The Exterminator Review
“If you're lying … I'll be back.”
Arnie didn't say it first. He was pipped-to-the-machismo-post by Robert Ginty's Vietnam-veteran turned vigilante in the down 'n' dirty world of James Glickenhaus' pure wanton exploitation classic and trendsetting urban revenger, 1980's The Exterminator. And in the annals of such sleazy, blood-soaked avenging, his notorious debut occupies a particularly hallowed position. And now The Exterminator is back … in a Director's Cut Blu-ray release from Synapse that reinstates some further violence and splatter.
Way, way back when home video was just getting a foothold in the UK, you couldn't just walk into a shop and buy a film. If you wanted a movie to keep you had to pay an incredible price to a distributor or to a mail order specialist. I'd be around 11 and I'd harassed my parents relentlessly to get a video recorder. And, one Christmas, I hurtled down the stairs to unwrap that intriguing rectangular package under the tree. Aye, there it was in all its silver, top-loading glory – a Sanyo VTC 5000 Betamax machine. But not only that, my dear mama, who had been subjected to my ceaseless campaign to brainwash her with titles that I one day wished to begin my movie collection with, had obtained for me two classic films that she knew I'd been hankering for. One was David Cronenberg's Scanners and the other was – yep, you guessed it – The Exterminator. I was 11! She was awesome, my mum. Whilst Scanners was encased in one of those glorious big Guild Home Video boxes, The Exterminator was housed in one of those cute, tight-fitting cardboard slip-cases from Intervision. Both titles had cost her seventy quid apiece!!!!! And that was on top of what she paid for the video machine.
She really had no idea what she'd gone and bought.
The Video Nasty purge hadn't quite started yet, but I'd been brought up watching Universal Horrors and all sorts of things on late-night TV. Plus, with fantastic contacts at our local cinema – The Phoenix in Wallasy (now long gone, I'm afraid) – I'd been regularly seeing stuff that, in all honesty, I really shouldn't have. But anyway, in her assumption that The Exterminator was just some sort of Dirty Harry style thriller – God knows what she thought Scanners was going to be with that mind-blowing cover-art – she didn't realise that my own mind was about to be indelibly fried with ultra-right-wing images of profound natural justice. And little Chris Mac was about to become Mad Mac, Wallasey's own answer to The Road Warrior, tooling around on his Chopper bike, the scourge of any school bullies and scallies whose faces my fists could actually reach.
Ahhh, such sweet nostalgia. Watching films like this never affected me. Honest.
Two friends go to war. Michael Jefferson (the great Steve James) saves the life of his buddy, John Eastland (Robert Ginty) during a horrific execution sequence in the badlands of Vietnam. Returning to The World, the pair work in the warehouses of New York's docks, always counting and depending on each other. When a street gang attempt to rip off the lock-up they are stocking with crates of beer, Jefferson winds-up saving Eastland's life again … but things then turn extremely nasty when the gang, out for payback, corner the big guy and beat him half to death in a racist attack. With his best friend left on a life-support machine, Eastland vows revenge on the gang, the Ghetto Ghouls. Using the skills he picked up in the war, he takes them out, one by one, but his thirst for retribution remains unsatisfied. Next, he targets the mob who have been bleeding dry the company that he works for, hoping to syphon off their funds in order to help out Jefferson's suffering family. But the more scumbags he eradicates from the streets, the more there seems to be in need of his own brand of swift justice just waiting in the shadows to take their place. By now, Eastland's deeds have become headline-worthy news and he has been dubbed the Exterminator. Jaded detective Dalton (Christopher George) takes the case and tries to catch the man who is doing the job that he is not allowed to do. But other, more sinister eyes are also watching events unfold with avid interest.
