William Lustig was born Feb. 1, 1955 in the Bronx and lived in New York City most of his life. He’s a nephew of boxer Jake LaMotta (his mom is Jake’s sister). He once worked as a theatre usher in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “I lived in the New York area for 30 years. I kind of felt like I did my time there and that’s when I started coming out here (L. A.) a lot. I took some film classes at NYU. That’s when Haig Manoogian was the head of the film department. I was in one of his classes and I had a hard night the night before. I’d been out drinking and partying and whatever, and I was in his class with a hangover, drinking coffee, and in the back of the room and they were showing this student film, and I was the last guy in the world who I wanted him to call on for comments about the film, but sure enough he realized the mood that I was in and called on me and I said ‘Hey, that’s a movie I’d only show to my family and friends.’ And he goes ‘Lustig, the only movie you understand is Mandingo (1975).”
Young Lustig worked as a production assistant or assistant editor on some major NYC location movies including The Seven-Ups (1973) and Death Wish (1974) and did similar jobs and was even a casting director for X rated movies. “I started working in my mid-teens, mid to late teens. I started to work on adult movies, which were very popular at the time. They’re still popular, but back then they were real movies shot on 35 mm. Back then it was like goldmine time. Everybody who had a few bucks was putting money into that because of Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), and so I worked on a whole bunch of those. And then I directed my first one when I was 21.
Lustig (using the name Billy Bagg) produced, directed and edited The Violation of Claudia (1977). A tennis instructor (Jamie Gillis) leads a wealthy but neglected NYC housewife (Sharon Mitchell) into a brief life of being a call girl. She eventually decides to return to her husband but finds him in bed with Gillis. Also with Long Jean Silver (she has a stump leg) Hot Honey (1978), also by “Bagg” stars Heather Young as the virginal Honey. She lives with her brother (Jamie Gillis again), who is in a wheelchair after a car accident. Serena is his nurse. Honey ends up having sex with both her brother and the nurse. Also with NYC cable TV star Robin Byrd (who was in a number of hard core features).
What was your early film industry experience like within New York’s 70’s adult industry?
William Lustig: The adult film industry in the ’70s was boomtown. Deep Throat was making millions, and there was a lot of interest in seeing adult films in theaters. They were made in 35-millimeter, and there was no differential between making an adult film, and making a horror film or any other kind of movie. In fact, the first adult film I worked on, the crew had just come off the film Super Fly. They were telling tales about making Super Fly, that they had just literally finished the week before they started working on this adult film. A lot of times, the crews kind of went as groups. They worked as teams. Some of them were in the union, but they would work non-union. They’d do it under different names. That first adult film was called Hypnorotica, and it had something to do with a psychiatrist and hypnotizing people, and going back into things that fucked them up. And of course, it all had a sexual beat in there of some kind. But that’s about as much as I remember.
I do remember doing something so absurd, and that was having to build the interior of a Vietnamese hut in an office on Broadway. It was supposed to be a guy having a flashback to Vietnam, and somehow we’re in a hut in an office at 1600 Broadway. I made a little bit of a living doing that, not much. I directed two adult films, but worked on probably another half-dozen more. It was a small independent world in the film industry in New York. And as far as the casts, I think probably every one I worked on had Jamie Gillis. He would show up in practically ever one of them. You know, there was this one casting person, and I thought about this the other day for some reason. Her name was Dorothy Palmer. And nobody knows about this, but she was the casting person for adult movies on the East Coast. Her office was at 250 West 57th Street, the Fisk Building, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. And she was an older lady. I mean, I was in my early-20s at the time, so everyone looked old. She was probably at the time in her 40s or early-50s. But there was nothing about her, if you met her on the street, that told you she was the adult casting person. But she was.
How has the NYC movie going experience changed since you first went to a city movie theater?
William Lustig: One of the things that saddens me is that when I grew up in New York, I had an abundance of places to see different kinds of movies. There were multiple repertory theaters in each area of New York where they’d show double features on a daily basis. The Bleecker Street Cinema, the Thalia Theater uptown, the Carnegie Hall Cinema it went on and on. There were so many theaters out there showing both recent and older Hollywood films. Mostly Hollywood and art house films. And you had 42nd street, which was showing new and old films. And you had all of these places where you could go see movies on a big screen. That was the incredible part of it. You know, today you have multiplexes in neighborhoods playing the same fucking movies. If I wanna go to Union Square, if I wanna go to Kip’s Bay.
So, lets’ go back to the beginning. 1977. Under the alias Billy Bagg, how did your working in porn come about?
William Lustig: 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.
There were many people during that time who made the jump between adult and exploitation films. It was very common. You learned the tools of the trade there.
William Lustig: Absolutely. Adult films were my film school. I was able to learn the equipment, you learn proficiency. You learn how to shoot quick, how to be proficient with your time, and you get the insight into the equipment you need to make low budget movies. First and foremost as a director you need to know how to tell a story, but second you need to have the knowledge of the tools to be able to pull it off. What the adult business did was it gave me the knowledge of the tools.
And you don’t have the ability to go over budget or shoot extra days in porn.
William Lustig: You’re really disciplined. It’s because it was shot like real movies, there was a crew of up to 10-15 people – that’s not huge but that’s a real crew. That’s why you don’t see people coming out of adult movies these days and going into exploitation or anything, because they’re just making these quickies and gonzo films.
How did you make the transition from porn to straight movies? Was it easier back then to make that leap?
William Lustig: Actually it was inevitable because when you were doing adult movies you were shooting them like regular movies. It wasn’t like today where those movies were made on DV cams and are made in two days. Two days? They’re made in an hour! But it was a lot different than; you were playing the films in theaters, you had stories, there was some modicum of acting and they weren’t just gonzo films.
So you started out directing adult movies. What are some of the biggest parallels between directing porn and directing exploitation horror?
