Saturday, January 23, 2016

Neon Maniacs

Neon Maniacs (1986) aka Evil Dead Warriors
Dir. Joseph “Mangina” Mangine*
Written by Mark Patrick Carducci
Starring Leilani Sarelle, Alan Hayes, Andrew Divoff, P.R. Paul, Donna Locke

“When the world is ruled by violence, and the soul of mankind fades, the children’s path shall be darkened, by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs”

With these poetic words spoken by an unseen and uncredited narrator, we enter the world of the Neon Maniacs. It will serve as all the explanation we will ever get for why there is a tribe of gimmick-driven killer mutants living under the Golden Gate Bridge. It will also be the last time anyone will refer to them by that name, which is good because if they did they’d probably have to explain --at the very least-- why they adopted that particular sobriquet in the notable absence of any neon whatsoever. But whatever late-production decision led them to inexplicably re-title this cheerfully moronic 80’s team slasher, “Neon Maniacs” is obviously a great name, and frankly I can’t believe there isn’t an alternative rock band from the 90’s that adopted it. It’s so good that I actually wondered briefly if that little bit of opening explanation wasn’t an unusually clunky line from a lesser-known Alan Ginsburg poem or something, but if it is, I can’t find any evidence of it. With no way to know one way or another, I’m choosing to assume it was left over from an uncredited script polish by William Burroughs and they realized that it was so good that they’d better make it the title in defiance of the lack of literal Neon Maniacs anywhere in finished film.

It’s kinda a shame, because it would be really cool if the maniacs looked like TRON or something. Or they could have just waited til the 90’s and dressed them in contemporary garb. Maybe for the sequel.

Another good title would have been NEON SLIME, since there’s plenty of slime, probably as much or more than there are maniacs. When one character wonders aloud what the deal is with all the slime, a police detective (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson, BOYZ N THE HOOD, DARKMAN, PRINCE OF DARKNESS) helpfully explains that it’s “Gook, slime... nobody knows yet. Forensics found it all around here.” Of course, Neon Slime was already the title of the glorious cock-rock ballad that opens Gary Sherman’s 1982 masterpiece VICE SQUAD. Wings Hauser sings it. That doesn’t have anything to do with NEON MANIACS but it’ll definitely improve your day if you google it. I like to use my position of authority here to help people.

Anyway, NEON MANIACS begins with a fisherman walking home, I guess on a road that runs parallel to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge (?!), where he discovers a bull’s skull propping a door open. He decides the only reasonable thing to do would be to pick it up and look inside, where he finds a bunch of touched up glamour shots of what I assume to be our titular characters. He doesn’t look that interested or surprised, but he keeps flipping through the stack of photos until he gets splattered all over them with an ax by an unseen killer. Cut to the theme song, an all-moog atrocity by composer Kendall Schmidt, a neon maniac in his own right so jadedly sadistic that he ended his career with four ADVENTURES OF MARY-KATE AND ASHLEY movies. His inexplicably affectionate IMDB profile claims he is most known for “the haunting score for Neon Maniacs (1986),” which strikes me as a pretty depressing thing to be known for, comparable as being most known for having the largest private collection of Nazi memorabilia or being the grad student who unwittingly killed the oldest living thing ever discovered. As his terrifyingly soulless synth rises up for the darkest depths of the 1980s over a black screen for the opening credits, you’re left with the distinct feeling that the movie has put you on hold and forgotten to transfer you to your correct party.

Anyway, after the credits the movie re-begins with a bunch of teens going to a public park to have sex with each other, demonstrating that those kids from THE FINAL TERROR were not alone in believing the woods was the only imaginable place for youngsters to enjoy 40 or 50 seconds of awkward humping. Must be an 80’s thing. They indulge in of the most endearingly childlike dialogue I’ve ever heard in my entire life, no joke -- (“Sue’s crazy! She’s not on the pill or anything!” “Did you hear that sick sound?” “Yeah, it was creepy. Probably your mom howling out her anti-sex warning”), and are thankfully quickly dispatched, mostly mid-coitus. This platoon of vaguely mutant-looking multiculturally-themed weirdos just wanders out of the woods and wordlessly gets down to business like it’s their job. I know it’s sad to watch these characters that we’ve just spent the past 5 minutes falling in love with die horribly, but that’s just the gritty reality of life, brah. "The producers hope the film you are about to see will serve as a warning to parents and potential victims alike. It is intended to be as disturbing as the subject matter it depicts in order to educate and, perhaps, save lives."

