The Maniac Next Door: The Surprisingly Bizarre Origins of Michael Sembello’s Pop Hit From ‘Flashdance’

Legend has it that the song was written for the 1980 grindhouse classic “Maniac.” But as it turns out, the true story is even weirder.
Flashdance - Maniac
Flashdance - Maniac / The Champagne Room

The history of the 1983 pop-culture touchstone Flashdance is a long and tangled affair. But one urban legend of sorts has long captured the imaginations of horror fans: that Michael Sembello’s synth-driven soundtrack cut “Maniac,” which rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, was initially written for the grisly grindhouse staple Maniac from 1980, about a serial killer who scalps his young, female victims.

Rumor has it that the song’s original lyrics included the verse, “He’s a maniac, maniac, that’s for sure / He’ll kill your cat and nail him to the floor.” (Or possibly “door”; accounts vary.) According to a 1998 episode of VH1’s Pop Up Video, the first version of the song was “about a maniac who hacked off people’s arms and feet.” The problem is, only part of that story is true—and it’s not even the most reasonable part. 

Nail It to the Floor

Michael Sembello was an accomplished session musician and songwriter in his late twenties when cameras started rolling on Flashdance in October of 1982. He’d spent eight years playing guitar for Stevie Wonder—a gig he’d landed when he was just 17 years old. (Sembello also came from a musical family. His older brother, John, co-wrote songs for the Lovin’ Spoonful and Chaka Khan; his younger brother, Daniel, co-wrote the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” which would also become an ’80s soundtrack classic courtesy of Beverly Hills Cop.) 

Sembello’s work with Wonder, which included co-writing a track on the latter’s 1976 Grammy-winning double LP Songs in the Key of Life, opened the door for studio and songwriting work with other major artists, including Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Art Garfunkel, and Michael Jackson. But the Philadelphia native wasn’t happy playing on other people’s records. “[Y]ou give up part of yourself to make someone else’s record happy,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1983. 

Determined to pursue a solo career, Sembello set up a recording studio in his Los Angeles home. By 1982, he was planning the solo album that would become the following year’s Bossa Nova Hotel. His childhood friend and fellow Philly transplant Dennis Matkosky, with whom Sembello had co-written the Diana Ross Top 10 hit “Mirror, Mirror,” was helping him write songs.

Michael Sembello
Sembello was itching for a way to bust out as a solo artist when his songwriting partner, Dennis Matkosky, found inspiration from a pretty unusual source. / George Rose/GettyImages

As Matkosky recalled in a 2022 installment of the YouTube series Starting Small Music, he was watching television one evening when a disturbing news report kicked his imagination into overdrive.

“They found all these bodies in ... Gacy’s backyard,” Matkosky said, “and I just wrote down on a piece of paper, ‘He’s a maniac, he just moved next door. He’ll kill your cat and nail it to the floor. He’ll rape your mother and screw your wife. He’s a maniac.’ ” (John Wayne Gacy was arrested in 1978 and convicted in 1980, so it’s possible Matkosky was misremembering exactly which maniac inspired “Maniac.” But a lengthy appeals process, the public’s fascination with Gacy’s crimes, and the killer’s proclivity for giving self-serving interviews meant Gacy was still in the news in 1982 and 1983 when Flashdance and its soon-to-be-iconic soundtrack were coming together.)

Matkosky showed the lyrics and title to his wife, who politely suggested he seek counseling. The following day, Matkosky took his hastily scribbled lyrics to Sembello—who was, incidentally, a lifelong horror fan who was tired of writing love songs.

And then things got weird.

The Devil’s Interval

A few years before Sembello and Matkosky started working on their most famous collaboration, a different type of Maniac would capture the public’s attention. Marked by gory violence, a screeching synth soundtrack, and an almost tangible atmosphere of grime, Maniac the movie arrived to a spate of controversy upon its wide release in theaters in 1981.

To avoid the dreaded X rating, the American distributor—along with director William Lustig and Joe Spinell, the film’s co-writer, co-producer, and star—opted to release the film with a “For Adults Only” warning rather than an MPAA rating, meaning most mainstream theaters wouldn’t show it. Feminist groups reportedly picketed theaters that did screen it, and the LA Times refused to run ads for the movie, citing its depictions of sadistic violence.

Even the poster had to be censored; the original illustration of a man holding a woman’s bloody scalp in one hand and a dripping knife in the other while standing in a puddle of blood and visibly sporting an erection was deemed inappropriate for public display. Grindhouse theaters welcomed it with open arms, though, lifting it to a reported $10 million return on its $350,000 budget

One thing the film was missing, at least in the eyes of Spinell, was a good theme song. A prolific character actor whose credits included The Godfather and Taxi Driver, Spinell was also a horror enthusiast determined to make his mark on the genre. Citing the chart-topping success of Michael Jackson’s single “Ben” from the 1972 killer-rat movie of the same title, Spinell had been adamant that Maniac needed a signature pop song for its soundtrack. Though the film featured music by Jay Chattaway, there were no breakaway hits, and certainly nothing to rival the success that the Flashdance soundtrack would enjoy just a few years later.