William Lustig: Back then, it was identical because porn films were being shot on 35-millimeter and 16-millimeter for theatrical release. So the process, from a technical standpoint, was exactly the same. There really wasn’t that big a difference as far as the making of the films. Obviously, there’s different values that are important in them, but it really wasn’t, at that time, much different. In fact, the very first adult film that I worked on as a production assistant, the crew had just come off of working on a movie that became Super Fly.
Maniac (1980) was made in that magic period between Halloween and the flood of cartoon slasher films when things were wide open and filmmakers could go a little wild. It was an extremely dark, sleazy, ugly picture. A film where you can actually smell the piss. As brutal as it was, it was a smart and stylish character portrait of a serial killer long before Henry.
Maniac remains Lustig’s best and most singular film, in part as a result of several accidents and happy coincidences. Because they had no money to pay for things like permits, they had to shoot the film guerilla style around the streets and subways of Manhattan. The budget also forced them to shoot in 16mm, which allowed them to shoot with a lot more natural light and the small camera made handheld shots easy and at times, necessary. It gave the film not only a beautifully realistic atmosphere, but also a direct immediacy you wouldn’t find with 35mm. It was shot in 26 days. Robert Lindsay was the cinematographer.
Because they had no studio or producers looking over their shoulder they were free to push things as far as they wanted (and they got pretty nasty). And there’s no underestimating Spinell’s contribution to the script and the character, who’s much more complicated than your run of the mill Michael Myers or Jason. The film really is a showcase for Spinell and he’s fantastic and terrifying. It was released in 1980 by Analysis with a self imposed X rating.
There are also a number of nice, deliberate touches here as well: the sometimes fuzzy line between Frank’s inner life and the outside world, the fact that inside his apartment you never hear any external noise and a sidewalk shot of Frank looking in a store window that’s subtle but telling, like Travis Bickle on the pay phone. The score too, spare as it is, only feeds the warped atmosphere that permeates the whole picture.
“I met Joe Spinell on THE SEVEN UPS and we became instant friends and we started hanging out together. We started going to the movies a lot and we both had a love for low budget movies. As a matter of fact, I would say he’s the first adult who ever gave me encouragement in my passion to make genre movies, or whatever you want to call them. I was really into hard action and the horror pictures, like the Dario Argento and Mario Bava films, and even the Roger Corman-type films from California. I used to go to 42nd St. all the time and watch these movies and Joe began going along with me because he also enjoyed them, and we started saying ‘We gotta make a horror film together.’ So we started developing a script called Slayride and that script…I forgot the reason, but that script, we were never able to get the financing together, and then we said ‘we’re going to make a movie, and we’re calling it MANIAC and uh, how much money do you have?’ And we brought in a friend of mine, Andrew Garroni, and we all threw some money into a bank account and we had $48,000 between the three of us, and we started making the movie. The total cash budget was $135,000. The actual final cost of the film, with deferments and unpaid bills and all the rest, was about $350,000. And it was very successful. As a matter of fact we were in profits on the film two weeks after I got the answer prints out of the lab.
Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) was abused as a child by his prostitute mother, and as a result, becomes a serial killer who murders young women, scalps them and attaches their hair to mannequins. After he awakens from a nightmare about killing a couple on a beach, he dresses and leaves his apartment towards Manhattan into Times Square. When Frank is randomly invited inside a hotel by a prostitute (Rita Motone), she kisses him before he abruptly strangles and scalps her. He then returns home and adds the hooker to his mannequin collection by placing her clothing and nailing the scalp onto the mannequin; he tells himself that beauty is a crime punishable by death.
Sometime later, he dresses again and takes a collection of weaponry with him, including a double-barrelled shotgun, before leaving. He drives around Brooklyn and the Queens area, where he finds a couple exiting a local disco and parking near the side of the Verrazano Bridge. When the boyfriend (Tom Savini) starts up the vehicle after his date sees Frank spying on them, Frank kills the couple with his shotgun and then adds the woman to his mannequin collection. After seeing his recent crime on television, he talks to himself and the mannequins as he sobs himself to sleep.
During the next day in Central Park, Frank follows a photographer named Anna (Caroline Munro) after she takes a photo of him and a little girl riding a bicycle in the distance. At night, Frank sees a nurse (Kelly Piper) leaving the Roosevelt Hospital, where he then stalks her inside the subway station and murders her with a bayonet before adding her to his mannequin collection. Days later, Frank heads to Anna’s apartment and is invited inside by Anna after she recognizes him from the photo she took of him. Upon him asking her out to dinner, he later shows her a photo of his mother who died in a car crash years ago. A few days later, Frank is invited by Anna to a studio during a photography session, and she introduces one of her models Rita (Abigail Clayton) to him. After seeing the two talking and holding hands, he steals Rita’s necklace and leaves. Later that same night, he arrives at Rita’s apartment to give her her necklace, before then attacking her and tying her to the bed. Frank begins disorientingly talking by addressing her as his mother and stabs her with a switchblade before scalping her for his collection.
One night, Frank takes Anna on a date and they stop by a cemetery to visit his mother’s grave. While laying some flowers beside the headstone, Frank begins to mourn over one of his early victims and attacks Anna. He chases her around the cemetery, but she hits him in the arm with a shovel before fleeing. He hallucinates his decomposing mother attacking him from the grave. He runs back to his apartment, where he sees his mannequins suddenly coming alive. They mutilate Frank with his weapons before ultimately tearing off his head.
The next morning, two police officers break into Frank’s apartment and see Frank lying dead on his bed; he has committed suicide. As the officers leave the apartment, Frank’s eyes suddenly open.
I was told that the other writer on the picture, CA Rosenberg, is a woman.
William Lustig: Yes.
That’s interesting and seems like something a lot of people don’t know. This is one of the most extreme horror movies ever, and it was written by a woman! What did she bring to it?
