Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Exterminator (1980)

‘The Exterminator’ followed two years after Michael Cimino’s masterful emotionally shattering depiction of the psychological damages caused by the Vietnam War with 1978’s ‘The Deer Hunter’. If it was not for the title, tagline that reads, “In war, you have to kill to stay alive... on the streets of New York, it's often the same” and poster image of a man welding a flamethrower wearing a motorcycle helmet the first 15-minutes of the first act could easily be mistaken as another post-Vietnam War melodrama.

This is seemingly how things are going to play out up until a vicious act of violence followed by swift retribution from its protagonist John Eastland (the late Robert Ginty) abruptly turns the proceedings into a grim gritty urban vigilante action thriller that unflinchingly portrays the ugly side of New York life in the 1980s. The film is no less thoughtful because of this though. As well as being an exploitation action revenge flick with a ballsy attitude it works as well as an allegory of the repercussions caused by the Vietnam War with a sympathetic view of the inner turmoil of its veterans trying to cope with their returns to society. This is supplemented by a political commentary with a stinging attack on the corruption of the United States government due to Vietnam portrayed here as the very worst villains more so than the scumbag street punks.

The opening pre-title sequence in the period setting of the Vietnam War depicts the capture of John (Ginty) and his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) by the Viet Cong during a battle. After both witness the gruesome beheading of one of their brothers in arms Michael manages to set himself free killing the squad of the Vietnamese enemy. Both escape airlifted out of the warzone. This was filmed in five days in the exact same location of the Indian Dunes, California, where a few years later the notorious tragic helicopter accident happened while filming ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ (1980) during the John Landis segment ‘Time Out’. This particular sequence is also set during the Vietnam War and the accident killed actor Vic Morrow and two young girls Renee Chen and My-ca Dinh Le.

The sequence here in this movie cost $400,000 to shoot 15% of the budget of this $2,000,000 independent production and is infamous for a different reason due to the graphic visceral intensity of the aforementioned decapitation. Created by Stan Winston a stonking $25,000 was spent on this set-piece alone building the animatronics of a motional body and a head with detailed facial expressions to make the scene as authentically realistic as possible. Shot in slowmo the horrific impact of its execution burns into your mind as it does with John as the horrors of what he sees here play out in flashbacks along with him dealing out the vengeance on the street scum.

During the title sequence, we see aerial shots of locations around New York City indicating that the setting has shifted to here. We then pick up with John and Michael five years after the Vietnam War has finished both working in a meat packing plant where the boss of the warehouse is being forced to pay protection money to a local mobster. John lives alone in a small rundown apartment while Michael has gone on to marry and father two children. While at work, John catches members of a street gang known as the Ghetto Ghouls trying to steal crates of beer from their boss. The leader of the gang threatens John with a knife. When Michael goes to find John with a couple of cups of coffee, Michael aids John defeating the thugs. Now John’s best friend Michael has saved his life twice.

However, this brings severe consequences in one of the most unpleasantly mean spirited moments in the film that turns the streets of NYC into John’s own personal warzone. In retaliation, the Ghetto Ghouls track down Michael cornering him in a back-street alley. The same leader of the gang uses a meat hook to gouge his spine permanently paralyzing him. I touch and feel for my spine every time I see this scene. It is very painful to watch. Now Michael is a cripple for life not being able to support his family John interrogates one of the gang members with the use of a flamethrower, then seeks out the rest of them at their clubhouse in an apartment building and wipes them out. Arriving at the crime scene is Detective James Dalton (the late Christopher George) also a Vietnam vet who investigates the murders. John’s next move is to steal back the money from Mafia boss Gino Pontivini (Dick Boccelli) who is the one extorting John’s boss and therefore taking the wages out of the pocket of Michael that he needs for his family. John wanting to give the money to Michael’s family kidnaps Gino chains him up and hangs him over an industrial meat grinder.

John’s thirst for vigilante justice becomes more widespread. He sends a letter to the media signed with a nom de guerre (a French phrase meaning “war name”) as “The Exterminator”. In what are the most disturbing scenes in the movie in a three-scene sub-plot, we see the picking up off the street of a young prostitute by a man who turns out to be a child prostitution ringleader who provides young boys for rich clients to abuse. He brings the woman to his den to a paedophile New Jersey state senator who wants to have intercourse with a woman at the same time he sodomizing a young boy. Disgusted by this the prostitute refuses and tries to leave but is then taken to a bed and tied down and stripped while the old vile perverted senator scalds her breasts with a soldering iron. Later by chance, John bumps into her walking down the street when she approaches him. John accepts her proposal and they go to a seedy room together where in a Taxi Driver-esque moment John sees her unsightly scars and telling John what happened he tracks down the sick fiends and avenges her dispatching them with such brutal malice.

