Neon Maniacs sounds like it could have been one of those toy lines or trading card series from the late ’80s or early ’90s. You know the ones. Garbage Pail Kids, Toxic High School, Madballs, Savage Mondo Blitzers, Monster Face, Doctor Dreadful…the list goes on. These were toys and cards that were designed to appeal to those edgy youngsters (I was one of them, or so I believed) who got a thrill from pissing off parents and teachers with their gory, gross, scatological weirdness. I don’t know if there are any modern-day equivalents, but I sure hope there are at least a few. In any case, since it’s still relatively obscure, I bet most people would believe me if I told them Neon Maniacs was another in that list of ’80s cool-kid trading card series.
In some ways, I think that’s what it was probably meant to be. But Neon Maniacs is, in fact, the title of a 1986 horror movie that I’ve now seen four times, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. That’s a very particular type of movie, one that leaves me unsure even after multiple viewings. It’s not even a “so bad, it’s good” movie. It’s more like a “so odd and unsure of what it’s even trying to be that it can’t help but be interesting” movie. On one hand, it’s a movie for which you can take one look at the poster and know exactly what you’re getting into. But on the other hand, that still can’t possibly prepare you for it.
The titular Neon Maniacs are these monster-type things that live beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and they are somehow summoned (it’s never really explained how) one night to attack an outdoor party that some high schoolers are having. The usual ’80s high school activities are taking place here: sex, drugs, and rock music that nobody actually listened to but since this movie couldn’t afford the rights to any well known songs we just have to pretend that whatever dreck they’re listening to was, like, totally cool. Each Maniac has its own design. There’s a samurai Maniac, a Native American Maniac, an ape Maniac, and more. There’s even a surgeon Maniac. These non-speaking creatures just show up and attack for no reason, and their costumes and masks look suspiciously like something you could buy at just about any Halloween store. But like I said, I’m pretty sure they were probably intended to be the basis for a line of trading cards, so I have no problem letting the cheapness of their appearance slide. The point is just that there’s a variety of them, the idea of them is kind of cool, and they’re gross-looking monsters. Gnarly. (Insert dual lead guitar lick here for emphasis.)
So they interrupt this naughty high school gathering, and all of the kids there (all of whom have far less personality than the non-speaking Maniacs) are murdered in ways that are just bloody enough that you can say, “Hey, this is almost like a slasher movie,” but not bloody enough that you could ever say, “Hey, this is like a slasher movie.” I’m assuming gore effects weren’t in the budget because they wanted to focus on the Maniac designs and the upcoming Battle of the Bands climax (which I’ll get to shortly). There is a sole survivor of this massacre, of course, because we need a protagonist who’s seen some shit. Her name is Natalie, and she’s a popular, pretty, rich girl whose parents are away on vacation while all this is going on. It should be noted that even after word gets out about this mass murder of all her friends, her parents don’t bother returning home. Themes of generational divide and Gen-X alienation, maybe? Or just two fewer roles to cast, maybe.
There are two other protagonists in the movie as well. First is Paula, a nerdy, horror-obsessed girl who takes it upon herself to investigate the Maniacs because the cops in this movie are about as helpful as you’d expect in an ’80s horror film. Then there’s Steven, a sensitive guy with puppy-dog eyes who is totally not going to become Natalie’s love interest. Oh wait, scratch that last part — it takes like five minutes for them to develop a romantic subplot. But anyway, he’s the lead singer of a band that is scheduled to perform at the school’s upcoming Battle of the Bands. I’ve already mentioned that as the climax of the movie, so I’m getting ahead of myself here again, but man, there’s just not much that goes on in this plot, so you’ll have to forgive me for jumping around so much.
The next real thrilling sequence of the movie occurs when the Maniacs find Natalie and Steven and chase them through the subway. I don’t know what the subways are like in San Francisco, but if they’re anything like they’re portrayed in this movie, why wouldn’t a gang of murderous monsters stalk their potential victims down there? There’s no one else around. Fortunately for our heroes, the Maniacs are quite fond of just standing around snarling at their victims before actually attacking, so they have plenty of time to escape. They manage to get on a bus, which I believe is where Natalie has her Oscar moment in which she cries and asks Steven why this is all happening. Or maybe that comes a little later. I don’t remember. This movie’s narrative exists in a foggy, dreamlike cloud in my memory.
It’s soon discovered that the Maniacs have a convenient weakness. Are you ready for this? Okay. Here we go. It’s water. You can kill the Neon Maniacs with water. Never mind the fact that they live beneath the Golden Gate Bridge where — if I’m not mistaken — they are literally surrounded by water at all times. That’s irrelevant. Just get yourself some water guns and you’re good to go against these guys. Oh, and I’m not being facetious there. That’s actually what they end up doing. They bring water guns to the Battle of the Bands and hope that the Maniacs will be lured in by the sweet tunes so they can squirt them to death in the neon lights of the high school gymnasium.