William Lustig: She wrote the first draft of the movie, which was written more like a conventional cops chasing a serial killer. There were a lot of police in it, there was a detective. Joe wanted Jason Miller, his friend, to play the part. When Jason Miller dropped out of the project we decided that instead of replacing him to eliminate the police and to focus on the killer. We made it this lean, straightforward serial killer movie from the point of view of the serial killer and not to deviate from it and never show the world outside of his world. It made it a more intense movie. Plus we amped up the violence in the film.
Is it true that the inception for Maniac was somebody suggesting that you make ‘Jaws on land’?
William Lustig: I joke about it but it’s really true. That was the first thought. Then it went further into making a character that was a compilation of 70’s serial killers.
It was obviously a time period where there were a number of serial killers that were stalking streets.
William Lustig: The 70’s I considered to be the golden age of serial killers. You had Ted Bundy. You had Henry Lee Lucas. You had John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz. You had all of these really colorful serial killers. Today serial killers are mostly that weird guy down the street who kidnaps, rapes and murders. Very boring. Back in the 70s, these guys had panache! John Wayne Gacy was a clown at children’s birthday parties during the day, and at night he’d stalk the streets picking up young boys, bringing them back to his home where he would have sex with them, kill them, and bury them under his house. How much more interesting a character can that be? Henry Lee Lucas, his mother used to dress him up as a girl because she wanted a girl. I could go on and on. David Burkowitz getting orders from his neighbor’s dog. Ted Bundy was the kind of guy who girls were still wetting themselves over when he was on trial for all the murders. They considered him to be so handsome and charismatic and charming and all the rest.
What was the media coverage of the “Son of Sam” murders like in New York City in 1976-77?
William Lustig: I remember it very clearly. When I talk to audiences, I talk about the ’70’s as being the “Golden Age” of serial killers. Because today, the serial killers tend to be these people who we find out is some white trash in a trailer park who buries a girl in the backyard, or they do something horrendous. And it’s terrible, but somehow in the ’70s you had some really colorful people. Remember, Son of Sam was writing to Jimmy Breslin at the New York Daily News, so we were hooked on getting the newspaper. There wasn’t CNN. We were grabbing the newspaper off the newsstand to read about the latest installment of the Son of Sam. You know, we take for granted today the 24-hour news cycle. But back then, it was like getting the early edition of the Daily News, and hearing the latest about this killer on the loose, and following on a day-by-day basis, and only getting those tidbits that you could read in a newspaper. And it was exciting. It was suspenseful. I can put on the news now, and I’ll hear every little update about [Christopher Dorner] on the loose. You know, there’s no suspense. There’s no interest. I’ll tell you, it was like living in a pulp novel. That’s what the ’70’s were like with all these serial killers.They thought the Son of Sam had a fetish for women with a certain color hair. And women were going to their hair salons to change the color of their hair to make them a less-likely target. I even remember going to a newsstand one day, and the guy’s looking at me and says, “Boy, you look just like the sketch on the cover.” It was that kind of a thing. I mean, it was really interesting.
So a fear of serial killers was really in the zeitgeist around the time you wrote and produced Maniac?
William Lustig: It was a fear and fascination.
What were some of your cinematic influences while directing Maniac?
William Lustig: The films that I was thinking about were like a cross between Texas Chainsaw Massacre — I thought a lot about that — and Honeymoon Killers. I mean, there are bits and pieces from other movies where I look at the scenes and I remember what I was thinking when I shot them. I remember the opening title sequence being inspired by the movie Man on the Roof, a Swedish movie. I mean, it’s crazy, but these are the things that were in there. The scene where the girl is in the apartment, and she’s taking a bath, and the camera’s sort of lurking through the halls, I kept thinking about Repulsion. So I look at the movie, and I can feel the greatest hits of the different scenes and what I was thinking. You know, the scene in the subway was to me Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I know it in no way reflects it, but that’s what I was thinking. As far as the rhythm of the shots, and the movement and everything, I was thinking of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The look and feel of the picture was very much in our thoughts, always. We wanted to create this feeling of the gritty underbelly of New York.
Did the aesthetic you formed during your years in the adult film industry influence the extreme nature of Maniac?
William Lustig: Yes it did, in one respect. I recall a meeting I once had with a famous pornographer at his office, who criticized my adult films as being too mainstream, maybe even vanilla And he looked at me across his desk and he said, you know, the secret to success in this business is, if there’s something that really appalls, something that you don’t want your family to ever see, something that you think would make audiences cringe, shoot it.” And the fact is that, although he was talking about pornography – and I noticed that, even in his recent video films, the guy does exactly that. I did apply it to Maniac and I did apply it to Vigilante. If you’re going to make an exploitation film, make it an exploitation film, you know? Don’t sugar coat it, don’t try to make it something that it isn’t just go for it. If that’s the kind of film you’re making, make sure you deliver what the audience wants and more. And that – to varying degrees – has always been my approach to every film that I do, it’s always been my thinking.
Many critics have remarked on how well Joe Spinell captured the character of Frank Zito and really, it seems the film owes a lot of its strength to his performance.
William Lustig: If I had to list the attributes of Maniac, certainly Joe would be number one. Joe spent a great deal of time researching the character, and one of the things that affected me about working with him was seeing how he took people around him and incorporated them into the character. I had an apartment office at the time we made the picture, and it overlooked a courtyard looking into another apartment building, and there was a young boy who sat at the edge of the bed for most of the day, walking back and forth with his upper body just rocking back and forth. Joe used to watch him and incorporated that into the character on those moments when Frank is walking back and forth beside the bed.
What struck me so much about Maniac is how Joe’s character manages to elicit sympathy, despite his outrageous acts of cruelty You don’t really get that in the genre despite the fact that the story – of a killer on the loose in an urban setting – continues to be quite common.
