First things first: despite the associations that the title and director Lucio Fulci may suggest today, this is a comedy rather than a thriller or a horror film.
The madness is not that of the black gloved killer but rather of an everyday sort, specifically the ordinary madness of people like you or I – or more specifically our Italian counterparts circa 1964.
Rather than exploring this madness through a single set of characters and narrative, the film is structured around a series of vignettes, most based upon a reversal of expectation.
For instance, a driver races what he assumes to be the car alongside him, taking greater and greater risks as he endeavours to prove his masculine potency, as expressed by his macchina, against his challenger, only to be overtaken by a jumbo jet...
While some of the segments, like this one, work regardless of the viewer’s knowledge of Italian history, politics and culture, it’s probably fair to say that to get more out of the film you really do need to have some background.
For the Fulci fan, aware of his own personal background and politics, the film meanwhile provides some early indicators as to why he never fulfilled his early promise as a specialist in the Italian style comedy and became ghettoised as a cult horror director. Specifically, he was just too harsh and too cynical in his approach, too willing to bit the hand that might otherwise have fed him by criticising both left and right, modernity and tradition.
This comes through most strongly in the segment starring Enrico Maria Salerno as a hypocritical left-wing / avant-garde / intellectual author who advises an old colleague who comes asking for advice to spice up his realist account of partisan activity with extraneous sex, violence and bad language, only to then deny the result publication as inauthentic and immoral; Salerno’s character’s dog is telling called Pier-Paolo, whilst he himself makes apparent allusions to the likes of Accatone and Mama Roma.
Another story, in which a souther hitch-hiker and his northern lift gradually convince themselves that the other is out to kill them, helps illuminate Fulci’s understanding of regional relations, to indicate again that his representations of the south(erner) in Don’t Torture a Duckling were not merely an easy resort to stereotype but something more worked / thought through.
There’s also an anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois skit, as two antique hunters think they’ve bought a load of valuable items from a monastery at a bargain price, only for the punchline to reveal that the monastery buys these as seconds wholesale from the furnishers nearby. The segment also features its own internal running gag, with the monk refusing the various things offered him by the couple on religious grounds, to then decline wine on account of his ulcer.
For those less interested in identifying Fulci’s auteur signature, I Maniaci boasts the attraction of a superior ensemble cast, featuring the likes of Lisa Gastoni, Barbara Steele, Margaret Lee and Franco and Ciccio. It also has a charming pop score by Ennio Morricone, with vocal performances by the likes of Nico Fidenco and Rita Pavone.