, and Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage are just a few of the films given a pristine high-def treatment by Blue Underground — in addition to Lustig’s own Maniac and Vigilante. Later this year, the company will also give us Blu-rays of Fulci’s Zombie and House by the Cemetery. Like most of us, Lustig is a movie geek, one who not only made movies especially for us but also founded an entire distribution company because he got so tired of spending too much to import Japanese Laserdiscs that he opted to license the films himself. My hat’s off to you, sir.