William Lustig: That’s because these other characters – the Jasons and Michael Myers – are faceless evil and here evil has a face on it. The reality is that when you set aside the despicable acts of some of these people, they are human I’m sure there are people in this life who love Timothy McVeigh and if you got to know somebody like that and could put out of your mind what that person did, there may be aspects of him that you may find genuinely appealing. That to me is why, to me, evil is not so black and white. There’s a reality to it.
Do you have fond memories of the shoot or was it a difficult experience?
William Lustig: Well I have fond memories because I guess when you have a very difficult, challenging experience like making this picture, if you get through it successfully, you look back fondly on it! It was, at the time, almost insurmountable to get through, mainly because we had no money at all. I mean, we made the film with S48,000 and there were every day obstacles, challenges, you name it. Every day things came up that made me think this is the end.” At the time I just wanted to get through the day. We’d run out of money and we’d have to pay the crew and miracles would happen. We were making this movie hand to mouth and it was enormously difficult.
Obviously the special effects continue to be a big part of the film’s success. How much of it did you write around Tom Savini’s work?
William Lustig: A great deal of it was written around what Tom had available to him. I wish I could remember back to some of the things that we were originally going to do in the film, but ! know when Tom came aboard it definitely affected the things that we did. Tom brought his imagination but we also, in some cases, used props he had from previous films because, again, we had no money. So we did to a great extent work around what he had. I suppose that would include the infamous shotgun sequence. Practically every person who has ever reviewed Maniac has referred to that scene as either an amazingly rendered effects sequence or one of the most disgusting things they have ever seen in a movie. That’s so funny because I remember shooting that very vividly, and incidentally, I do recall that being in the original script. It was what it was: we shot a live. fully-loaded, double-barreled shotgun and Tom was doubling Joe Spinell on the hood of the car, shooting his own head. And I remember shooting that on location – I don’t know why we did it on-location, looking back on the scene we could have easily gone some place more private. Of course, firing a live shot-gun in New York city is a problem, but of course we didn’t have any money to do any kind of effects otherwise. So, when we did the scene we had a car – actually the prop car for Spinell, the Buick Electra – we had it standing by with the trunk open and as soon as Tom fired the shotgun which, by the way, the force of the shotgun threw him ofr the front of the car backwards – if you watch the scene and you don’t look at the head but you look through the windshield you’ll see the feet of Tom Savini come out from under him and he literally flew backwards. We grabbed the shotgun from Tom who was lying on the ground in pain, and we threw it in the trunk of the car and said, “okay, head for New Jersey!” That was the spirit of making the picture.
Did Maniac hinder your career in any way?
William Lustig: Well at that time I had no career, so how can you hinder something that doesn’t exist? It was a very interesting thing because Maniac got a lot of fans from the weirdest places. 1 was flown to California by William Friedkin who had seen Maniac and continues to this day to consider it one of the most terrifying horror film experiences that he’s ever seen. There were quite a few fans of the film from the strangest places. And of course, on the other hand the film certainly wasn’t going to get me any mainstream work but nor was I looking for it. I have always been a self-starter. I am not a good employee. I am always better when I work for myself, so it was always my intention to produce my own picture so I was never really trying to gain acceptance from anybody – I really didn’t care. Actually, I kind of found it neat when people were appalled. I’ll never forget the thrill I had when the then-heads of Universal and the head of production walked out of the movie. I showed it to Roger Corman and he watched the first and the last reel and he looked up from his desk to me and he said cut the film to an R and I’ll distribute it. I’ve had quite a lot of fun experiences with the movie. I also remember showing it to AIP who refused to let me in the screening room and I had nowhere to go so I sat in their editing room and there was a print of a then unknown film called Mad Max, which started watching on the editing machine reel by reel and I thought, “aw man, this is fucking neat!” So even after they finished screening my movie I didn’t even bother going in to talk to the guy – I wanted to finish watching Mad Max!.
Jay Chattaway on Maniac (1980)
Maniac is your first film as a composer. The film and its soundtrack became cult. When we look at it, we realize that music is inseparable from the images, it creates this unique atmosphere of the lowlands of New York and makes even more resurgent the most neurotic feelings of the character totally inhabited by Joe Spinell. How did you approach the composition?
Jay Chattaway: Maniac was the first film I composed myself. Before that, I had orchestrated and directed Gato Barbieri’s composition on Michael Winner’s L’Arme au Poing . At the time I composed Maniac, I worked in New York as a record producer and sound arranger, I knew the city’s neighborhoods and its most sordid streets. When Bill Lustig hired me to work on Maniac he just let me compose freely based on my idea of ??the film and what it was going to be about. We decided that the character played by Joe Spinell had to be a little pathetic, to explain his psychotic behavior, hence the rather melodic approach of the musical theme. Although this one is melodic, it is accompanied by distorted sounds, more experimental, to represent the way an innocent soul could be affected by its education and its environment. The soundtrack was mostly electronic, but it was performed before the appearance of the musical sequencer and MIDI , so many of the twisted musical effects were achieved by changing the speed of the band machines and the acoustic instruments were recorded as well.
You have collaborated on the majority of William Lustig’s films. Can you tell us a little more about this relationship?
Jay Chattaway: Bill Lustig and I have become friends and trusted collaborators. At the time, he already had an amazing collection of movies. We sat down and watched a lot, especially some of Ennio Morricone’s early films, whose music is composed with very few instruments. We did not have big budgets on any of the films we did together, which taught us to work with a certain economy of means. It was probably more effective than if we had a big band.
When you look at your career and the films in which you took part, you have the impression of seeing a bunch of peeps coming together to make movies. The films of William Lustig obviously, but also the recurring presence of Joe Spinell, Sam Raimi in cameo, your work with Fred Williamson (who also plays in Vigilante ) on two of his achievements, Larry Cohen who worked as a screenwriter on both first Maniac Cop and for whom you composed the music of his film The Ambulance … A pleasant period, right?
