31 Days of Hell: Neon Maniacs (1986)

It's hard not to love a good '80s creature-feature. For that matter, it's hard not to love a not-that-good '80s creature-feature, if the creatures are cool enough. Case and point, Neon Maniacs: an ambitious-beyond-its-budget monster-fest which is great in concept but very, shall we say, idiosyncratic in execution, because the filmmakers just didn't have the resources to pull off their vision, but decided to swing for the fences anyway. It stumbles under the weight of its own ambitions, but does it ever have monsters! A dozen of them, to be precise (one of whom is Andrew Divoff in his screen debut), all with different looks, abilities, and favorite ways of killing people. Sure, the plot makes little-to-no sense and can't be bothered to explain just what the Neon Maniacs actually are. Sure, you can sense the gaps where scenes don't exist or actors disappear for a while because the budget-difficulty-plagued production would shut down for months at a time. But you know what? You've got a fun cast of John Huges-era '80s teen movie archetypes fighting an eclectic army of crazy-looking monsters, with a showdown brawl at a battle of the bands; this movie can get away with pretty much any shortcomings and still be an absolute riot.

The Neon Maniacs are a tribe of monsters who live in catacombs beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, who come out at night to kill whoever they find, and whose various members look like an odd mix of Clive Barker's Nightbreed, The Toxic Avenger, and Saturday morning cartoon villains. Teenager Natalie (Leilani Sarelle, Basic Instinct) narrowly survives the Maniacs' first mass slaughter, but no one believes her outrageous story or heeds her warnings, except for her aspiring-musician boyfriend Steven (Alan Hayes, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) and awkward younger teen Paula, who is obsessed with monsters and horror movies (Donna Locke, in her only film role). Our trio of unlikely heroes must find a way to destroy the Maniacs on their own... but of course not before Steven tries out his rock-star skills in their high school's Halloween party battle of the bands. The plot sounds straightforward enough, but the movie handles it in an oddly circuitous way that makes it all a good deal more complicated and vague than it needs to be.

This all comes down to the film's very troubled production: the low-budget movie was constantly plagued by financial difficulties, leading to long gaps between periods of shooting when actors' availabilities would change or go away. This means that side-characters tend to come and go from the narrative (the gruff cop who doesn't believe Natalie, for instance, suddenly delegates his entire role to another cop for most of act two before reappearing later, presumably for scheduling reasons), and holes are left in the story where scenes were written, but never shot because they ran out of money. For instance there clearly is meant to be a (probably significant) sequence where our trio of protagonists travel into the Maniacs' catacombs, learn more about them, and bond as a team, which is instead replaced with a single shot of them standing outside the catacombs' door before the plot jumps abruptly forward, and Natalie and Steven start treating Paula like an old friend, and not some kid they just met one scene ago.

However, with a couple exceptions like that, most of what has to be here is here (at least in broad strokes) and all in all the film works better and feels more coherent than it probably should, under the circumstances. It is all tied together by the cast's only real constants, our three fun and likable (if shallowly characterized) leads. They're very archetypal, but they play the roles well: the straight-laced A-student whose worldview is suddenly turned upside-down, the awkward but good-hearted nerd who dreams of making himself over into a rock star, and the even more awkward youngster with grand dreams of being the next great horror director, but who is clearly on track to be more of an Ed Wood than a John Carpenter. The parts are written as well as they need to be, and are acted effectively with warmth and humor, and that goes a long way to create good will with the audience that glosses over the holes left in the script by the production. The film also makes very strong use of its mostly-nighttime San Francisco locations, employing lots of neon lights to create a great atmosphere. And for a very-80s movie with a neon-lit color palette, the climactic showdown against the monsters happening at a battle of the bands, under brightly-colored stage lights, could not be more perfect. That it's a battle of the bands that doubles as a Halloween costume party makes it even better. All in all it's a pretty well-shot, good-looking movie, despite being clearly rough around the edges. It's one of those movies that at face value feels a bit clumsy, but that's easier to cut some slack once you know what a troubled production it had, and you can appreciate how relatively well the filmmakers pulled it off using what they had to work with. It may have big problems, but it's a lovable underdog.

