This week’s pick is the 1980 release of James Glickenhaus’s ‘The Exterminator‘ which takes us from the jungles of war torn Vietnam to the urban jungle of the crime stricken and bankrupt New York City of 1980.
The Film stars Robert Ginty (John Eastland), Steve James (Michael Jefferson), Christopher George (Detective James Dalton), Samantha Eggar (Dr. Megan Stewart), Dick Boccelli (Gino Pontivini), and Patrick Farrelly (CIA Agent Shaw).
The film opens with an explosion which propels an individual mid air. It’s quickly revealed to be the film’s protagonist John Eastland (Ginty) as he and his army ranger unit are ambushed and captured by the Viet Cong. Eastland and his unit are taken to a camp where they are interrogated in order to divulge information about an upcoming American offensive in the area. Eastland refuses to give up any information and one of his men is brutally decapitated by a Vietnamese officer.
Eastland is hesitant but the information that is given forces the Vietnamese officer to stop. Eastland’s buddy Michael Jefferson (James) breaks free from his bonds and strangles one of the Vietnamese captors with a piece of wire. Eastland and the others take a cue from Jefferson and aid in taking out their captors. Severely wounded, the Vietnamese officer tries to crawl away to safety but is executed by Eastland. Eastland, Jefferson, and the surviving rangers make it to a helicopter LZ and are airlifted to safety. The film then cuts to an aerial sequence of present day New York City where the story begins.
Eastland and his war buddy Jefferson work in a food warehouse facility in the Bronx. On one morning Eastland discovers three members of a street gang who have gained access to a garage and are stealing cases of beer. Eastland intervenes and is threatened by the leader of the gang. Jefferson comes to his aid and the two successfully stop the robbery. The next day, Jefferson is ambushed in his neighborhood by the very same gang members who call themselves the Ghetto Ghouls. Jefferson is left severely beaten and paralyzed with a meat hook to his spinal cord. Hearing the news of the attack, Eastland informs Jefferson’s wife that he has been hospitalized and that he may not survive. This is where the film really begins to take off.
Eastland captures of the ghouls and interrogates him with a flamethrower to find out where their clubhouse is at. Eastland discovers the location of the clubhouse and informs the ghoul with the signature line of the film “if you’re lying to me, I’ll be back.” Eastland lays siege to the ghoul’s clubhouse where he dispatches several of them with a stolen M-16 rifle, and ties up the leader and one other in a basement full of rats. When the police arrive on the scene hours later, they are horrified to discover the remains of the two ghouls whose faces have been mauled by rats. Detective James Dalton (George) is assigned to the case and believes that the suspect in question is a Vietnam Vet according to testimonials from the ghoul’s girlfriends who confirmed the M-16 rifle and that the suspect in question had a military background. Dalton begins putting the pieces together and tries to discover the identity of Eastland.
Eastland doesn’t stop with the ghouls, but sets his sights on a mob boss named Gino Pontivini (Dick Boccelli) who has been extorting protection money from the owner of where Eastland and Jefferson work. Eastland sets up an elaborate plan to capture Pontivini and demand that he give back the money he has stolen out of the pocket of he and his friend all these years. Eastland takes Pontivini to the warehouse where he suspends him over a giant meat grinder. Pontivini tells Eastland that he has a safe in his home out in New Jersey and gives him the key and safe combination. Once again Eastland delivers the line “if you’re lying to me, I’ll be back.” Eastland gains access to Pontivini’s home and is attacked by a doberman guard dog, which is killed by Eastland who uses and electric carving knife on the poor pooch. Eastland returns to the warehouse and turns the mobster into ground chuck because he neglected to tell him about the guard dog.
A news report with veteran ABC Eyewitness News anchor at the time Roger Grimsby, reads a letter which was delivered to the news room and states that the people of NYC have endured crime and fear for far too long. Eastland refers to himself as ‘The Exterminator’ who vows to take out criminals and other assorted types. The news report begins to interest certain individuals within the CIA especially Agent Shaw (Farrelly) who believes that the exterminator may be working for a foreign government, or the opposition party due to a presidential election in the next few months. In fact, the film was released just two months before Ronald Reagan was elected as the fortieth president.
The Exterminator is a fantastic revenge/vigilante/urban warfare drama set during the very turbulent political and social backdrop of the late 1970s, early 1980s. Critics hailed and condemned the film due to its brutality and that it was far more disturbing than Deathwish, Rolling Thunder, or Taxi Driver. Robert Ginty turns out an absolutely amazing performance as a man who has been pushed too far and becomes a vigilante due to the decaying surroundings of NYC at the time. Its fun to watch the film and see famous landmarks such as Time Square thirty one years ago which was swarming with prostitutes, junkies, low lifes, pimps, and other assorted trash before it was turned into the Disneyland of today which thrills and excites those from abroad, or those from the American heartland.
One of the most disturbing and justice delivered moments of the film occurs when Eastland picks up a young prostitute and discovers that she has been mutilated with a soldering iron at local sex dungeon. Eastland discovers the location of the place and finds that the owner is involved in sex trafficking, and other sadistic sex crimes. Eastland fashions hollow-point bullets for a .44 magnum at his apartment and fills them with mercury for a rather unpleasant death. He enters the sex dungeon and dispatches the owner by setting him on fire. Eastland then discovers a vile Senator from New Jersey who has a penchant for young boys (he’s the one who tortured the young prostitute Eastland picked up). Eastland fires a hollow-point into the Senator’s “private area” and frees the young man. A very violent and unnerving scene to say the least. Soon after Eastland’s identity is discovered and Dalton closes in to capture him. The CIA are also determined to find Eastland and take him out for all the political and social unrest he has been responsible for.
The Exterminator has always been a favorite cult film of mine and when Anchor Bay Home Video released it on DVD ten years ago, I remembered the opening explosion scene quite well due to my father watching a video cassette of the film nearly twenty years prior to the DVD. I said out loud “oh yeah, I remember this now.”
Fun Fact: The special effects for the film, including the infamous and edited machete decapitating scene were done one a shoestring budget by an up and coming young effects artist named Stan Winston who would go on to win several Academy Awards for his impressive work until his untimely death nearly two years ago. Synapse Home Video plans to release the film on Blu-Ray disc soon with state of the art hi-def remastering, and newly discovered vault materials which will be added into a newer and supposedly better director’s cut.
The Exterminator is currently available on both Anchor Bay/Starz Home Video and Tango Entertainment DVD.