The seventies was the era of the vigilante. I've discussed this genre and the themes that drove it, many times before, but the genesis of The Exterminator lies just as much in the Western as it does on the sick streets of Manhattan. Eastland becomes not so much the judge and jury on a moralistic crusade to clean up the town his way, but the obsessed former soldier, a sort of urbanised Josey Wales, if you will. The flotsam of life that he meets – a soldering-iron scorched hooker, a youth abducted into the sex trade – aren't just ignored. We might not see much of his “after-care” treatment for such victims, but the film implies that he doesn't just leave them there. There are shades of Robin Hood about his redistribution of wealth campaign, shades of Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy and John Wayne too. The curious thing about the vengeance-genre is how deeply it struck a chord with audiences the world-over. When Dustin Hoffman made a stand against small-minded thuggery in Straw Dogs, there was a massive subtext of primal nature versus the rational mind. But when Charles Bronson tracked down the punks responsible for the rape and murder of his wife in Death Wish, something far more vital and volatile was ignited. The vendettas of the Old West now seemed very far away and fantastical compared to the savagery of the streets and the lawlessness that civilised folk were confronted with on a daily basis. The “dawn of the vigilante” was born when it became abundantly clear that the law and the legal system were too weak and too easily intimidated in the face of such brazen delinquency. And the vicious cycle and cruel irony of watching screen heroes dishing-out what we all knew to be right was usurped by the knowledge that following-suit would only make you as much of a criminal in the eyes of the law. So we all cheer these guys on, but tut-tut anyone who actually does take the law into their own hands. Oh, the contradictory nature of Man.
But anyway, this is all moot when our boy gets to work on the filth of a corrupt and poisoned society. Eastland is almost sitting there each morning and deciding, over a cup of java, just what sort of villain he should go after that day. Hmmm … drugs kingpin or kiddie-fiddler? It was perhaps this variety that lent The Exterminator and its theme a broader and more far-reaching scope. It goes beyond mere revenge to become a cultural Zeitgeist. Which isn't bad for a low-budget, exploitation flick, is it?
As is often the case with the “serious” and adult-natured films that you see at a tender and impressionable age, The Exterminator, as violent and mean-spirited as it is, has taken on a weird, almost cosy, Saturday morning vibe. The punks don't seem all that intimidating, the mob boss is merely a sly old grouch and the seedy pimps and paedophiles don't seem to offer much in the way of resistance. But Ginty's first tour of duty as a “had-enough” champion of society's beleaguered put-upons still packs a steady series of punches, things that made it so damn popular on videocassette and a perennial renter.
But, more than anything else, The Exterminator is famous for one scene.
The fantastic start of the movie takes place in a truly hellish depiction of Vietnam, actually filmed in Indian Falls, California. Our very first image is of a fireball erupting around the peak of a jungle ridge … and within that fireball, a human figure is seen hurtling through the air. This is Eastland … going airborne. Although clearly shot on a shoestring, this sequence, as Jefferson manages to work his way to his friend's stricken body and help him to his feet, and their subsequent capture by the evil VC is brilliantly satanic and surreal. Eastland and Jefferson are clearly Special Forces, judging by their combination of tiger-stripe and woodland camouflage fatigues, and the rest of their unit aren't too far away, but they are going to faced with a terrible ordeal before they are rescued. Together with some other poor American, they are hauled away and strung up in an almost ritualistic interrogation, Glickenhaus, who wrote as well as directed the film, lays his bloody cards on the table straight away.
We'd seen heads coming off before. Romero had blown them off and trepanned them with rotor-blades. The Omen and Friday The 13th had neatly sliced them off. De Palma and Cronenberg had actually exploded them. But we'd never seen a decapitation quite like this one. The VC captain goes about his interrogation with the full knowledge that whatever nuggets of intelligence he gains from his captives he's still going to commit some horrendous atrocity on them. And, twisting and squirming against their bonds, the three Americans know it too.