Jay Chattaway: This period was very creative. This way composers could work on independent films, and you could meet a lot of accomplished and very creative filmmakers. They all had to get into other types of movies afterwards, and when they remember their working relationships they recommend you to new people. Thus, a “society” has been created. I am very happy to be part of this band and I am still in contact with many friends of this period.
Vigilante (1983) (filmed as Street Gang) was a gritty, downbeat, violent movie, also co-produced by Andrew Garroni. Robert Forster (who replaced Tony Musante after production started) stars as a New York family man and factory worker who joins a vigilante group with his co-worker Fred Williamson after his family is attacked and his kid is killed. He’s put on trial and goes to jail for assaulting the judge, but escapes for more revenge. With Carol Lynley as the Queens D.A., Joe Spinell as an attorney, Willie Colon, Rutanya Alda plus Woody Strode and Steve James (who both died in recent months). Film Ventures released it. Jay Chattaway wrote the score.
“Vigilante came about because of my experience with making MANIAC, through that experience, I got to travel around the world. And I was looking around for a film to make that would have international appeal, ’cause I got a real kick out of traveling around. I used to love those Franco Nero pictures of the ’70s. I really used to love those films. I used to go see all those, you know Enzo G. Castellari and Tomas Milian films and all those real hard edge movies. I used to love going to see those movies, those real hard edge retribution films, so I decided I was gonna make one that was like those kind of movies… and so the idea for Vigilante. Story wise, came from an actual character who was a mayor of some New Jersey town and that gave me the basic storyline, and I shot the movie like one of those Italian pictures, I shot in cinemascope, the music was very much Morricone type music and that was the approach i took on it. As a matter of fact, Woody Strode was kind of like my little homage. That was quite a cast. Bob was great. I mean, he’s one of my closest friends to this day. Fred Williamson, I still see him a couple of times here. He’s a great golfer, we play golf together.”
Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) is a factory worker in New York City. He has a wife named Vickie (Rutanya Alda) and an eight-year-old son named Scott (Dante Joseph). Eddie’s friend and co-worker, Nick (Fred Williamson), and two other co-workers, Burke and Ramon, have formed a secret vigilante group because Nick and the group are fed up with the crime in their neighborhoods. Nick and his group are also tired of the police, because the police always fail to protect people. Nick’s “group” has support of various residents of the neighborhood who indirectly help them. In one example, a local thug stalks and chases a young woman to a rooftop of an apartment building where the thug robs and then kills her. An old lady who witnesses the thug says nothing to the police, but points out the thug to Nick and his group the next day. Nick and his friends forcibly grab the thug off the streets and place him in their van and drive away. The thug is later found dead in a vacant lot with all of his arms and legs broken and his head bashed in. One evening, Eddie returns home from work only to discover that Vickie has been stabbed, and Scott has been shot dead in a home invasion which was in retaliation for Vickie aiding a gas station attendant who was being assaulted earlier. Frederico “Rico” Melendez (Willie Colón), the leader of a Puerto Rican street gang, is arrested for the crime. Assistant District Attorney Mary Fletcher (Carol Lynley) seeks a lengthy jail sentence, since New York does not have the death penalty. Nick tries to convince Eddie to join the vigilante group, but Eddie turns Nick down, preferring to let the courts handle Rico. Nick’s lack of faith in the system is proven correct when Rico is set free after his right-hand man, Prago (Don Blakely), bribes both Judge Sinclair (Vincent Beck) and Eisenburg (Joe Spinell), Rico’s attorney. Enraged, Eddie attacks the judge and is sentenced to 30 days in jail.
With Eddie in jail, the vigilante group tracks down the source of the drugs in their neighborhood. After roughing up a small-time drug dealer (Frank Pesce) and torturing his supplier, they are led to a high-ranking member of the New York mayor’s office. Meanwhile, in prison, Eddie befriends an inmate named Rake (Woody Strode) who saves him from being gang raped in the showers. As soon as Eddie is released from jail, he joins the vigilante group so he can track down and kill Rico, Prago, and Judge Sinclair. Eddie, Nick, Burke and Ramon confront Rico in his seedy apartment, where Rico denies killing Eddie’s son and insists it was Prago. An unmoved Eddie shoots him dead, but narrowly escapes death when Rico’s girlfriend attempts to shoot him; she wounds Burke instead, and Nick kills her in self-defense. Upon hearing about Rico’s death, Prago takes over command of the gang and mistakenly assumes that dirty cops killed Rico. The following night, Prago and the gang ambush a police car and kill both cops.
Vickie is released from the hospital, but refuses to come home to Eddie and she leaves him, unable to be in the very house where their son was killed. Eddie decides to move away, too, disgusted with himself over killing a man as well as in fear that the gang will track him down. Nick unsuccessfully attempts to persuade him to stay and fight. As Eddie leaves Brooklyn, he recognizes Prago and follows him on foot. Prago soon spots Eddie and they shoot at each other. Prago hijacks a car, and Eddie steals a car to follow him. The chase leads to a local dockyard mill where both cars crash. Eddie chases Prago on foot again, then confronts him on a storage tower. Sadistic and insane to the last, Prago admits to killing Scott, and then dares Eddie to kill him; Eddie responds by throwing Prago off the tower to his death without hesitating. Later, Eddie plants a bomb in Judge Sinclair’s car, then watches from a distance as it explodes and kills Sinclair. The film ends as Eddie drives away to an unknown destination.
Interview with director William Lustig
Did the notoriety of Maniac help Vigilante get made?
William Lustig: Not just the notoriety but the financial success. Maniac did well financially, and it made an impact in the foreign markets, so when we went to do Vigilante there was interest from distributors all over the world.