But of course the main draw of this movie is the Neon Maniacs themselves: a fantastically off-the-wall bunch of creatures who are just really cool to see in action, even if they frequently make us ask, “why?” Some of them look like they were once human: a samurai, an archer, an executioner, a brutality-prone cop, and a malpracticing doctor, among others, all of whom have recognizably human clothes, but faces and bodies twisted into comic-book monstrosities. But then some of them look like they were never human, like a one-eyed, big-headed lizard-person, or a neanderthal who looks like he just walked off the set of War of the Gargantuas. Just what are they, where do they come from, and are they people turned into monsters or monsters dressed like people? We don't know, and it's unclear whether the movie knows. Questions like what they are and why they're here, why they have oddly specific themed outfits, or even why they're called Neon Maniacs are left completely unanswered. In the opening scene, they are apparently summoned when an old man finds a stack of trading cards with their pictures on them (and an occult symbol on the back) hidden inside a skull under the Golden Gate Bridge. That makes about as much sense as anything else in the movie, and is the most explanation we ever get. Either the movie doesn't know and doesn't care, or exposition scenes about their backstory were among the material that was written but never shot; I lean towards the latter, since there is that scene when it feels like our heroes were originally supposed to venture into their world.

But it's possible that it just doesn't matter; at the end of the day, might it be enough just that they're a weird, comic-book-ish band of outlandish monsters? Sure, nothing about them makes sense, but that wacky off-the-wall attitude is part of the movie's strange, scrappy charm. You don't come to Neon Maniacs looking for logic; you come to Neon Maniacs looking for scenes of Neon Maniacs wrecking stuff. The movie may not have narrative cohesion, but it certainly has that, by the bucketful. The creature effects are (mostly) great; the Maniacs look awesome (the coolest ones, anyway), the eclectic nature of their appearance makes for a wild funhouse of a movie, and some of the kills are equally well-designed. The movie probably had the financial troubles that it did specifically because it decided, rather overambitiously, to create a dozen distinct, very different-looking monsters on a very small budget, but they pulled it off, and their ambition is rewarded with one cool menagerie of villains. The film's main makeup designer, Allan Apone, had previously worked on Friday the 13th Part 3 and Return of the Living Dead, and would go on to work on many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies as well as HBO's Westworld; he is an accomplished artist to say the least, and he works low-budget wonders here, and is likely the person most responsible for this movie being as memorable as it is. His creatures definitely resemble a rougher-around-the-edges related family to Clive Barker's Nightbreed (though four years earlier). At least visually; while the Nightbreed were the misunderstood heroes of their story, the Neon Maniacs are 100% outright villains. Since they probably get at least a few scenes fewer than they were supposed to because of the budget difficulties, the pack of Maniacs proves large enough that none of them really rise to the top to become the primary monster; they are very much ensemble villains, and it would have been nice to see them each get more moments to shine. But still, it is very cool to know that the mad-doctor Maniac, under heavy prosthetics, is none other than future Wishmaster Andrew Divoff, beginning his career as he would forever continue it, under ghoulish makeup as a horror villain.

In spite of its flaws, and thanks to the personality with which it tries to overcome them, Neon Maniacs is a very fun, likeable underdog of a B-movie. It may not be “good” by most objective metrics, but those who enjoy practical-effects-powered monster movies and '80s camp horror will find a lot to like about it. It definitely helps to go into it knowing what a mess its production was, but once you know that, I wholeheartedly recommend it to any fans of cheesy vintage horror. The film is readily available on a pretty nice DVD by Code Red, featuring a very good remaster and an enlightening, very candid interview with Maniac makeup artist Allan Apone. Code Red also released the film on blu-ray, but the blu was a 3,000-copy limited edition which is now long out-of-print and quite rare. The DVD certainly gets the job done, though. The B-movie maniacs out there should definitely consider checking it out.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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