Ginty's injured grunt refuses to oblige the enemy with the date of an impending US attack, so the slimy, inscrutable captor (George Cheung, who was actually the same guy who would find himself on the receiving end of one of Rambo's exploding arrows in Rambo: First Blood Part II) opts for a more persuasive tactic. Glickenhaus has his composer Joe Renzetti then give us an unnerving barrage of sinister synth on the score, and the nasty officer slowly moves across the eerie flare-lit camp to another poor sod tied between two bamboo stakes. What follows is both horrific and bizarre. And the stuff of cult legend. In what is practically a throwaway shot, he almost gently thunks! a machete blade into the back of the wretch's neck, eliciting a quick half-choked expulsion of surprised air from him. We cut back to both Ginty and James, their faces showing only a weird twinge of concern … and then, in a truly perverse example of pure grindhouse grue, that machete slices, in a detailed mid-shot, and in slow-motion, right through the guy's neck, back to front. The mouth falls open, blood gushes out of the scythed throat with Fulci-like zeal … and then … whoa … the head slowly peels off its moorings to the sound of gurgling gore and snapping sinew and lolls off over the right shoulder, to hang there by a thin strip of stretched tendon. This Director's Cut gives us more close-up detail of blood cascading out of the stump and the killer wiping away the stuff from his blade, but even back in the days when the slightly trimmed version was first doing the rounds, this killing gained justifiable infamy. And even now, a thousand such grisly effects later (Day of the Dead, 30 Days Of Night, Haute Tension, Hatchet II to name just a quartet of examples of unusual beheadings), this scene, crafted by the great Stan Winston whilst Tom Burman took care of the rest of the blood-letting, is utterly amazing and a true eye-popper and, indeed, jaw-dropper. Effects have come a long way since then, of course, but this is still, I think, my favourite such on-screen execution right alongside Norris' head tearing itself off his writhing body, sprouting spider-legs and scuttling off in The Thing.
With the ghastly, skin-crawling industrial drone of the score serrating our nerves even more, the officer then returns to a visibly shaking Eastland … and asks him one more time.
You wonder just how he's ever going to top this. And, in truth, he can't. Nothing in the rest of the movie even comes close to matching the bloody intensity of this sequence. This was Glickenhaus' ambitious take on the appalling Russian Roulette sequence seen in The Deer Hunter.
Robert Ginty is a remarkable oddity of an actor. He plays a very convincing wimp – let's not forget that Steve James saves his ass not once but twice, and that's just inside the first fifteen minutes – and yet he is also totally credible as the vengeful Exterminator as well. Let's face it, he doesn't look hard, does he? Ginty has that sort of cuddly, young uncle appearance. If he wasn't blowing pimps and paedophiles away in this he'd interacting with Muppets in Sesame Street. Little pinched lips, a slight lisp, sandy blonde hair in a neat, mother's-just-combed-it fashion – he's the good kid in the class. The one who is picked on. Which is why he is so good at playing the humbled, twitchy victim. But this is also what makes him great as the uber-vigilante bringing the hurt to the scumbags of New York. He is not a muscle-bound hunk of steroidal fury. He can't stride through legions of goons with his fists and feet set to DECIMATE and then waltz out without a scratch. He's a spindly guy who just happens to have the necessary grit, and the weaponry, to get the job done. Dangerously, as censors in the pre-Stallone/Schwarzenegger era thought, he was an everyday bloke and could, therefore, inspire others with his down-to-earth and decidedly un-comicbook exploits. Although the script doesn't spell anything out, other than a cursory (and even oddly altered) flashback to the beheading incident in Vietnam, we are not especially told that he is suffering from any kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, but Ginty manages to layer-in some empathetic expressions and a sort of weary, reluctant pragmatism about his crusade that sort of implies that he's just gotten used to the nightmares and accepts them. What makes his portrayal so unusual with regards to the plethora of other screen vigilantes is his laid-back style. After his first actual “hit” in the club-house of the Ghetto Ghouls, we can see him thinking about what he has to do next now that he's gained control, running a hand through his hair and contemplating the devastation he's just caused. This is a stroke of humanity that you don't usually get with these single-minded avengers who simply cut-and-run.
Ginty would never really make a name for himself in anything other than this. Attempts to have him headline other low-budget genre movies (The Alchemist, anyone?) only saw him vanish into the stink of bad rip-offs and forgettable TV walk-ons. This is perhaps why he is so convincing as vigilante – you'd never notice him on the streets. He just blends in and is easily overlooked.