So now we finally arrive at the aforementioned (three times now) Battle of the Bands scene. This is just…oh, so good. We’re treated to three songs performed in their entirety here. Mind you, this movie is only 90 minutes long. So basically about 12% of the movie is devoted to these songs. There are only two bands present for some reason (is that really a Battle of the Bands?), but if you have any kind of predilection for extremely cheesy ’80s music, you definitely want to witness this staggering event in musical history. One of the bands is what I think is supposed to be hair metal, although their music just sounds like they just heard a 10-second clip of a Poison song once and said, “Yeah, we got this.” Steven’s band, on the other hand, plays the most trite kind of synth pop imaginable. They get two songs, and while the first one is sub-Huey Lewis bubblegum fun, it’s the second one that makes me laugh hysterically every time I hear it. It’s a synth ballad that makes “True” by Spandau Ballet seem like the Beatles in comparison. Enhancing it even further is Steven’s expressions during the performance, because my god he looks like he’s just playing his sensitive little heart out, nearly on the verge of tears in every closeup as the girls in the crowd sway adoringly along. Until, of course, he’s made aware that — oops — the Neon Maniacs have arrived. Not that they stop performing the song, though. They just kind of go into “let’s wait and see” mode.
So yeah, they start spraying the Neon Maniacs with water guns. The rest of the audience just assumes they’re people in fun costumes, and really, can you blame them? This sequence continues into a chase through the hallways of the school, with the lumbering Maniacs slowly but surely following our heroes as they once again try to escape. Steven and Natalie are going to be absolutely fine getting away from them as long as they don’t stop to hide out in a classroom and have sex. Oh wait. They totally do that, don’t they? Yes. Yes, they do. I suppose it can be forgiven, though. After all, how could anyone resist giving in to the heat of the moment after that sublime, emotional musical performance that dreamboat Steven just gave a few minutes earlier? “I know we’re being chased by a bunch of monsters who want to murder us right now, but babe, you already murdered my heart.” That’s not an actual line from the movie, but it might as well be.
The chase then moves out of the school, our heroes explain what’s going on to the police, and you’ve seen this scene in a thousand movies before. “You expect me to believe any of that?!” the crotchety, world-weary detective shouts. “Damn kids!” he probably adds. “But sir, you gotta believe us!” “Get out of my office! Now! Maybe if you paid attention in school instead of smoking pot and playing your damn rock music, you’d have some respect for the office of the law!” Or something like that. The dialogue is inconsequential, really. You could watch this movie on mute and you wouldn’t really miss too much of what’s going on. I don’t mean that in a “this is pure visual storytelling” kind of way. I just mean it at face value. The only downside is you wouldn’t get to experience those three amazing songs.
Then the Maniacs return to their little place under the bridge, the cops find some cards with the Maniacs on them (yes, seriously, they have the trading cards in the movie! I told you!) that I guess are supposed to mean something, and the movie stops. Not so much ends…just stops. There’s virtually no resolution here. Is this an ominous, open-ended way of saying the Maniacs are still out there and are just waiting for the next group of horny teenagers to dismember (after snarling at for a few minutes, of course)? Do the Maniacs represent a “world ruled by violence [where] the soul of mankind fades,” as the tagline on the poster suggests? Is this a Coen Brothers-esque non-resolution that’s designed to make us reflect upon what we’ve just seen and come to our own conclusions? Was this intended to set up a sequel? Or a cartoon series? Did they run out of time and money?
I know it may seem like I’ve been critical of this movie, but every word I’ve written here was meant with love. Like I said, I’ve seen this movie four times now (one of them even while sober!). It’s truly an odd movie, and not in the sense that a lot of strange things happen in it. It’s just that nothing in this movie really adds up or connects, yet somehow it simply works. I can’t fully explain it, but it’s transfixing in its own way. It’s like if someone in 1986 briefly (very briefly) observed tiny snippets of various things in pop culture — slasher movies, monster-based trading cards, hair metal, synth pop, John Hughes movies — and didn’t take the time to truly absorb any of them before deciding to incorporate them all into this bizarre mishmash of a film. It’s so clearly a product of its time and place, yet it doesn’t seem to understand its time and place, which results in it being its own weird whatever-it-is. And while it may not be a “good” movie by any traditional criteria, it’s a fascinating one that I feel strangely compelled to keep returning to. And it’s sure as hell a fun one.