The first time I saw a William Lustig movie I was about 8 or 9. It was during the summer and my family had just gotten cable. My parents didn’t put any restrictions on what I watched so I stayed up all night flipping through every channel (HBO, Showtime, USA, etc.) watching as many movies as I could. One night, I stumbled upon Maniac Cop. At the time I didn’t know who the director was, and if we’re being honest I likely didn’t know what a director was, but I knew this movie had the dude from Evil Dead and it ruled.
Nearly a decade later I saw Maniac on 35mm and was hooked. I now knew who Lustig was (I also made it a point to learn what directors are) and immediately dove head-first into his filmography.
Lustig’s career as a director was rather short-lived. If you skip over the pair of adult films directed in the late ’70s under the name Billy Bagg, you get a career that started in 1980 and would continue until 1996. That sixteen-year stretch saw Lustig pump out eight films, and with those eight films, Lustig had a significant impact. He mastered low-budget cinema and exhibited a flare for capturing New York in a way few filmmakers before or since have been able to do. And he did so while partnering up with some of exploitation cinema’s greatest legends.
Since stepping away from the director’s chair Lustig has done a little bit of producing but has primarily spent his time operating cult distribution label, Blue Underground. In honor of the Lustig’s 65th birthday, I have joined forces with Film School Rejects’ Gruesome Twosome (Rob Hunter & Kieran Fisher) to rank the director’s films.
8. Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993)
This movie was disowned by Lustig and screenwriter Larry Cohen due to outside interference, and there’s no doubt the film would have been much better if the former directed the entire film. That said, considering that the movie was butchered and thrown together by a group of producers, it’s still a watchable horror flick — in fact, it’s worth watching just to see Robert Davi light a cigarette with a dismembered flaming arm. (Kieran Fisher)
7. Uncle Sam (1996)
Sgt. Sam Harper falls victim to friendly fire while in Kuwait. After his body is returned to his estranged wife, he rises from the dead and heads out on a bloody rampage during his small town’s Independence Day festivities. This holiday slasher is a not-so-subtle attack on America’s hard-on for the military and the use of glorified violence to brainwash our youth into enlisting. It’s a bit uneven at times and never gets quite as gory as one would hope, but it’s still a fun ride that will forever be relevant. And as a bonus, it features a wonderful cast that includes Isaac Hayes, P.J. Soles, and Robert Forster. (Chris Coffel)
6. Relentless (1989)
Sam Dietz (Leo Rossi) is a rookie detective that takes his job very seriously. Shortly after getting paired with cynical veteran Malloy (Robert Loggia), the two begin to investigate a series of killings that appear to be random. This late ’80s crime-thriller has managed to slide under the radar, but don’t let that fool you. This is a captivating game of cat-and-mouse between two very different cops and a sadistic killer with a penchant for forcing his victims to help. Judd Nelson gives a knockout performance as the unhinged baddie. (Chris Coffel)
5. Hit List (1989)
“What do you call a midget psychic that breaks out of jail? A small medium at large!” That’s a line from this movie and it should be enough to sell you on it. In case you need more, Jan-Michael Vincent stars as an everyman that gets caught in the crossfire between the cops and a mafia hitman. Lance Henriksen plays the hitman whose cover is as a ladies’ shoe salesman that drives a truck with the license plate 1KLLR. There’s also a shootout in a laser tag arena, cocaine hidden in a dead body, and it all concludes with an insane, never-ending chase scene that eventually ends in a parking garage. Plus it has Rip Torn. Someone release this on Blu-ray immediately. Thank you. (Chris Coffel)
4. Maniac Cop (1988)
“You have the right to remain silent… forever,” says the tag line for Lustig’s late 80s gem, but who would want to stay quiet about such a fun flick? While the sequel ups the ante in the action department, this slightly smaller outing settles for neck snaps, high falls, shootings, beatings, a nasty shower kill, and more. It’s an action/slasher hybrid that works in part thanks to an aces cast of genre vets including Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Richard Roundtree, William Smith, and Robert Z’Dar as the title baddie. It’s exactly what you expect from a movie called Maniac Cop, and that my friends is a good thing. (Rob Hunter)
3. Maniac (1980)
Lustig’s first non-pornographic feature was funded by porn profits, and fans of grim slashers and Tom Savini’s makeup f/x brilliance should be thankful that sex sells. Maniac is a slasher uninterested in hiding the killer’s identity, and instead it’s the killer that viewers are stuck with throughout. We’re subjected to his misery, his madness, and his murderous acts, and the combination of Joe Spinell’s raw performance and Savini’s beautifully grotesque f/x sell the horror of it all from beginning to end. Scalpings are grisly enough, but that shotgun blast to the face? It’s gory as hell and guaranteed to make some people smile. People like me is what I’m saying because that scene is glorious. Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer the 2012 remake as style and gore trumps nihilism and gore for me, but this original holds a well deserved special place in genre fans’ hearts. (Rob Hunter)
2. Vigilante (1982)
In the 1980s, New York City was a crime-ridden hellscape. Naturally, exploitation movies examined these urban anxieties to great effect, and few people captured NYC grime and sleaziness as brilliantly as Lustig. In Vigilante, a group of pissed off blue-collar join forces to kill some criminals after their friend is imprisoned for wrongful reasons. This movie is charged and vicious, and the performances by Robert Forster and Fred Williamson are sublime. (Kieran Fisher)
1. Maniac Cop 2 (1990)
Maniac Cop 2 is Lustig’s Godfather II — a masterpiece of a sequel that’s even better than the brilliant first installment. The first movie, which is also delightful, is a simple police procedural with slasher beats. The sequel, on the other hand, turns up the volume to deliver an action-packed treat that boasts wild stunts and a rap song about the titular killer cop. The action set-pieces are the real deal too, including a fight scene where the villain is in flames and another where a stunt performer dangles from a speeding vehicle. (Kieran Fisher)