How much did Williamson’s monologue in Vigilante reflect your own perceptions of NYC crime?
William Lustig: The ’70s were dangerous. I would even say the early ’80’s were. I don’t think the city really started to turn around until really the ’90s. I mean, under Dinkins it was a nightmare. What an idiot he was. But certainly Fred Williamson’s sentiment was very much that of the ’70’s reactionary period of people just getting fed up with crime on the streets, and being afraid in their neighborhoods.
One of the things that always struck me about Vigilante is that it’s a really dark movie. Even for that time, when films about crime overrunning society were in vogue, Vigilante seems to be among the darkest and most nihilistic. Was that coming from a place where you were personally? Where did that tone come from?
William Lustig: It’s interesting because what I felt I was making was a potboiler, first and foremost. I guess what you’re probably responding to are a lot of the events that lead to Robert Forster going after the bad guys.
Yeah. The level of crime is so extreme.
William Lustig: If you’re making an urban retribution film, you kind of want to be more extreme. That’s what I tried to do with Vigilante, to make it the kind of film that would be a catharsis. You want to create events that will really rile audiences up so they get excited when the bad guys get their comeuppance. You want them to be doing extreme dastardly acts in order to get the audience’s blood boiling.
Although it was rooted in a then-contemporary New York, I thought of it more like a Western. At this point in time, people were fighting gangs. It was the rise of the gangs in the boroughs, and people were frightened of them, and still are.
William Lustig: Maniac and Vigilante were 100% New York. I think there’s an energy, there’s a feel, and the kind of actors that were in Vigilante are really only found in New York. You know, the supporting cast is a real New York cast. Bob Forster was a replacement. Originally it was Tony Musante, who has since forgiven me, by the way. I knew Fred Williamson. I grew up with Fred Williamson films, and I was thrilled to work with him. A friend of mine hung out at a bar that Fred Williamson was a regular at in Los Angeles. I was kicking around ideas for the supporting role, and my friend suggested Fred, and I flipped over it. And the fact that Fred did it, I was just like “Wow, that’s great!” Fred had tremendous star charisma. I haven’t seen Black Caesar in quite a while, but what I remember from the film is it had a real street feel to it, in the same way that Super Fly did. It didn’t feel “Hollywood”. It felt authentic. I think it had an interesting story which was straight out of the ’30s Warner Brothers films. And it had Fred, who was a great role model.
One of the reasons that film worked so well for me was the performance of Robert Forster. I think the pain he was able to communicate with his character was a little more relatable I guess than Bronson’s was, and that was probably because I think Forster was a better actor. I was talking to a buddy about VIGILANTE the other day and I told him Forster is like a more intelligent version of Paul Kersey (Bronson’s character in DEATH WISH).
William Lustig: Well, personally, I think Bob is a great actor, and I am glad he got the chance to really shine in JACKIE BROWN. Bob has a body of work that is just amazing. The movie ALLIGATOR is one of the more underrated films I can think of, and he’s just so great in it. He’s just a great actor. Bronson had an enigma though that worked. I am a big Bronson fan and I think he gets sold short sometimes on his acting. I mean, when you see Jason Statham doing THE MECHANIC, and you think of how Bronson was in THE MECHANIC, it’s just hard to imagine. Bronson was just so great and created this amazing character, and Jason Statham was just doing that character essentially.
The car chase in VIGILANTE is one of my all-time favorites, in part because it’s one of the few chases where the hunter loses the prey for an extended period. Forster never panics behind the wheel. He just becomes even more intense. I mean honestly, I don’t know of a lot of people that could sell that idea. When it comes to car chases, you want to see some bump and grind and near misses and that kind of thing, but VIGILANTE I guess feels real. It just feels like a real chase. How did you set that up?
William Lustig: Well, we didn’t have the money to make a full on Hollywood car chase with all the stunt teams. So what I tried to do instead was make, how can I put it? I guess make it emotional. In other words, rather than be about the cars and the car crashes and jumps and stunts and things like that, trying to make it almost like they were on horseback and they were going through the woods. I mean there’s a moment when Bob Forster kind of zeros in on the bad guy, and he’s up on the hill – which is a bridge – and he comes over it and the car is airborne for a moment. In my mind, I was thinking about the horse coming over the hill. That’s what was in my mind. At which point it becomes even more exciting because he uses the car to chase down the bad guy on foot.
I’ve seen Vigilante as recently as a year or so ago at a film festival and, remarkably, it holds up well.… it’s a strong movie. It was made by an exploitation filmmaker without much money but he made a movie that seems to have lasted. And from that movie I met Fred Williamson and I did a bunch of movies for him. As low case as they were, this guy kept me alive and Lustig kept me alive. These are guys who hired me again and again, so Lustig’s movie Vigilante helped to keep my dying career alive for a while, all of which led to Quentin’s movie. You never know how you’re going to get from point A to point B but something or another happens and, well, that was one of them. – Robert Forster
Interview with Screenwriter Richard Vetere
What was happening politically at the time this film was made in the early 1980s New York?
Richard Vetere: In the late 1970s and early ‘80s New York City was a city on a major decline. There was no political will and no ability to get anything done. Unlike today there wasn’t a single neighborhood untouched by graffiti, street crime, vandalism and muggings. Prostitutes walked the streets, cars being broken into — all met with indifference by a somewhat over-taxed, somewhat corrupt, somewhat bewildered police force. When you got on a subway you were basically taking your life into your own hands since gangs roamed the subway with impunity. Just stepping out of your house could be intimidating to the common citizen. You have to remember back then the police only responded to a crime the concept of attacking crime and preventing it was not put into effect. Also the subway police and the street police were two different departments so if someone committed a crime, they took refuge underground. So I would like to answer your question this way – the average citizen was afraid and felt helpless. This made them apathetic to their own plight. As a young man this outraged me to such a point that I wanted to take action. I was angry at the indifference of the populace and of the authorities. From this anger and frustration came Vigilante.