This sequence is important because it establishes two key things about NEON MANIACS. First, there are a lot of maniacs, and they each have one distinct gimmick, like there’s a samurai one, and a hangman one, and an angry biker. And then a dozen others at least. Second, NEON MANIACS just does not give a single fuck at all about anything else. There’s no attempt to set any of this up at all, the maniacs just walk purposefully out of the woods and immediately get to work butchering the entire cast.

Having now killed off nearly every single character it’s introduced so far, we re-begin again with a new set of characters. Now, some sweatpants-wearing dingus name Steven ([Clyde] Alan Hayes, screenwriter and actor in THE GINGERDEAD MAN actually no, it was Robert Altman’s THE GINGERBREAD MAN, that’s even weirder) has to team up with Natalie (Leilani Sarelle, BASIC INSTINCT), the sole virginal ("I bet you're the last virgin in San Fran!" her friend marvels) survivor of the previous rampage, and Paula, an eccentric young horror enthusiast of indeterminate age (Donna Locke, NEON MANIACS) to figure out what the deal is with these Neon Maniacs and how to stop them. Despite the dozen or so missing teens and a smashed up van, no one believes Natalie’s story about the thematically mismatched mutant maniacs, and in fact somehow seem to think she’s in on the disappearances. So it’s up to our rag-tag team of misfits to defeat the mutant menace on their own. The first two characters are pretty standard-issue horror stock types, but the last one is a bit more interesting. I honestly can’t figure out what’s going on there. Actress Donna Locke is clearly at least in her 20’s, but she plays this character Paula like she’s supposed to be 11. Take a look:

She doesn’t seem to go to high school with our main protagonists, and when not wearing her trademark gangsta-style sideways baseball cap, she favors a full Dracula getup:

But is she really supposed to be a kid? Surely they could have found someone premenopausal to play a middleschooler, if that’s really what they’re shooting for, right? Or are we to assume that she’s actually the same age, and is just some sort of eccentric, possibly mildly autistic rich kid who doesn’t actually attend school? Actress Donna Locke did only the one movie and I can’t find any reliable information on how old she actually was when she played the part, but it’s exactly the kind of startlingly bizarre detail that gives these corny B-movies some character. Frankly I love it, especially since her character is introduced as a horror fanatic obsessed with making her own low-budget monster movies ...which look suspiciously like the one we’re watching (in fact, the movie’s depiction of an amateur child’s homemade horror movie does not markedly differ from its normal standard operating procedure). This makes her the obvious audience surrogate character (since clearly no one watching NEON MANIACS is going to identify with our gorgeous and popular Hero and Heroine) but who in the fuck is going to identify with this chipper weirdo? Did they really expect the audience to show up in sideways baseball caps and vampire capes?

Whatever they thought they were doing, it’s completely appropriate for this corny, cheerfully moronic 80’s mutants vs teens saga. I mean, everything about the movie begs to be made fun of. But even in a movie where Indian** and samurai-themed mutants stash glossy photos of themselves outside their billy-goats-gruff lair, I have to draw particular attention to the so-called “plan” our heroes come up with. See, like the aliens from SIGNS, we discover fairly early that these Neon Maniacs are deathly vulnerable to water. You know, that stuff that every living thing is primarily composed of, and falls from the sky on a regular basis, and is what clouds are made of, and just sits there in the fuckin' air on humid days. Which means humans are basically the alien from ALIEN to these bastards, if we fucking bleed on them, they’re gonna melt like ice cream cake in a Miami gay bar. You would think this would mean that they pose no danger to anyone who possesses a garden hose or bottle of Deer Park or the ability to sweat, but whatever, no one seems to find this reassuring.

So, despite the villains being easily dispatched by the one substance on Earth which is always, everywhere, immediately available to anyone (even if you’re alone in a desert, you can just spit on them! Or cry on them!) the best plan these dingbats can come up with is to stage a Halloween-themed battle of the bands at a high school, knowing that the lure of their powerfully shitty Rick Springfield wannabe sequin-pompadour rock will draw those damn Maniacs like flies to shit. They don’t involve the police or anything, (“we’re kids, and who listens to kids?” Natalie resignedly acknowledges), but they do have one trick up their sleeves. “What did you say [earlier], you said that, that water kills these freaks?” Steven thinks aloud (I guess he wasn’t really paying attention the first time). Hhhhmmmmm, what to do, what to do. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out their crafty plan of attack (although it might have helped): they’ll give everyone in the audience for the battle of the bands... squirt guns! When the Maniacs show up, they’ll be completely defenseless and quickly reduced to puddles of neon goo.

