William Lustig is a true renaissance man of exploitation cinema, having directed, written, or produced some of the genre’s most adored cult favorites such as Maniac, Vigilante, and the Maniac Cop Trilogy. BlueBloodAngeleno recently had a moment to speak with him about his career in exploitation as well as being C.E.O. of Blue Underground, a maverick in the realm of DVD, out to revive and restore the 42nd Street experience for your viewing pleasure.
Brian Quinn from the Grindhouse Film Festival was telling me about your guys’ screening of Maniac Cop 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse for Fango-Con a couple of months back. How was it?
Well, much to my delight there was a sold out crowd of enthusiastic fans. I am always apprehensive about screenings of my films because I’m always thinking that, ah, who really wants to see a film that’s fifteen—twenty years old or something, but yeah, it seems like there’s a great appetite to see 35mm projection of some of these films.
So, lets’ go back to the beginning. 1977. Under the alias Billy Bagg, your debut as a—
Ah, you’re dragging up porn.
Yeah, how did your working in that come about?
Well, back in the seventies, especially in New York, there was a boom of adult films being made as a result of the success of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones. They were 35mm productions intended for theatrical release and were accrued by the people who were also crew members on main stream films. I served an apprenticeship working on adult films, in various capacities, and then I got the opportunity to get the financing to make my own. And I made two.
Hot Honey and the successful Violation of Claudia, right?
The Grindhouse theaters on 42nd Street were in full force the same time your film career began to take off. What films or experiences changed your perceptions of cinema on The Deuce?
I spent a great deal of my youth hanging out in theaters on 42nd Street because they would show, nearly twenty-four hours a day, various genre films up on the big screen. It was a film buff’s wet dream to be able to go from theater to theater and see such a variance of films. From adult films to westerns to horror to action to art house Fellini movies, all of which played on 42nd Street. So it was a smorgasbord over there of just every kind of film imaginable.
Those theaters were known for their wild audiences. Do you have a favorite audience story?
The most memorable audience experience I had down there was at the first screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I had never seen an audience react to a movie as they did for Chainsaw. It was indescribable. It was like, this was the movie that so many movies released before Chainsaw promised to deliver that actually delivered. And the audience, to say they were appreciative would be an understatement. They just went absolutely berserk.
Let’s talk about Maniac. Can you tell us a little about your friendship with Joe Spinell and how the collaboration for the film came about?
I met Joe Spinal during the production of The Seven-Ups in New York. I recognized him from The Godfather movies and he was a very approachable actor. He was very blue collar in the sense that he had none of the heirs of some of the other actors who were working on that film. So, he was very approachable and loved horror movies. We started talking about our favorite horror films and from there we stared to hang out together going to see movies at all hours of the day on 42nd Street. You know, Joe was an insomniac. He’d call me up at two in the morning and say, “Let’s go catch the three AM show of The Hollywood Hillside Strangler,” and I would jump in a taxi and meet him. It was a lot of fun. We saw tons of movies and all of a sudden we started to say, “Hey, we can make our own movie and we can make it designed exactly for what the audience wants over here.” And hence, Maniac.
The film’s brutality was met with controversy but still went on to be a financial success. How many people have approached you in wanting to do a modern remake of Maniac?
Well, there is one that’s in the works right now.
Yeah, and the agreements are nearly signed, so I don’t want to discuss it until it is signed but it’s a proposed twelve million dollar remake of a movie we made for forty-eight thousand dollars.
Upon the critics screening of Maniac, Gene Siskel was said to have stormed out after watching only 30 minutes of the film, claiming that the film “could not redeem itself.” On March 25th, the Grindhouse Film Festival will be paying tribute to your career in exploitation by screening Maniac along with Hit List at the New Beverly. Do you have a critique on the sweetness of redemption for the ghost of Gene Siskel?
I think that Gene Siskel’s reaction was motivated more by a political movement at that time to want to suppress movies like Maniac. They felt as though there were too many of them and Maniac, because of its advertising, became kind of the poster child of those films. I don’t think it was specific to Maniac and what I have found over the years where Maniac did not receive a single good review upon its release, over the years it’s gotten a very respectable review. And, I don’t know, but it has somehow stood the testament of time and don’t ask me why. I have my suspicions. I think Joe’s performance has become recognized as being a very multi-layered performance that most serial killer movies don’t have. Also, I think it represents a period of time in an urban setting that no longer exists and there is a certain nostalgia to that. I just don’t think they make movies like that anymore, you know? It was kind of an unabashed exploitation film. There’s a lot of films out there that are strong films but there was something very accessible about Maniac being a low budget, crudely made film. But these are only pure speculation on my part and it clearly has stood the test of time. You know, for a company to want to do a big budget remake says a lot.
Yeah, I think that the film speaks for itself and it’s just a great collaboration at the perfect time.
Nowadays, as the C.E.O. of Blue Underground (blue-underground.com), a DVD company that specializes in salvaging many obscure cult classics, most of which once played the Deuce, how do you go about choosing the films you want to restore and release?
Initially, it was a lot easier than it is today ‘cause we were breaking new ground and there were a lot of films available that were interesting films we wanted to put out. Especially, when I was acquiring films for Anchor Bay, there were even more films available then. Now, I think most of the films that we want to put out are available either through Blue Underground, Anchor Bay, or other companies. It has become a business now of repurposing the titles that we own for new media like Blue-ray than it is of acquiring new films. Although, we always are looking.
I saw online that Blue Underground will be releasing restored versions of Sergio Sollima’s Violent City with Bronson and Savalas, Hitch-Hike with David Hess and Franco Nero, and the shockumentary Mondo Cane films. What else is next for Blue Underground?
Well, we’re gonna start releasing Blu-ray in the fourth quarter of this year and we’re working on that right now.
So, I guess it’s safe to say that thanks to companies like Blue Underground, the spirit of 42nd street truly is alive and well?
Oh, absolutely. What’s even more important is that I think we treat the films with a great deal of respect. I think we’ve taken the films that were the best of the Grindhouse films and given them a polish and the respect that they deserve.
WILLIAM LUSTIG TRIBUTE SHOWING MANIAC AND HIT LIST AT NEW BEVERLY CINEMA, 7165 W. BEVERLY BLVD., LOS ANGELES. NEWBEVCINEMA.COM.