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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Neon Maniacs (1986) review


Leilani Sarelle (Natalie), Allan Hayes (Steven), Donna Locke (Paula)

Directed by Joseph Mangine

A dozen increasingly bizarre looking serial killer monsters from another dimension emerge from inside the Golden Gate Bridge and embark on a killing spree in San Francisco. Setting their sights on the virginal Natalie, the only survivor of a night time slaughter that left all her high school friends dead, the creatures pursue Natalie and her new beau, Steven, throughout the city. Discovering that water can destroy the maniacs, Natalie, Steven and others prepare for an attack at the high school battle of the bands by the troupe of inter dimensional killers.

Frequent director of photography, Joseph Mangine directs this fitfully insane and nonsensically messy cult horror flick, loved by some and hated by others. The ambitious script by first time scriptwriter, the late Mark Patrick Carducci (he committed suicide in 1997) has a great deal of potential and is chock full of wonderful ideas, but serious production problems crippled the movie in a number of ways. Subdistributor, Steven Mackler, had the film for a year, but failed to raise the money required for the production. During this time, there were some others interested in taking the reigns for this movie. Ken Weiderhorn (SHOCK WAVES, EYES OF A STRANGER) wanted to option it for another producer, but before he could obtain the rights, Mackler wrote Carducci a check to retain the production. It took four more years before the film ever raised enough financing to begin.

Initially, there was interest in bringing the director of THE SWORD & THE SORCERER (1982), Albert Pyun on board, but he was busy working on RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1985). Instead, the cinematographer of that same gritty barbarian cult favorite, Joseph Mangine, was enlisted to make his directorial debut. However, even more problems arose to plague the picture. The six week scheduled, 1.5 million movie suddenly ran into financial problems of one sort or another as well as disputes with the producer ultimately shut the film down for three months. This caused turmoil both in front of, and behind the camera. The original DP, Oliver Wood, left the film during the hiatus forcing Mangine to take over photographic duties in addition to his directing.

All of the maniacs, except for the actor playing 'The Hangman', were recast basically at the last minute. This provided a lot of nerve wracking stress and headache for not only Carducci, but the make up effects crew headed by the prolific Al Apone and Doug White. The most painfully obvious replacement is the Apeman character. The one seen during the opening assault (and again during the high school attack at the end) is played by a different actor for the bulk of the movie and this particular actor is noticeably smaller than the one seen at the outset.

The arduous task of fitting appliances for an almost entirely new cast of performers made for a harrowing and uncomfortable experience as both effects men were working on other projects in between their work on the resurrected NEON MANIACS. Originally, Rick Lazzarini (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, ALIENS) and Mark Shostrom (THE SWORD & THE SORCERER, THE BEASTMASTER) were assigned to the effects, but dropped out after disagreements with the films producers.

In going back to the potential scope of the movie, there were originally 27 maniacs in the film and the script was much bigger, but the budget just wouldn't allow for it. Apparently, judging by an old Fangoria article detailing the behind the scenes making of the picture, a number of scenes were cut, or simply removed from the script for time, or budget reasons. One scene involves the maniac called 'Decapitator', the one maniac that gets the least amount of screen time and also the only one you never see do anything aside from a couple of imposing shots. This particular maniac has twin cleavers for hands. Later in the film a character removes his hood to reveal he has no head! Another excised sequence occurs in the battle of the bands finale. The maniac called 'Axe' takes a shot at a basketball goal with a human head and one of the reptilian scavengers catches the bloody noggin.

As already mentioned, Carducci's script was very ambitious and contained a lot of potential for a true cult classic. For the title of the movie, Carducci used the title of a poem he'd written in college about the Hell's Angels. The title itself seems to have caused some confusion with viewers. In Fangoria issue 47 from 1985, Carducci says "They're new monsters", they only come out at night and they kill without reason. They are from another dimension and all they do is kill. They are assisted on their missions of death by two cyclopean midget reptile monsters called scavengers who use large hooks to drag the maniacs' victims back to their portal.

Even still, with all the problems that loomed over the production like a great storm, the movie is mostly a mess with little cohesion. Some sequences work beautifully and some of the action set pieces are exciting, but the disjointed nature of the film and lack of focus are painfully obvious resulting in a movie that is made all the more worse in that the script had an enormous amount of possibilities. It's definitely a time capsule movie in that it there is no way anyone would mistake it being made in any time period but the 1980's. The entire movie reeks of the decade from the clothes to the music. Not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on ones point of view.