Well, this would be a workable if ill-advised plan, except for one minor detail: they’re so entranced by the whitest music human history has yet been able to produced that they don’t bother to tell anyone in the audience about the imminent arrival of the mutants, or the fact that if any mutants were to arrive, you should definitely use those squirt guns on them. So when goofy-looking monsters show up at a show where everyone else is also wearing goofy-looking monster costumes and predictably start massacring kids left and right, it reasonably doesn’t occur to their victims to defend themselves with the plastic water dispensers they’re holding. A bloody culling ensues, which is entirely the fault of our heroes, though everyone seems too polite to point that out. To be fair, it was only the third cruelest act they’d perpetrated against these innocent high schoolers in one evening, after performing the shittiest 80’s 50’s revival song of all time, followed the shittiest 80’s hair metal song of all time, followed by another 80’s 50’s revival song which is somehow even worse than the previous one, which was already the shittiest song ever written or performed or even imagined in the whole history of human art.

Anyway, the plan kinda works, because with an auditorium full of pretty rich white kid corpses and hundreds of terrified witnesses, the cops finally come around to the whole “monsters did it” theory, and the whole crew charges off to storm the Maniacs’ lair under the Golden Gate Bridge. But then they don’t find them, they’re hiding or something, everyone is a little disappointed. And then the credits role. Yup, that’s the actual end. Maybe they were holding out for a sequel or something, but like AMAZING SPIDER MAN 2, I guess we’ll never know how that story resolved. Although if ROCK N ROLL NIGHTMARE could get a sequel 20 years later, I guess this one could get one 30 years later. It’s not too late, we just had a NINJA TURTLES movie in theaters, right? Come on Michael Bay, make yourself useful for something.

Anyway, this is a riotously terrible movie, but it is absolutely exquisite in its 80’s slasher perfection. If you’re looking for a laughably inept, howlingly outrageous horror flick that still delivers the goods, your Spidey Sense better be tingling right about now, because this is the forgotten gem you’be been waiting for. There’s such a bounty of craziness here you almost can’t believe it. I mean, even one gimmicky maniac of this quality would be more than enough for a normal horror movie. And NEON MANIACS has, what, dozens? Hundreds? I lost count. It seems like every showpiece scene has a new maniac show up that you never noticed before. There’s the aforementioned Samurai maniac, the Indian Maniac, a surgeon maniac, a soldier maniac, a hangman maniac, a “punk biker” maniac, some kind of crazy albino werewolf maniac, I guess (some sources call him a “caveman,” the credits just call him “ape”), a grim reaper type maniac, a cycloptic dwarf maniac with a meathook, an archer maniac, an ax-wielding maniac, a sort of, I dunno, Tin-man robot maniac?, a maniac the credits just call “Juice” that I don’t even remember. There are maniacs who appear on-screen that aren’t even listed in the credits, that’s how many there are. Gotta say, I understand that these guys are merciless killers, but frankly it’s kind of kind of inspiring that Maniacs with such diverse backgrounds can get along so well. I’m sure there are all kinds of cultural misunderstandings and communication problems between Samurai Maniac and Biker Maniac and so on, but you know what, they work through that shit so they can work together to do what they love. I bet they learn lessons and stuff. This should be a sit-com.

You’d think with such a wealth of maniacs, you could get at least a little neon on one of them, but oh well, it would be ridiculous to complain when the filmmakers have gone so far out of their way to bring us joy.

This is not even all of them. Full disclosure, I stole this from a German-language site. I wish I was cool enough to have made this myself, though. 

