Written and Directed by: James Glickenhaus
Starring: Robert Ginty, Samantha Eggar, and Christopher George
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“If you're lying, I'll be back.”
Though the calendar had rolled over into 1980 by the time The Exterminator was released, James Glickenhaus’s grindhouse shocker brings together the two great “Vs” of 70s cinema: Vietnam and vigilantism. Both are dragged through the grime and grit of 42nd street, and the result is a sleazy little cult favorite. It’s also probably the most fun you’ll ever have watching a guy bash and shoot thugs this side of Charles Bronson.
In the jungles of ’Nam, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and Michael Jefferson (Steve James) narrowly avoid death at the hands of some bloodthirsty Viet Cong soldiers. After their rescue, they’re shipped back home to the arguably more dangerous concrete jungle that is New York City. Taking jobs at a food warehouse, the two eek out a normal existence until they’re forced to thwart a gang of beer-thieving thugs. The hooligans don’t take this affront kindly and end up paralyzing Michael for revenge, which only manages to righteously piss off John, who decides to exterminate the streets of crime.
The Exterminator is almost like an exploitative perfect storm, as the wave of cinematic vigilantism was beginning to cascade to sensationalist heights in the wake of Death Wish; meanwhile, civil and political unrest regarding Vietnam was even more palpable, having also exploded onto the screen in previous years. However, in true exploitation fashion, Glickenhaus merged all this stuff with the burgeoning slasher movement to create a splattery, gore-soaked romp out of it all (interestingly enough, famed Italian schlock master Antonio Margheriti married ’Namsploitation with man-eaters in Cannibal Apocalypse, also in 1980). This is not to say the film is completely mindless, as it eventually rocks some post-Watergate government distrust, and there’s a super unsubtle reference to Sartre (“hell is other people” indeed, so have a blowtorch handy). For the most part, however, The Exterminator is all about the exterminating--the gloriously bloody and demented exterminating at that.
Robert Ginty might look like a high school math teacher, but make no mistake--he’s committed to messing you up like a sadistic gym coach. Once he resigns himself to avenging his fallen friend, he goes all-out. He makes Rambo’s First Blood fit look like a temper tantrum in comparison, as no one is safe: crooked politicians, pedophiles, granny-assaulting thugs, mobsters--you name it, he kills it. You won’t catch him taking an emotional dump where he laments the loss of his friends’ legs like Rambo, either, because he’s the guy who blows assholes’ legs off instead. If he’s not utilizing his bathroom ninja skills, he’s chasing thugs down on a stolen motorcycle to literally wreck their shit. When all is said in done, he’s left behind a trail of smoldering corpses and gangsters who have literally been mushed into ground beef.
Standing in his way is Christopher George, who had a fine career as a multi-tasking problem solver. For a brief period in time, if you had to deal with something, be it grizzlies (or a whole mess of animals), the undead, or even axe murderers, you called Christopher George. He’s especially memorable here because he’s so brazenly irresponsible and spends more time eating hot dogs and sexing Samantha Eggar (she’s a nurse) than he does trying to capture Ginty. Who has time to track down a murderous vigilante when there’s a jazz concert in town? Even when a government bigwig from the CIA strolls into town, he’s eventually blown off by George, who decides to set up a late night hospital rendezvous instead of doing his job. Obviously, their paths do eventually cross, but even then, it’s just dumb luck, and George just stands there slack-jawed with his fly open. Our hero! (Sort of--Ginty’s the real hero, I think, homicidal streak be damned.)
I’m probably making this sound a lot sillier than it really is. There’s certainly an oafish quality, but Glickenhaus also manages to capture the grungy, seedy depravity of the proceedings. The opening scene in Vietnam captures a hellish quality that also features one of the most wicked and disturbing decapitations you’ll ever see (courtesy of Stan Winston). Once the action shifts to New York (if you can make it as a vigilante there, you can make it anywhere), the flick is no less suffocating in its filthiness. A requisite stroll down 42nd Street reveals the seamy infestation of pimps, gangs, drugs, and whores that have polluted the home front. The film can’t go too long without cramming in something to remind us of what The Exterminator is fighting against; even one of Eggars and George’s romantic trysts is intercut with a prostitute being signed by a bunch of pedophiles with a soldering iron. As you might expect, they eventually end up getting burned themselves (as do the punks who are rocking out to “Disco Inferno” in their apartment building--“burn, baby burn!”).
A pretty entertaining slice of ‘Namsploitation and vigilante luridness, The Exterminator deftly toes the line between daft and disturbing. Imagine if The Punisher had been made into an 80s exploitation flick (and without Dolph Lundgren), and you’ve got just about the right idea. Released as one of Anchor Bay’s earliest titles way back in 1998 (at which point I was only 15--I can only imagine how I would have lost my mind had I seen it back then, which probably tells you who this is aimed at), The Exterminator has been around on disc for quite a while. However, it’s never been in crystal clear high definition until Synapse’s recent Blu-ray release, which contains the unrated director’s cut of the film. The transfer is as gorgeous as something this low-rent and shoddy can look, I suppose; perhaps not the most stunning of transfers, but I’ll wager it’s very faithful to the film’s original look. You get two choices of audio tracks--the original mono and re-mastered stereo, both of which are presented in DTS-MA (other studios really need to take a cue from Synapse here--just because something isn’t surround sound doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be uncompressed). The only special features are a commentary with Glickenhaus, a trailer, and television spots, but Synapse also tosses in a DVD copy, so it’s a fine package. I can only hope they can wrangle the rights to The Exterminator 2 and give it a similar treatment because the first flick is an awesome hot mess of charred bodies, mangled flesh, and twisted steel. Buy it!
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