James Glickenhaus' 1980 film, The Exterminator, a bastard son of Taxi Driver and Death Wish, has over the years carved out quite a following among fans of gritty urban exploitation, with a solid mix of action, gore, sleaze and some righteous kills. In the film, John Eastland, a Vietnam vet wages war on the criminal scum of New York after his friend is attacked by a street gang and left paralysed and confined to a life support machine. With the city under siege, Eastland assumes full combat mode, dubs himself the Exterminator and takes to the streets to administer some rough justice. Determined to catch him is detective James Dalton, as well as some CIA agents who have a more permanent solution in mind...
It must have been quite an experience to catch a late show of The Exterminator and William Lustig's Maniac at a Manhattan theatre back in 1980 and then navigate your way home through the urban malaise. New York No Wave singer Lydia Lunch sang the garbage screams at my feet about her hometown in 1978, and Glickenhaus, a New Yorker himself, must have felt likewise when he wrote the screenplay - it's difficult not to see the film as a scream of rage against a city of hustlers, thieves, perverts, rapists and murderers, all going about their business in plain view of ineffectual law enforcement and indifferent politicians
Subtext aside, The Exterminator is a rip-roaringly good exploitation film. Glickenhaus directs with vigour and the film looks good for its meagre means. There's a car chase that ends with a wallop, and the 'Nam-on-a-budget prologue set in a Viet Cong POW camp is impressively staged. In the wake of The Deer Hunter, this sequence is suitably gruelling, with a spectacular decapitation effect courtesy of Stan Winston. The film doesn't soft pedal on the sleaze either, with a scene involving a prostitute who's tortured with a soldering iron for the amusement of a senator with a taste for young boys - quite an uncharteristic bit of grisly violence for this era, amongst the more palatable techno-splatter of Dawn of the Dead and the emerging slasher genre. Robert Ginty's performance as the exterminating angel creaks like an old wooden floorboard at times, but he's good enough as a low-rent Christopher Walken. Sterling support too from Christopher George, fresh from City of the Living Dead, playing the world-weary cop on the trail of the Exterminator. Rounding out the lead players is Samantha Eggar, who was so good in The Brood the previous year, but here is simply wasted with nothing more to do than throw lines at George.
The Exterminator is a tight, confident film, and Glickenhaus scores big on scuzzy ambiance, but the film feels underwritten, especially Eastland's character which lacks the psychological complexities of Paul Schrader's sociopathic taxi driver. The film has some awkward moments too - a scene where the Exterminator lies in wait of a mafia boss by hiding out in a large wastebasket bin in a mensroom is frankly ridiculous, and there are some variable performances from the minor cast members. The cynical subplot involving the CIA seems rather superfluous to the proceedings but thankfully winds the film down on a neat conclusion.
The Exterminator was first released on DVD in the US way back in 1998 by Anchor Bay, uncut, with a decent 1:85 transfer. The print used looked a little ragged in places but it was revelation compared to my old Intervision VHS copy. A few years later, the film changed hands, and is currently available on the Tango label, a port of the Anchor Bay disc but dressed up like a cheap budget quickie. The film fared worse in the UK where it was issued by Synergy, in a version cut by 22 seconds. It's a surprise that such a minor classic has not been given the love and respect it deserves on DVD but perhaps we're close to a definitive release - last year, Synapse boss Don May Jr. told Fangoria that his label would put out The Exterminator on Blu-Ray sometime in 2011. If you're lying Don...
Travis Bickle may have got his kicks from watching cheap porn loops, but the Exterminator is far more cultured - in one scene you can spot a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's 1962 play The Condemned of Altona, a work that Sartre intended as a critique of the French war in Algeria, and in turn perhaps a sly comment by the director about US invovlement in Vietnam.
My good friend Jeremy over at the excellent Silverferox blog has posted some great pics of the Japanese Exterminator program. Well worth checking out, and while you're there, make sure you sample Jeremy's amazing film poster designs for some of his favourite Exploitation and Horror films, as well as some promo designs for new independant films...
Japanese program for The Exterminator