While this last scene of this sub-plot does indeed offer the exploitative thrills from seeing this slime get their comeuppance, a reaction that is purposely set-up for us with its previous two scenes seeking our revulsion, like many other times in the movie this scene offers an emotional pull. In what is one of many genuine dramatic moments sprinkled throughout, we see John untie from a bed a young boy the senator was abusing rounding the scene off with tender moving human compassion that is truly touching as John comforts the boy. We are set-up to be angered by not only what these creeps do to the defenceless young woman whose only crime was to decline their revolting proposition but at just that as well - what they partake in - and our enjoyment comes from seeing justice served and this endearing act of human kindness is our emotional reward.

Juxtaposed to this sequence of events are scenes of Dalton’s blossoming romance with Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Eggar) who is overseeing the treatment of one of John’s punished victims. While they are on a dinner date having a late night picnic in a park these events take place simultaneously. With the sound of non-diegetic romantic music playing the camera leaves them during a tracking shot then goes to an aerial shot as it leaves the park flying to establish the bright lights of New York and then cuts to the first scene of the sub-plot as it establishes the setting of the rundown downtown streets. After the nasty shitbag pimp picks up the prostitute and the heinous act is committed the film cuts back to Dalton and Samantha’s date. What we get here is the contrast of light and dark. While there is a fledgling romance, we are reminded of the cruel evil world out there reinforced by the prostitute's odious ordeal.

This is further empathized upon again a little later in the movie during their second date. When Samantha asks Dalton if it was bad in Vietnam to which Dalton replies that it was bad but not as bad as New York City the film then cuts to a scene in which an old woman is mugged by the remains of the Ghetto Goons including the one John interrogated. This time John does not let him off. This perfectly illustrates the movie’s tagline - “In war, you have to kill to stay alive... on the streets of New York, it's often the same”.

While the film lacks visual flair this only works to its advantage in painting a grimy portrait of the sleaziness of 80’s New York. It is similar in this respect to the potency of William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) as the filthy squalid mean streets of NYC are cold and lonely with a distinct feel of hopelessness. In what is a bleak murky affair the only real humour to be found here comes from George’s character Dalton. Him to an interfering CIA agent who represents the aforementioned anti-government political commentary – “I think you need to take a shit. It's coming out of your mouth instead of your asshole.” Christopher George is one of the stand out performances as Detective John Dalton along with the lead Robert Ginty playing John Estland. He portrays a quiet distant war veteran with subtle nuances with his expressions and looks and acts just like a normal average everyman that makes it even easier for us to identify with and root for. The rest of the cast do a capable passable job.

While the action revenge angle takes to the forefront over the anti-corruption commentary of the US government, what we have here is angry reactionary filmmaking to the atrocities of the Vietnam War with an emotional lending to the material wrapped up in a piece of genre cinema. Writer and director James Glickenhaus’ ‘The Exterminator’ is a well-made immensely effective scuzzy action vigilante thriller that satisfyingly entertains and ranks high up there with the very best American movies of the revenge sub-genre. 

**** out of *****

Dave J. Wilson

©2013 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Brilliant write-up, Dave! Still, it wasn't exactly my cuppa. Seen it two times, on DVD and on the big screen (16mm screening) - both times, I thought it was just mediocre :/

    1. Thanks, Maynard. It's a shame you didn't enjoy the film as much as I did as I got a lot from it. At least we can agree its leaps and bounds better than 'Exterminator 2'.

  2. This has to be the most perceptive analysis I've read on this movie. Brilliant.

    1. Thank you very much, Charles. I think 'The Exterminator' is one of the very finest urban vigilante revenge films and is deserving of such attention.

  3. I remember rewinding my Beta so many times, so that I could listen to the song at the end credits. What a great ending to a violent movie that I enjoyed very much. It wasn't until years later that I found out who the singer of that song was. John Voits Brother. It is nice to see an appreciative article written for this film, because most critics slammed it and I enjoyed it very much on beta. Thanks

    1. You're welcome, Skeet. I'm glad you enjoyed my thoughts on 'The Exterminator'. Thanks.