Christopher George is one of my favourite B-movie also-rans. He was great in William Girdler's awesome Grizzly (see DVD review), reliably grizzled, himself, in Fulci's City Of The Living Dead (BD reviewed) and off-the-wall as a one-eyed mercenary in Kampuchea Express. The guy was a tenacious toiler who could have gone a lot further than the low-rent actioners and Spaghetti-flavoured thrillers that dominated the latter stages of his career, but he seemed so at-home with exploitation that it eventually seemed to cocoon him after what seemed like an eternity of TV guest appearances. Although I like seeing him in this – you've got to love the scene when he charges out of the hospital having just been given the slip by Eastland, and his flares are ballooning out from the tops of his boots like he's going for a vintage Star Trek look – he's sort of saddled with a part that always threatens to go somewhere, but is then cut short just when it finally does. His investigation is poor and only blind luck leads him in the right direction. You really believe that he is going to become involved in the action – team-up with Eastland perhaps, because he certainly sympathises with the Exterminator's views – but Glickenhaus just lets him keep picking up the pieces after each new extermination. Still, the film is better just because he's in it … and look at how he fixes himself a hotdog at his desk using two forks and his own table-lamp! Now that's Special Forces training!
If recruiting Christopher George helped bring the film to the attention of the action-junkies, the inclusion of Samantha Eggar was nothing other than pure name-casting. Pure affordable name-casting. Eggar was never A-list, but with a slew of appearances in things like Welcome To Blood City, The Light At The Edge of The World and The Brood, she was great at bringing a level of respectability to edgy genre flicks after having brought grace and eloquence to Doctor Doolittle. Sadly, Glickenhaus is just using her as a name on the poster. Her character of Dr. Megan Stewart is completely irrelevant to the story and her relationship with George's detective is not only utterly unbelievable but a device that only succeeds in slowing the film down and saddling it with some unnecessarily cheap soppiness. It is almost as if Glickenhaus is still playing to the once-traditional template of having the hero get some romance in-amidst the action. It also seems to suggest that New York ain't such a bad place to live, after all, with little impromptu candle-lit dinners in Central Park's boat-house and jazz nights interspersed with the thuggery. In a film that bucks the accepted trends as much The Exterminator does, this smacks of soggy cop-out. Glickenhaus does claim that this whole secondary plot of the romance is to highlight the vast gulf between the experiences of the two Vietnam veterans, Eastland and Dalton. We should probably take his word for it, but I still believe the element falls flat.
Brawny, charismatic and usually indefatigable, straight-to-video action star Steve James looms over the film despite being laid-up in a hospital bed and swathed in bandages for the most part. An iconic supporting macho-man, James clocked-up a considerable number of braindead thrillers during the decade of excess, but he first an impression here as Eastland's heroic but doomed best pal. He's not the world's greatest actor, I know, but he's a solid and reliable presence in things such as this. When you return to The Exterminator after seeing his later ass-kicking movies like The Delta Force and American Ninja, it is all the more crushing and upsetting to see how he ends-up at the fists, feet, clubs and garden-fork of the Ghetto Ghouls. A young Dennis Boutsikaris plays a nasty, bandanna-wearing member of the crew. Boutsikaris would subsequently go on to make a career out of playing nice and learned doctors, DA's and professors after his stint as a granny-bashing lout. Ned Eisenberg makes an impression as the Che Guevara besotted leader of the gang, and the hulking, yet highly affable Irwin Keyes brings a provocative bestial menace to the early sections of the film.
