Every week, I drag my ass through the cheap, blood-drenched streets of streaming horror, searching for films I have never seen before in an effort to find a hidden gem down a dark alley of the web. This week, I dragged Neon Maniacs (1986) out of the sewers…
…Directed by Joseph Mangine (Smoke and Flesh) and written by Mark Patrick Carducci (Pumpkinhead), Neon Maniacs tells the story of Natalie (Leilani Sarelle), a teen virgin who goes out to the park near the Golden Gate Bridge with a bunch of horny youths, and ends up surviving an attack by a group of deranged, mouth-breathing mutants. As the only survivor, Natalie now finds herself stalked by the creatures, and it’s up to her, her love interest, Steven (Clyde Hayes) and nosey filmmaker, Paula (Donna Locke) to put a stop to the fiends before they can harm anyone else.
Most horror fans unanimously agree that the 80s were the best decade for horror, and Neon Maniacs is the perfect example of why. Not because the film is great (it’s not), but because it exemplifies a period in which monstrous mayhem, outrageous practical FX, and pure absurdity were the mainstays of the genre, often resulting in highly entertaining schlock that could be enjoyed no matter how bad the film actually was. Neon Maniacs might as well be the poster child for nonsensical monster movies.
Opening with a bum who finds himself in possession of what appear to be well shot close-ups of various mutants, so detailed that they could be trading cards for all we know, director Mangine immediately gives us a good look at these things, and they’re not anything like the C.H.U.D. like creatures you may expect. No, the beings in Neon Maniacs are a bunch of ugly, Kung Fu fighting, body chopping, slimy park hobos that range in all types and sizes. Amongst the group, we find an undead samurai, mutant bikers, a zombie doctor (featuring the great Andrew Divoff in his first feature), and even a wildly manic ape-man. There is no rhyme or reason to these maniacs. What is the connection between a Samurai and a doctor? We never know. Neon Maniacs wastes zero time on concepts foreign to low-budget B-horror, such as story and character, and throws the audience right into what is ultimately one weird ride through the neon-lit streets of San Francisco.
As for our characters, these are the sort of people that a film like Neon Maniacs deserves. Forget the idiotic, bike-stealing cops that patrol the screen, Natalie and Steven take the proverbial cake and eat it too when it comes to obnoxiously braindead protagonists. Natalie, our “heroine”, is about as interesting as the dead pigeons being left outside the mutant’s lair, with equal intelligence. You would think that after surviving an attack by these creatures, one in which many people died, Natalie might be, I don’t know, scared or something, but instead she continues to skip along as if nothing ever happened. But don’t worry, it isn’t completely unrealistic. Natalie prefers not to watch horror movies after the tragic event, so there’s that. As for Steven, he’s your average 80s dude who, despite knowing Natalie has just been through extreme trauma, wants nothing more than to get in her pants, neon mutants be damned! Paula is by far the only worthwhile character to be found in Neon Maniacs, seeing as how she is the only one actively trying to figure out how to stop these things.
Neon Maniacs may be steeped deeply in the grimy gutter of 80s low-budget horror, accompanied by Kendall Schmidt’s soundtrack which would be more fitting for a decrepit theater somewhere in the city playing sleazy porn, but Mangine is a better filmmaker than one might initially give him credit for. Sure, Neon Maniacs is loaded with issues (more on that in a moment), but Mangine does seem to have an understanding for how to build effective suspense. Paired with cinematographer Oliver Wood, the two do a wonderful job of letting the camera creep around at a slow pace, which helps to build anticipation in the audience (not a surprise really, since Mangine made his career in shooting popular horror flicks). Lingering shots on doors placed amidst foggy atmosphere highlighted by eerie blue moonlight do wonders to create imagery in the viewer’s mind. Did that door crack open, or did I imagine that? Forcing the audience to ask questions like that speaks to the power of the filmmaker’s imagery, one of the highlights of the otherwise problematic flick.
One of those issues is that, despite Wood and Mangine’s highly effective camerawork, Natalie and Steven often undercut any tension with their complete lack of fear. Whether this was due to Carducci’s script or the lackluster performances, the end result is the same, and that is that the audience loses all connection to the terror which the filmmakers are working to establish. To give you an idea of just how little Natalie and Steven seem to care that they are consistently on the verge of being mutilated by a horde of gooey slime-bags, during one “pulse-pounding” moment in which the couple and others are under siege by the creatures, the two share a look and decide hey, no time like to present to finally bone! Really, I’m not exaggerating. As an audience, it’s difficult to believe the actors when literally none of their actions make even the least bit of sense.
But this is where it’s important to note that it’s unlikely that the degree of senselessness postulating from Neon Maniacs was originally the filmmaker’s intentions. We must remember, most films begin as “good” scripts, or at least something halfway decent, but film is a long, collaborative process, and somewhere along the way, key story elements are lost. Word is, Neon Maniacs suffered some massive budget cuts, even experiencing a three-month shutdown, which led to many of the maniacs needing to be replaced by different actors. This also meant that the script had to be reworked on the fly, and what we ended up with is the sloppy mess that is Neon Maniacs. This would likely explain why we not only have no idea what these creatures are or where they came from, but also why there is zero explanation for how they keep managing to find Natalie, as if they share some kind of psychic connection to her, because what, she’s a virgin? The fact that her sexual escapades towards the end suddenly seems to halt the siege from the maniacs would imply that’s the case. But…why? In a way, the lack of explanation for anything lends itself to the choppy editing, which often feels representative of the LSD soaked age in which the film was made.
Neon Maniacs, while not a “good” film, still displays the raw power of the horror genre itself, for one simple reason: As long as a viewer is a fan of the genre, we’ll forgive the absurdity, and perhaps even cherish the film for that. All we need sometimes is some fun horror to cheer for, and that is where Neon Maniacs does excel at. Neon Maniacs slashes its way through countless victims. Limbs fly. Blood spills. And mutants gurgle at the sky like they’ve got bits of brain lodged in their throats. Neon Maniacs has some inspired gore moments, such as a chilling scene in which Natalie relaxes in a pool, suddenly finding herself drenched in a torrential rain of blood. Neon Maniacs was also the first to use super soakers filled with plain, monster-melting water, beating The Lost Boys to the punch by a whole year. And what glorious monster-melting it is.
Like the mutants themselves, there is no point in reasoning with Neon Maniacs. You’re either down for utterly brainless characters, a boring, wandering story, and limb-slicing mutant samurai, or you’re not. But there’s something to be said for the charm of a film in which cops are dumb enough to arm themselves with super-soakers based simply on the word of a couple of teens. Productions like this can sometimes ruin the career of writers, laying the blame at their feet, so at least Carducci managed to go on to write the classic horror film, Pumpkinhead.
You can now stream Neon Maniacs on Amazon Prime.
VERDICT: MUTANT GUNK
By Matt Konopka