Apparently the makers had high hopes for this movie becoming something of a franchise. I mean, there's a near endless stream of ideas in a dozen myriad dimension hopping fiends killing without rhyme or reason save for the sheer joy of it. When we first "see the maniacs", it's at the beginning. A fisherman finds a partially open storage room below the Golden Gate Bridge with a small cow skull jutting out. Picking up the bone, he finds a black case underneath and opening it reveals some odd tarot like cards that have the various visages of the Neon Maniacs on them. Well, it isn't difficult to figure out what happens next. The cards hidden inside the cows skull is never explained, nor is the origin of the creatures save for some brief shots that leave the impression they enter and exit our world through a portal (the scriptwriter confirms this, though).

Also, after massacring Natalie's friends, they eventually come after her for reasons never explained. It couldn't be because she has seen them since these monsters can seemingly come and go in an instant and also that they are incredibly strong and fear nothing save for their Achilles heel, water. Carducci stated that the character of Natalie represents purity and that the nature of evil is destroy all that that is pure. Later in the movie, Natalie throws that purity out the window after she and Steve escape the Maniacs assault on the school gym. They hide in an office and suddenly decide to have sex whilst the creatures search the premises for her. I guess an argument could be made that if you're gonna die, why not have a little fun first.

The genre savvy script even contains a character named Paula who is a horror movie junkie. Her room is adorned with various masks and movie posters. She also makes amateur horror movies with her friends and is the first individual to learn what it takes to kill the maniacs. Visiting the area under the Golden Gate Bridge at night where she found a large number of dead pigeons, she video tapes the maniacs coming out and witnesses one of them falling into a puddle of water. His hand dissolves (but eventually grows back) and the creature spies her in the bushes. This leads to a scene a few minutes later where the monster pays a visit to Paula, but she's ready with a squirt gun and a bucket of water. The creature then falls into the bathtub and Paula turns on the shower melting the monster into a pile of goo.

There's just too many characters, too many story arcs going on at once and not enough screen time to tie it all together properly. You have the Maniacs themselves who are the centerpiece. Then there's a good chunk of time spent with Natalie and her plight. This section of the film is handled quite well and realistically showcased. However, it contrasts wildly with the otherworldy nature of everything else around the seriousness paid to Natalie and the deaths of her friends and the effects it has not only on her, but the families of those who have turned up missing. There's also an attempt to weave a police investigation into the mix as well as the aforementioned monster fan, Paula, who gets almost equal screen time with the characters of Natalie and Steve.

The Neon Maniacs make up a motley crew of twelve psychotic murderers each with their own look and choice of weapon lending the impression of a deranged version of The Village People. Archer has a nightmarish look like a creepy character you would see in a fantasy film and his weapon is a crossbow. Axe is the insane maniac who enjoys his handiwork with an axe. Both Archer and Axe get a good amount of screen time. Axe is the first of the Maniacs to be seen and he gets one of the splashier scenes in the movie. Samurai is just as his name states, a Samurai. He doesn't look at all Japanese, though, but wears the traditional Feudal Era attire. He gets a good bit of screen time as well.

Juice is the science fiction Maniac in that his body is covered in metal and he has the ability to electrocute his victims. His skills later prove to be his downfall. His character is seen only a couple of times. Punk Biker is a big bike riding Maniac who is missing his nose. He's seen during the beginning slaughter and briefly at the end in the gym massacre. Slasher is the nod towards FRIDAY THE 13TH no doubt. He's seen a couple of times and that's it. He's involved in two very important set pieces, though.

Decapitator is seen the least of all of the Maniacs. He's visible during the scene wherein Paula films the creatures coming out from under the Golden Gate Bridge and again during the battle of the bands in the high school gym. One of the creepiest of the monsters, it would have been nice to have seen more of his character. Soldier is another character that isn't seen much although you do see him a bit during the end when he machine guns down a bunch of teenagers armed with water pistols(!) Ape is one of the more prominently seen of the Maniacs as well as the most obvious in terms of being recast as already discussed above. You never really see him do much of anything anyway except pound on objects, or simply grunt and growl.

Hangman is seen a few times and what's funny about him is that he has apparently hanged at some point or other as noted from his crumpled, broken neck. Mohawk is the energetic Indian Maniac who carries with him a spear and tomahawk. Doc is the last of the twelve and you see him a couple of times. He was one sequence to shine wherein he uses some ether to subdue a guard prior to ripping his heart from his body. The actor playing Doc is Andrew Divoff whom horror fans will remember from the WISHMASTER movies among many other credits.

NEON MANIACS (1986) got a spotty theatrical release, but again, financial troubles kept it from sustaining much theatrical play and it was soon forgotten about surfacing on video not long after. Amazingly, it played for a week in the theater in the small town I live in. There was about a half dozen people in attendance. Me and a friend went to the showing. After having read about the movie in Fangoria, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed after seeing the film since some of what was described in the article wasn't in the finished production.