Do you think there was a particular political slant or message to your screenplay?
Richard Vetere: Yes, there was a political slant to my screenplay. If the courts and the authorities would not help the innocent citizens then with corrupt police, liberal judges and ineffectual politicians then the people should take control of their own neighborhoods. The film was a major success. I heard it doubled its budget its opening weekend with openings in New York City, Chicago and Detroit alone. Its success here in the States got me work in Europe. Producers wanted to hire me and flew me to Europe several times putting me up in Rome and Paris and Saint Tropez. There is no way Vigilante would be made today as it was then. First, it was filmed on 35mm. When we had recent screenings at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), who called it “one of the best indies of the 1980’s”, and screenings at the Nighthawk Theater. young filmmakers came up to me telling me how beautiful the film looked. I knew they meant that the 35mm print Bill Lustig screened with its vibrant colors overwhelmed them. Despite the graffiti, the vandalism and the garbage strewn streets the movie reeks of reality since we shot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The film was so visceral and politically not correct there is no way it could be done today. But it is authentic and honest to the time it was made in. Also, the true indie spirit of the film -meaning the cast, the real locations and the honest ugliness of the world it was filmed in – would upset people because it is so real and honest. No one expects or even wants that from movies today. They want fantasy or some easily accepted pretended truth. Gangs did rule the streets, people were accosted all the time and nothing was done about it. There were no surveillance cameras, no hand-held telephones to call for help. It was you or them but most people just hid…or armed themselves. Right after the movie came out I took a date to see it in Ozone Park, finding a Latino Street gang had taken over the theater. I told the manager I had written the film and bravely sat down with my date to watch it. I was amazed to hear that the gang had memorized the lines and was told by the manager they had seen the movie several times. When I was introduced as the writer I actually got cheers. I was thrilled to escape the theater with a wonderful new perspective on the film. PS: They cheered when the judge was blown up.
Do you think the film would have been received differently now if it were released then it was then? Describe the film’s reception. Did it make money?
Richard Vetere: Bill Lustig saw my stage play Rockaway Boulevard performed at the Actors Studio in 1979 and told me that he wanted to make a “blue collar Death Wish” and he thought I was the ideal writer for it. I liked Death Wish but I felt it was more comedic than honest. I also didn’t like having a cop pursue him. It was very mainstream traditional story telling. I like Bronson but that was really it. Fighting Back wasn’t a bad film but it also tried to explain and in a way defend itself. I didn’t like the press getting involved. It sugar-coated reality. It had a good premise but in the end it lacks Vigilante’s authenticity and primordial reaction to the oppression from crime that ordinary people feel.
Where do you place your films with others of the period? How is it similar or different from other films like Death Wish (1974) or Fighting Back (1982)?
Richard Vetere: Like Tarantino, Bill Lustig is a real aficionado of exploitation films of that time. I wasn’t as much. Since I can’t speak for him as a director and producer I can say this, he hired me because I wanted to write something real. I wanted to write a hardcore street crime film. Bill knew that and went with it. No apologies necessary and I believe other writers that he spoke to wanted to make apologies for what Robert Forster and Fred Williamson do in the movie. I didn’t and neither did Bill. One of the first actors approached to play Nick was Tony Musante but Tony thought the ending as immoral when Nick blows up the judge and Bill refused to change the script so we moved on to another actor – Bob. I am sometimes taken aback by reviews that state the film is nihilistic. It probably is and it probably was my feeling then about the state of life in New York City. My early stage plays produced in NYC in the 1970s – a trilogy with plays titled Nero, Hadrian’s Hill and Night Over the Tiber- compared the fall of the Roman Empire to the fall of NYC. Looking back, yes, I was a bit nihilistic as a young poet.
Can you talk about the beginning scene when Fred Williamson lists the crime stats? This is one the most riveting scenes in the film in my opinion.
Richard Vetere: Bill shot my script very much as it was written and I worked hard on Fred’s opening speech. I am actually in the scene twice and I recommended the location. It was a gun club on the West Side downtown. I am one of the members. I am in the black T-shirt aiming a German Luger in the gun stall and I am to Fred’s left in the front row in a beige bush jacket with long hair a cherub face right out of a Caravaggio painting. Fred did a great job with my monologue.
What was the screenwriting process like? How did you come up with the idea?
Richard Vetere: Bill wanted a blue collar Death Wish and I came up with the characters. I took the entire structure from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone) meaning I took my structure from Lord of the Flies. Nick is the Good or Ralph, Willie Colon is the Bad or Jack and the wonderful actor Don Blakely is Prago or Roger. I knew a Prago in my neighborhood growing up and he was a real tough guy but small and quiet. Bill and I would sit in his office near Columbus Circle and sketch out the movie scene by scene and when we had enough I would go home and write it. He also gave me the freedom to write whatever other scenes I came up and I did and I remember how much he loved the scene in the backyard where Rutanya is knifed by Willie Colon. He wondered where I came up with the clothes lines. I had them in my backyard when I was growing up in Queens.
What was Bill Lustig like as a director?
Richard Vetere: Bill had a strong visual concept for the film. He wanted to shoot New York City visually as it was gritty and dark and he had an extensive knowledge of exploitation films and knew what that audience wanted. Hiring me to write the script I believe it worked out well since Vigilante was an honest and brutal assessment of real street crime in NYC. To me it wasn’t exploitation it was reality. And Bill used those real feelings of hopelessness against the backdrop of decay and together we chiseled the main characters played by Robert and Fred. Robert being the Everyman wanting to do the right thing and Fred the man who sees the moment of their ‘Waterloo’ and takes action. Also, Bill casts wonderful New York City actors who pulled no punches and made it so authentic it’s riveting.