By the time Maniac hit the home video market, Sembello and Matkosky were plugging away at their own graphic ditty. “I figured, ‘Why not write a song about a mass murderer who goes around chopping people’s heads off, like in Halloween III?’ ” Sembello said in his 1983 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. (Note: This is not what happens in Halloween III.) The pair fleshed out the song while marinating in Sembello’s Jacuzzi, with Matkosky playing “the weirdest chord [he] knew.” The song took shape in about 15 minutes. 

They primarily took inspiration from a grisly 1971 track called “D.O.A.” by Texas-based rock band Bloodrock, about a man who’s dying from injuries sustained in a plane crash. That song’s use of an ambulance siren led to the discordant musical interval that drives “Maniac”: a tritone, traditionally made up of two notes that are three distinct tones apart. In fact, the interval is so famously dissonant that in medieval times it was known as diabolus in musica, or “devil in music.” 

According to Matkosky, he and Sembello never had grand plans for their song—or any plans at all, for that matter. While Matkosky did rent 1980’s Maniac while they were writing the song, apparently because it shared the same title as his and Sembello’s composition, it doesn’t seem to have had any real influence on the pair and was not written for the film. In fact, they never even finished the song, recording a partial version as a joke to play for friends.

But, to mix metaphors inspired by other problematic ’80s movies directed by Adrian Lyne, “Maniac” was not going to be ignored. Sembello accidentally sent it to producer Phil Ramone when the latter was looking for music for the Flashdance soundtrack. According to a 1983 interview Sembello gave The Los Angeles Times, Ramone wanted the song for the movie, provided the songwriters could “drop the horror angle” and write something a little more in line with the saga of Alex Owens, a Pittsburgh welder-slash-exotic dancer who dreams of becoming a ballerina. 

Stretching for the Beat

Flashdance was released to little fanfare in April 1983. Critics were unimpressed, and Paramount was so underwhelmed by the movie that it essentially wrote it off as a financial failure before it even premiered. Audiences saw the film differently, though; Flashdance would earn nearly $93 million at the domestic box office by the end of December—only Return of the Jedi and Tootsie made more money that year. 

The soundtrack LP, released by PolyGram, was received just as warmly, with the label scrambling to fill orders and flooding record stores with marketing materials and displays. Paramount quickly ushered Flashdance director Adrian Lyne into an editing booth and tasked him with compiling his outtakes into music videos for four songs, including “Maniac.” The video went into heavy rotation on MTV and in dance clubs across the country, boosting the single’s popularity and providing ample free advertising for the movie. In fact, in an essay for the 2011 book Celluloid Symphonies, music critic Marianne Meyer credits those videos with changing the way studios marketed films. 

Jennifer Beals, Rob Simonds
Actress Jennifer Beals and film producer Rob Simonds at the premiere of 'Flashdance' in London. / Dave Hogan/GettyImages

By September, “Maniac”—the second single from the movie, following Irene Cara’s anthemic “Flashdance... What a Feeling” [PDF]—was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1984, the track was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song (though Sembello ultimately lost to Cara at the 56th Academy Awards). Sembello would go on to contribute songs to other soundtracks, including “Mega Madness” for 1984’s Gremlins and “Rock Until You Drop” for 1986’s The Monster Squad, but he’d never again come close to the success of “Maniac.”

And over time, a certain lore surrounding the song’s origins began to take root. When “Maniac” was released in 1983, Spinell called Lustig and insisted it had been written for their film. Lustig dismissed the claim, chalking it up to Spinell’s use of recreational drugs—until years later when the filmmaker was watching an episode of VH1’s One-Hit Wonders where Sembello seemed to confirm Spinell’s theory. 

In May 2010, Lustig traveled to Sembello’s home to determine, once and for all, when, why, and how the song was written. Their conversation, which would later be included on a special-edition Blu-ray release of Maniac, finally set the record straight. The song did start out as a bizarre ditty about a deranged killer—but it had almost nothing to do with Lustig’s movie. 

As for Spinell, the actor was determined to produce and star in a sequel to his notorious slasher flick, even though his character, Frank Zito, appears to die by suicide at the end. Lustig wasn’t interested, but according to Dave Alexander’s 2023 book Untold Horror, Spinell spent the next several years developing a pair of ill-fated follow-ups. Supposedly chastened by the reaction of women’s groups to Maniac, he first sought to build a sequel around a kids’ show host who murdered child abusers. An eight-minute promo reel titled Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie was produced in 1986, but the project fell through sometime after Spinell and his chosen director lost their only copy of the script. 

Spinell moved on to Lone Star Maniac, which would have cast him as a murderous Texas DJ. On January 13, 1989, three weeks before shooting was set to begin, Spinell died in his Queens apartment. His death was widely attributed to a heart attack, but some sources claim he suffered from hemophilia and bled to death after sustaining a head wound in a fall. Attempts at an official Maniac sequel died along with him. Still, the film was remade in 2012 by French director Franck Khalfoun, this time featuring Elijah Wood in the title role—and still no catchy pop song to anchor its decidedly more sophisticated synth soundtrack. 

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