Then Anchor Bay released this DVD edition sans much in the way of features save for a trailer and fairly informative insert detailing some of the problems that hindered what could have been a unique horror picture. It's a difficult movie to recommend because of the unevenness and erratic nature of the movie. Cult fans with a lower level of tolerance for bad movies will no doubt find something of interest. As it stands now, you will either like it, or not like it at all. A true missed opportunity snatched from the jaws of greatness by problems out of the control of those who had passion for the material.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD.


Carl (ILHM) said...

I passed this one up hundreds of times on DVD until it went OOP and I caught it on Youtube. Man do I wish I would have bought the DVD, I loved the film and thought it was an incredible effort for such a small and undermentioned film. It had the potential to be a new Nightbreed, and though it isnt great by any means, the makeup work is pretty impressive and the film was fun. Looking forward to buying.

As for the review, awesome. Pure awesome. I hope someone else finds this and can fully appreciate it, made my day!

venoms5 said...

Hey, thanks, Carl. That's an enormous compliment and I deeply appreciate it. Glad some others are fans of the film. I had to dig out my old and tattered issue of Fangoria to get the extra bits of info for the piece.

What's funny is most of the issues are in order, but the one I needed was stuck in amongst some much later issues so it took some time digging around for it. I didn't even realize the DVD was OOP!

Speaking of NIGHTBREED (saw that one in the theater, too), Clive Barker has found the missing footage and is trying to get the film released. You probably already know all that anyway, but it would be awesome if that film would get a worthy release as it was intended.

Going back to MANIACS, when I rewatched the film recently, I read through the end credits and realized there was even a soundtrack LP!

I do wish we could have seen Decapitator do something aside from looking ominous. In the Fango article it wasn't stated whether or not the scene where he is revealed to have no head was actually shot or not, just that it was there at least in the script.

And the head dribbling scene would have been cool to see as well. I think to do the original script justice, the film would have to be 2 1/2 to 3 hours long, or possibly do the mini series route with it. It was just too ambitious, IMO.

Carl (ILHM) said...

Im with you there, given an expanded runtime it could have accomplished much more, but NO I hadnt heard he finally found the footage, just two years ago at Fango he said it was still long gone and would never be seen again, that is fantastic news!! Very very excited about that. I hope more people get the chance to see Neon Maniacs in the mean time, like it or hate it, Neon Maniacs:Nightbreed::Hobgoblins:Gremlins

venoms5 said...

Here, check this link out, Carl...

Nat Bocking said...

My memories of this production are posted at

I'd love to see a copy of the Fangoria article about the 'making of'

venoms5 said...

Wow, that was an amazing read, Nat. An immense amount of thanks for sharing your post. Despite its flaws, the film is a true 80's artifact and curiosity piece. Its problems behind the scenes seems to have left a lot of bad memories for many involved in the production.

My copy of the Fangoria magazine with the article is pretty ratty. I wasn't even sure I still had it. I'll see if I can scan the article (or at least as much of it as possible) for you.

Again, thanks so much for sharing, Nat.

Brian (V5)

Kaijinu said...

That actually explains a lot of plot holes, and gave a lot more details on the monsters, which I admit, are really cool.

I saw this recently and I was hyped with what I'm seeing, though the ending was a bit of a let down, but otherwise a really cool slasher-monster flick.

I wish Biker Punk and Samurai had more screentime since they both had an interesting personas (and let's face it, we don't get a lot of Japanese themed slashers out there except that movie "Bloodbeat".)

What i don't get is why a scavenger dragged Archer away after accidentally (or did he?) hooking him.

Oh well...

venoms5 said...

I'd like to have seen more of Decapitator. To see the cut footage would be cool, too. The movie definitely had a great deal of potential. Well, there's always the hope for a NEON MANIACS remake!

Kaijinu said...

a remake? Never a big fan of those with all them CGI and stuff, but yeah, i guess it's worth a try, I mean look at "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" remake, it was awesome!

Decapitator, the fella that looks like a wrait h with giant cleavers for hands, right? Yeah, he looks cool, too bad we never get to see him kill. Him and Ape-man

venoms5 said...

In this films case, a remake could only improve and (hopefully) expand on the far too many cool concepts in the original. Yeah, that's Decapitator. Apparently scenes with him were shot but didn't make it into the finished movie. For one, his hood gets removed and its discovered he has no head.

MarsHottentot said...

venom5 - any way you could hook us up with a PDF of the Neon Maniacs script? I'd love to read it!

venoms5 said...

Sorry for the late reply, I am just now seeing this. I don't have a copy of the script, just what I read was altered, or changed from a Fangoria article I have in an issue from 1985.

It's possible you could find it uploaded online. There are numerous sites that feature movie scripts uploaded in PDF format.

scott carlson said...

Wow, you're like a total dumbass, treating this film like it was CITIZEN KANE.

venoms5 said...

@ Scott Carlson: It's been quite a while since I've seen a comment from a petulant man-child.... but then, I'm being presumptive by using the word 'man'.

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