“In time, you may become a great man.”
Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) is wanted by the police. He is a vaudevillian actor known for his impersonations. He takes a job as an assistant for Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter). Meirschultz has a formula that he believes will raise the dead. To prove his formula works he and his assistant Maxwell steal the body of a young suicide woman from the morgue. He brings the woman back to life. She wanders around like a zombie.
The doctor also has a living heart in a jar. He wants to put the heart into a donor’s body. He instructs Maxwell to commit suicide so he can experiment on him. Instead Maxwell kills the doctor and, using his make-up kit impersonates him. While pretending to be the doctor, Maxwell begins a decent into madness that spirals out of control.
Mr. and Mrs. Buckley show up at the door. Mr. Buckley (Ted Edwards) thinks he is in an Edgar Allan Poe story and Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller) wants him fixed. Maxwell, ala Meirschultz, gives him a shot of what he thinks is water but instead is hyper-adrenaline. Mr. Buckley goes wack-a-doodle, grabs the zombie woman when she wanders into the room and runs off down the road to rape her. Mrs. Buckley finds the body of the doctor. Maxwell tells her it is his assistant and that he shot himself. She blackmails him.
OK, there’s a lot of crap going on here. Maxwell thinks he can put the beating heart into the doctor and bring him back to life. A cat eats the heart. Maxwell panics and drags the doctor into the cellar and begins to brick his body up in the wall. He then chases the cat around till he catches it, squeezes its head till its eyeball pops out and, with a maniacal laugh, eats the eyeball. Then he goes back to finishing his bricklaying.
Now there is a next door neighbor who has a thousand cats. There are also thousands of rats running around. The man is in business. His business is cat skins. His theory is; rats breed faster than cats, so the cats eat the rats, the rats eat the cat carcasses, and he gets the skins. Charming.
“Maniac” was spit out in 1934 and was directed by Dwain Esper and is a pre-code exploitation movie. If any movie is proof that people were concerned enough about social values to adopt the Hays Act it is this movie. The code was published in 1930, but not regularly enforced until 1934. Although the act was in force by the time the movie was released it was self distributed on what was known as the “roadshow” circuit. Esper also used a sort of loophole to get his movies past the censors. He pretended they were educational. For “Maniac” he inserted placards here and there throughout the movie that explained different types of mental illness. It didn’t matter that the types of illnesses had nothing to do with the movie.
The footage that is superimposed over the certain scenes in the movie were from the silent Italian film “Maciste in Hell” 1925. Marian Blackton is sometimes reported, incorrectly, as appearing in male drag as the neighbor who catches and breeds cats. She plays a female neighbor who is questioned by the detective. The male actor who actually breeds the cats is someone different. The actress named Phyllis Diller in this film is not the comedian Phyllis Diller. As for the eyeball thing with the cat, it is reported that Esper used a cat with one eye, and what the doctor is popping out is a glass eye. But the cat farm was supposedly real.
I would call it a pile of crap but like Esper’s “Reefer Madness” it has quite a cult following. Esper produced a number of exploitative movies. He often added unnecessary scenes of nudity and violence to sell them.