Other icons of this era were Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, and Joe Spinell. What was they like to work with them? Lustig along with Spinell came out with the controversial horror film Maniac, another film that utilizes New York urban settings to create a sense of menace. Can you describe the attitudes towards New York city at the time?
Richard Vetere: Bill hired me to write the novelization of Maniac. Ha. I don’t think it was ever published. I had to watch the movie several times and found it gross. It was not my kind of movie. However, it made me do research on serial killers and the most written about that time was on Richard Speck and I learned a lot about this growing phenomena which became an obsession of some film makers. Joe Spinell was a really good guy. Easy going and a serious actor who enjoyed his craft despite how his screen persona comes off nonchalant. Robert was terrific and so easy going. He has a total lack of pretension and was perfectly cast. Though handsome he slips easily into being an Everyman. He was conscientious about his work and asked me a few questions about the character of Nick. Years later I used to hang out with him at his house in LA for pasta on Sundays and hung out with one of his daughters. I was so glad Tarantino reinvented him with his film. Fred was fun for me to meet on set since I talked to him about the Super Bowl where Green Bay killed Kansas City! He loved playing his character. Bill came from the suburbs of New Jersey so he had this objective view of NYC. It was a blight on the other side of the river and for him a great inspiration for documenting the fall of the Roman Empire. I, on the other hand, was living in it and I was so much more subjective. Writing Vigilante was a catharsis for me. Once I got the screenplay out of my system I was relieved. I felt a burden lifted from me. I dealt with the painful demise of my city through my writing. Then the city recovered and flourished. By the way Vigilante was the 20th grossing picture of 1983.
Did Lustig stay true to your vision? Did he add his own slant? How closely did he follow your script?
Richard Vetere: Bill had his own vision and he and I were on the same page. He stayed very faithful to my screenplay and since we worked out the structure and scene by scene and since he loved my idea of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly premise he shot just about everything I wrote.
I think Jay Chattaway’s music adds a lot. How important was the music in bringing your vision to life?
Richard Vetere: Jay’s music was perfect. Bill had Jay onboard from the beginning if I remember correctly. Jay brought that down to earth gritty musical sense to the film and it worked great.
Do you think the genre is making a comeback? Is the genre “timeless”?
Richard Vetere: Vigilante worked because as I said before- New York City was collapsing and the ordinary citizen suffered. There is no way it could be done today due to political correctness. Other revenge movies can done but if they are written by Hollywood writers they would feel stale and untrue. Also gangs ran the streets at night. The police department was ineffectual for many reasons. Unless street crime came back to New York in a big way any kind of vigilante movie where citizens take the law into their own hands would seem irrelevant. And if written by a Hollywood writer it was would feel stale and fake. Another note – domestic terrorism is more a danger now. There is a high alert on the streets and more surveillance cameras so a Vigilante movie today would again have to be in the working class neighborhoods mainly occupied by new immigrants.
Why do you think Vigilante has such long lasting appeal and what explains the recent cult following?
Richard Vetere: I am doing a lot of acting in indie movies and short films and web series and recently when I was acting in an indie film someone in the crew said aloud that I wrote Vigilante and a quietness came over the set. They were stunned. I am thrilled that younger people love the film mainly because it so much mine as a writer. I can only think that it is getting this following not only BAM considering it and The Movie Channel airing it now because it captured a time so different than today. Also because it is so authentic and visceral, something movies are not today and probably will not be in the near future. I love that many of my lines are quoted on the internet. They came directly from me and my own feelings of living in New York City in the rough and tumble 70’s and 80’s. My favorite scene is when Fred sets up Willie Colon for Robert to shoot. Robert shoots him right before Willie tells him that “he didn’t kill” his son. But Robert shoots anyway leaving the gun on the table. Then the girl opens the bathroom door and fires. Fred shoots her and she is blasted back into the bathtub. Amazing work by Bill. Great action scene. And my favorite scene of all is when Robert is wrestling Don on the tower. Don says “This doesn’t mean shit to me.” And Robert replies “It does to me.” And then pushes him over the rail. You will not see anything that tangible or intuitive in movie writing today especially not in the Marvel Comic book world cinema lives in today and I believe Vigilante fans know that.
Jay Chattaway on Vigilante (1983)
A year after Maniac you follow with the score of Vigilante . Often misperceived because of the theme of self-defense, the director explains that Vigilante is by no means a film with a social impact and it would be more accurate to see a pure urban thriller full of influences, including the western. Exactly, did you have particular influences when composing this soundtrack?
Jay Chattaway: I also perceived Vigilante like an urban western. So I used guitar and music with western influences, especially in the score “Ed Leaves Jail”. There was also a small jazz influence that was the musical genre in which I worked in the record industry. At this time, electro-pop became popular and the use of the sequencer was fashionable. We have a little experience on Vigilante. We also had some sections of strings, the sequence of pursuit was mainly composed with acoustic strings, a little in the way of French Connection.
It was five years before Lustig directed again. “Well, what happened was, when I was doing VIGILANTE, there was a shift in the currency which caused us to lose money. There was a time when the interest rates went sky high. They almost became like, if not higher than credit card rates. I won’t go into all the details, but what basically happened, is I wound up losing money on VIGILANTE. And it wound up really putting me behind the eight ball financially. All the money I had made on MANIAC basically went to finish financing VIGILANTE. So I found myself at a real low point. And so I basically couldn’t leave New York, and I couldn’t get anything done, because I had all this debt and it took up a lot of my years, my trying to make money out of the movies to repay the debt.”
Maniac Cop (1988)
Hit List (1989)
Maniac Cop 2 (1990)
Maniac Cop III: Badge of Silence (1993)
The Expert (1995)
Uncle Sam (1996)
The Dark Side#005
Imagi-Movies Vol 1
Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker-Tony Williams