Horror fans have a unique relationship with the genre. Perhaps no other type of movie has inspired so many to think, “I could do this!” than horror, and because of that horror fans have a symbiotic connection to it. From Sam Raimi and Tom Savini on one end of the spectrum to Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank from “American Movie” on the other, a significant portion of filmmakers who specialize in horror started as fans mixing fake blood in their mothers’ kitchens and shooting yards of Super 8 film. And in many cases, horror returns the favor by making horror fans into heroes. Tommy Jarvis’ effects makeup skills defeat Jason in “Friday the 13th Part IV,” the Frog Brothers’ horror fandom help them identify what’s up with the Lost Boys, and the Monster Squad graduates directly from doodling werewolves to kicking them square in the nards.
One of the lesser-known entries in this subcategory of movies featuring horror nerds as heroes is 1986’s “Neon Maniacs,” a movie that nevertheless feels much closer to a pure expression of horror fandom. Like many of the homemade horror movies Borchardt and the thousands like him made as teenagers, “Neon Maniacs” is not much more than a feature-length makeup test, an excuse to throw as many monsters and murders and severed limbs at the camera as possible, sacrificing opportunities to build plot and character for more mayhem.
The titular monsters live under the Golden Gate Bridge, and they attack a group of teenagers partying in the park. The only survivor of the massacre is Natalie, which isn’t surprising considering she admits to being a virgin moments before the monsters emerge. There are about a dozen maniacs, each one with their own distinct theme that makes them resemble a cross between the Cenobites and the Village People. There’s a ghoulish samurai, a monstrous Native American warrior, and a Yeti, as well as my favorite, Biker Frankenstein.
“Neon Maniacs” is so concerned with showing off its creatures that it doesn’t seem right to judge it based on anything else. But even though its ambition in having such a large roster of monsters is impressive, that ambition ends up working against the movie and its monsters. Because of how the movie’s put together, the majority of the monsters are only glimpsed or relegated to the background. This may have been a necessary compromise – a reported hiatus in filming due to money problems meant many of the creatures were played by different actors in different scenes, so the mismatched monsters may have been concealed on purpose when filming resumed. You just don’t get to know any of the maniacs the same way you get to know the Cenobites of the “Hellraiser” series, which is unfortunate because it really does appear that the movie wants each maniac to have its own personality.
As could be expected, Natalie’s story about hulking mutants with meat cleavers where their hands should be is met with skepticism. The friends and family of her dead friends start harassing her at school and over the phone, to the point where she has to stay home from school and hang around her pool all day in a bikini. She manages to make a connection with her shy classmate Steven after he stops by to deliver some groceries.
Meanwhile, Natalie’s plight has attracted the attention of Paula, the prototypical horror nerd who makes VHS vampire movies in the local graveyard and has a bedroom decorated with werewolf masks and movie posters. She’s the only one who thinks there might be something to Natalie’s story and she takes her camcorder out to the Golden Gate Bridge to see what’s going on. The maniacs emerge, and Paula witnesses one of them trip and fall into a puddle that melts it like acid. Later, Paula is assaulted by one of the monsters in her bedroom but she uses a squirt gun and a bucket of water to dispose of it.
The maniacs also continue to chase after Natalie and Steven, but the threat of imminent death at the hands of a dozen horrible mutilated murderers isn’t enough to deter Steven from the high school’s battle of the bands. Steven and his band (I’m assuming they’re called Steven and the Shoulder Pads) are pitted against a Twisted Sister-ish glam metal band. The first line of their opening song is “Let me ruin your evening,” which is just fish in a barrel at this point. Unfortunately, no winner can be crowned because the maniacs crash the party and start hacking up more teenagers. Why weren’t Steven, Natalie and Paula worried about this exact thing happening? Because they passed out squirt guns to all the kids attending, which makes the crowded gymnasium “the safest place to be,” by Steven’s logic.
Needless to say, the sight of a dozen rubbery mutants stabbing and slicing up their peers causes the kids to panic, and Steven’s pleas to “use your squirt guns” inspires exactly zero confidence. The maniacs chase the heroes through lots of dark hallways, more bloodletting takes place, and eventually the heroes tail the maniacs back to their lair under the bridge. At first, the cops can’t find any sign of them, but the last cop in the building pokes his nose in an abandoned truck and gets a hook to the neck for his trouble. Our heroes drive away worried that the rain will stop despite the fact that San Francisco is right next to the ocean, making water one of the easiest things to find.
The biggest problem with “Neon Maniacs” is that the filmmakers spent six months making the monster costumes and a weekend writing the screenplay. There’s half an idea there about Natalie knowing the monsters exist but being blamed for their crimes, but once she meets up with Steven and Paula that angle is dropped and there’s nothing interesting left except the monster designs, which don’t get nearly enough screen time.
There is evidence that the people who made “Neon Maniacs” are passionate about horror and sci-fi, but it isn’t found in the story or the characters. It’s found in the set dressing and wardrobe – a U.S.S. Nostromo hat here, a “Blade Runner” poster there, even extras dressed as Spider-Man and Mister Miracle during the battle of the bands scene. For all involved, the fact that they were making a monster movie was enough, apparently, and what type of monster movie didn’t matter. For an audience, unfortunately, these concerns tend to carry more weight.