Having spent all their money and much more on the Maniacs obviously didn’t leave much for actual violence (there’s only a little) but there’s absolutely no shortage of cool/terrible-looking weirdos lumbering all of the place ineffectually, all the time. Hangman Maniac gets a lot of action --because hanging is cheaper than slashing-- but don’t worry, you’ll see plenty a Maniac ply his merry trade. The plethora of maniacs should immediately let you know that this one has some real hustle to it, and there’s plenty of good setpieces. Early on, our heroine is sunbathing in her backyard swimming pool, trying to relax and forget for a moment that she just saw all her friends gruesomely carved up by monsters and no one believes her story (or maybe she’s just bored, I dunno, she doesn’t seem all that torn up about it), when suddenly it starts raining blood on her. The swimming pool turns into a slimy red bloodhole, and as she scrambles to the side, she finds the tile too slick with blood to climb out. It’s a legit nightmare sequence worthy of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET --and of course, that’s exactly what it is, a fakeout nightmare scare-- but it’s also surprisingly well-crafted for a movie this stupid. The editing, by Timothy Snell (8 episodes of Brisco County Jr.) actually gives a couple sequences --particularly a mid-movie stalking setpiece on a subway) a little… if not real horror, at least momentum. And while co-cinematographer Oliver Wood --who had already lensed THE HONEYMOON KILLERS and DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE and would go on to work with Michael Mann, John Woo, Renny Harlin, and the BOURNE series-- probably doesn’t have a lot of clips from this one on his show real, it still mostly looks like a real movie, much more so than any movie called NEON MANIACS has any business attempting.

Director and co-cinematographer Joseph Mangine (already an old hand in Hollywood z-movies, having shot his first film in 1965 and having built an eclectic resume of everything from the pirate porno musical CAPTAIN LUST to the cannibal hippie disaster I DRINK YOUR BLOOD to the Albert Pyun CONAN ripoff THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER) didn’t direct again after this, his second directorial effort, because after you’ve made NEON MANIACS, where else is there to go? Novice screenwriter Mark Patrick Carducci went on to write the screenplays for PUMPKINHEAD and the early Frank Darabont TV movie BURIED ALIVE (and serve as “creative consultant” on PUMPKINHEAD II, as if that one needed any more creativity) before his untimely death in 1997 at the age of 42. Neither of them can exactly be accused of crafting great art here, but frankly with a premise like NEON MANIACS, if it was any better it would just be worse.

As it is, it’s exactly right -- the precise right balance of hilarious stupidity and bountiful genre goods. Except for the disruptively anticlimactic ending, there’s something funny and weird happening virtually every minute of screen time, making it blessedly free of the usual dull downtime you would expect in something this low-rent (some of the Maniacs are credited to two actors, because apparently the production ran out of money and had to shut down for a few months in the middle of filming). It’s eager to show you its glut of gimmicky slashers and obsessive about thinking up new ones to keep things fresh. They found two of the world’s shittiest bands, and had them play all the way through three original tunes! I mean, buddy, this is a movie that is really working to keep you entertained. If the world is indeed ruled by violence, and the soul of mankind fades… well, I can’t speak for the children, but I for one feel honored to have had my path darkened, by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs.

*I include the “Mangina” joke at the insistence of 13-year-olds everywhere. My producer says sometimes you have to make commercial compromises if you expect to get ahead in life.

**I would say, “Amerindian” or “American Indian,” or even “first people,” but once you’re talking Tomahawk-and-head-dress mutant slasher, I think we’re well past the point of political correctness


Play it Again, Samhain
  • TAGLINE: Night Falls... So Do Their Victims. And, according to IMDB, There Are Twelve Good Reasons To Be Afraid Of The Dark. And Everyone [sic] Of Them Is A Killer
  • SEQUEL: Alas, no, although it could really use one.
  • REMAKE: Once Nicolas Winding Refn and John Hyams finish their MANIAC COP remake, they need to get right on this one.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Oh good God, no.
  • BOOBIES: Yes, in the opening kill scene.
  • MULLETS: Oh my sweet jesus, yes.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Head lopped off. Heart removed.
  • MONSTER: At least a dozen, judging from that dubious second tagline, if not more.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: I think this counts. Team Slasher.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Nah
  • VOYEURISM: Well, the Maniacs watch the high schoolers bone while they're walking up to kill 'em. Oh, and Paula secretly videos the Maniacs outside their under-the-bridge lair.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Unfairly high. But hopefully this review will change that.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: That Red Hot Chili Peppers song about being under the bridge was darker than we ever realized.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Many Maniacs, no neon. 50%?
Obviously, this is objectively more like a two. But come on, Neon Maniacs! You gotta respect.

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