Even if the violence, once we get past that staggeringly nasty prologue sequence, now seems a little more tepid than the sort of brutality that we are used to seeing, there is still plenty to enjoy, and even some flair and imagination to Eastman's quiet rampage. A mob-boss is fed into a meat-grinder, and even though the gristle and gore that come the other end could just as easily be minced beef, there's something macabre about the bright red blood and that stringy-bit that comes oozing through. Ginty is not the sort of pugilistic guy, and the physical stuff doesn't come easy to him, but I have to admit that the knee to the face that our boy delivers to the proprietor of the chickenhawk brothel is simply glorious. Sadly, this has to be balanced with the nasty kick that a poor old woman receives from a member of the Ghetto Ghouls during a late-night mugging – another element that tended to be cut from UK prints. Other executions are dealt out with poisoned bullets from a Magnum .44 – now that says he means business – and Glickenhaus takes great delight in heaving bodies backwards through the air in slow-motion as Eastman takes pot-shots. And another highly memorable moment, even without the visual element of it, is the human barbecue that he constructs - the very screaming that we hear from the all-too deserving victim is soul-shredding. After the high-pitched shrieking we even get to hear the horrible whimpering as the flames completely consume them. The poster-image of a vigilante in a sleeveless denim top and a motorcycle helmet with the visor down, and hefting a fire-spewing flame-thrower is iconic but it is also completely inaccurate. We may have encountered Ginty's ever-crusading Eastland in such inferno-delivering mode in the execrable Exterminator 2 that the original film's producer, Mark Buntzman, delivered in 1983, in which he is also encased in a steel suit and welder's helmet, but his burning impulses are held very much in check with this adventure. A blow-torch is used to intimidate, but he never once takes up a flame-thrower in anger against anyone.
Incidentally, a wonderful point is raised in the commentary track for this film, that the “true” sequel to The Exterminator is actually First Blood … and, my God, when you think about how this movie ends and how Kotchef's begins, and the connective theme, it really works!
The production quite famously created one of the biggest explosions that the city had seen – well, unofficial explosions, that is – when Eastland puts a .44 slug into the fuel-tank of the gang's Camarro. And the use of a eerily deserted ship in the docks creates a haunting finale, perhaps harking back to Dirty Harry's last confrontation with the cop-vigilantes in Magnum Force. Glickenhaus didn't exactly set the world alight with his action scenes, but then most urban thrillers up until this point had been merely point-and-shoot, one-set affairs that didn't require much audacity. Walter Hill had brought comic-book avant-garde fight sequences to The Warriors, and Robert Butler had given Night Of The Juggler a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred kineticism, but what Glickenhaus lacked in technical savvy and set-piece ingenuity, he made up for in ambition. The car-and-motorcycle chase is great fun, the slow-mo suspense as an injured Eastland gets into position as the bad guys come motoring down towards him, is highly stylish and exciting. A terrifying struggle with a determined guard dog is another bravura moment. But I love the scene in the gang's club-house when a ranting and virtually unintelligible Ginty bursts in, M16 at the ready with an extended magazine in place, and wreaks low-budget havoc to the dynamic tune of The Trammps' classic Disco Inferno. He may obviously miss the gang-leader's head with the butt of the rifle, but look at how viciously Ginty wrenches the topless floozy out of the way by her hair! There's real anger here.
Although we've certainly seen plenty of Exterminator clones over the years, there's still something about this one that resonates. Glickenhaus managed to convey a world in which corruption was rife at practically every level of society, with even the cops taking care of contraband and stolen goods, turning a blind eye to dope and severely bending the rules to get the job done. He would show a gritty, more realistic side to Manhattan with his copious location-shooting and use of the Dresden-like tenements of the South Bronx – something that Michael Wadleigh would also exploit in the following year's Wolfen. And he would even help to perpetuate the growing sense of distrust in the faceless authorities pulling strings in them background, with the shady involvement of the CIA in the Exterminator's campaign. Incidentally, Wolfen would also reference this shadowy world of politics too.
James Glickenhaus would carry on with such exploitational mayhem in the likes of the extremely odd Codename: The Soldier with Ken Wahl, and return to the mercenary antics of bullets, bombs and Viet-vets of McBain, with Christopher Walken (which has just been released on DVD by Arrowdrome). But this is still the film that everyone remembers most.
Rough-edged, raw and as a gritty as a chalk-sarnie, The Exterminator took the concept of Taxi Driver to its trashy extreme and became as notorious on home video as its titular namesake would become on the streets of a crime-ridden Big Apple. For some it will be a welcome trip down memory lane to a very exciting era in home video history. For others it may well be a reminder of the time when all hell broke loose on TV screens and entertainment got darker, harder and more visceral.
You must have lied … coz he's back!