Perhaps the ultimate vigilante drama, The Exterminator remains a fairly shocking tale of vengeance and sleaze, and it’s not hard to imagine how audiences reacted when the film premiered at Cannes. Opening with a slow beheading scene in the film’s kinetic teaser before the narrative jumps from Vietnam to present day New York City, writer / director James Glickenhaus devotes a fair amount of time to detail the deep friendship between war vets John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and Michael Jefferson (Steve James) before the first act of ugly urban violence occurs: buddy Michael is paralyzed from the neck down after he stops thugs (headed by ever-slimy Ned Eisenberg) from robbing goods from the packing plant where the friends work.
Michael’s condition forces Eastland to revert back to his defensive wartime mentality, and he hunts down members of the ‘Ghetto Ghouls’ who maimed his friend, but during the process he feels as though his life has gone through a rebirth, as though vengeance has offered a new purpose in what was otherwise a dull life.
Eastland only goes after violent perpetrators, stealing from the criminally rich and helping the raped and the poor, but it’s a dangerous path that slowly turns him into an urban hero, whom the police want in jail, and the CIA (represented by Dark Shadows' Louis Edmonds) want dead due to some potential government embarrassment.
The federal threat in Glickenhaus’ drama is all foggy and silly, but the revenge drama retains its power because every male character is capable of startling brutality; Glickenhaus wanted to impart the horrors of violence in full detail, but with few exceptions (such as Michael), no one is a particularly nice person.
Eastland’s revenge quest often stems from an utter void in his personal life, hence jumping to the aid of a physically abused hooker. As The Exterminator, he metes out double the incendiary punishment on a ‘chicken house’ manager, plus his favoured senatorial client who likes young boys, and creatively applied a soldering iron to the hooker’s breasts.
Investigating Detective James Dalton (Christopher George) also walks a fine line between upholding the law, turning a blind eye to corruption, and bending the rules when his professional needs aren’t being met. George is surprisingly effective as a menacing cop who uses the threat of police torture, yet he can be real sweet with an upscale doctor (Samantha Eggar), treating her to a midnight dinner in Central Park, and a free concert headlined by Stan Getz (who actually appears in the film!). Eggar has little to do except be pleasant in a handful of scenes, and her casting was mostly for marquee value, if not to add minor depth to another perfunctory female character.
Glickenhaus’ visual style often strays into docu-drama, which adds huge value to the film as a rich portrait of sleazy, grimy NYC, circa 1980, as well as bygone locales long taken over by corporate and residential developers.
The vintage sleaze streets and buildings are the real draw, since much of Times Square and its hucksters, hookers, hooters, and porn venues were expunged, decades later. Also used was a real hooker motel seized by the police, a police interrogation cell (with a disturbing chair designed to have ‘persons of interest’ shacked from behind, and a headrest for other purposes), and sections of abamdoned streets. 1980 was not a pretty year for the city, and several filmmakers exploited the grunge, garbage, and dereliction that dominated major sections (most notably Michael Wadleigh in Wolfen, made a year later).
The depiction of violence, when shown onscreen, is quite detailed, if not emotionally revolting, hence the film’s notoriety for incorporating an early decapitation scene (with a butter-necked dummy designed by Stan Winston); improper use of a soldering iron and bosoms, and an industrial meat grinder, but overall one does sympathize with Eastman until he seems to relish the cold & calculated kill – particularly the slaughter at the chicken house, and the mafia kingpin (played by former Bill Haley and the Comets drummer Dick Bocelli / Richards) who's turned into partially minced meat.
Glickenhaus also lingers on Eastman’s lack of a social life: in place of any bonding or leisure time (which the character presumably enjoyed vicariously through Michael), he just prepares for war, spending an afternoon making dum-dum bullets which the camera and editing convey with the precision of an industrial how-to film – perhaps unsurprising, since Glickenhaus had made industrial films prior to his feature film debut in 1975.
Not unlike George Romero’s own editing style, Glickenhaus uses an idiosyncratic no-nonsense approach, often jump-cutting between locations. As he admits on the Blu-ray’s commentary track, he loathes time-wasting shots of characters travelling from Point A to B, so the result are often jarring edits as a character’s declaration of vengeance jumps to the act in progress, and leaps to the end-point when the police have already arrived at the crime scene (as is the case when he hunts down the men responsible for Michael’s assault, and leaves them to be devoured alive by rats).
Glickenhaus’ commentary is steady and solid, and the filmmaker (retired since 1995) goes through plenty of the film’s production and casting ephemera, including the superb opening Vietnam sequence which contains some of the best use of explosives, fire, and moving helicopters on film. (One tragic twist is the lead helicopter pilot also commanded the aircraft that crashed and killed Twlight Zone: The Movie co-star Vic Morrow in 1983 during the making of that film.)
Synapse’s Blu-ray features an excellent HD transfer with solid colours, and the sound options are a mono mix, and a newly ‘restored’ stereo surround mix, with Joe Renzetti’s effective blend of orchestral and synth cues enhancing the film’s action and dramatic beats. The bonus DVD disc includes the same extras, and a strong standard def image and audio transfer. Note: those still feeling unfulfilled with Exterminator apocrypha will find exclusive featurettes and a commentary track with producer Mark Buntzman and moderator Calum Waddell on the Arrow Video’s 2011 U.K. edition.
Buntzman, who produced several of Glickenhaus’ films, and co-starred with the director in his first movie, The Astrologer, was given the reins to handle the sequel when Cannon signed up to make Exterminator 2 [M] (1984). Functioning as the film’s director, co-producer and co-writer with William Sachs (The Incredible Melting Man, Galaxina), the resulting work reconfigured the character’s use of multiple armed weapons and physical skills to a basic flame-thrower (itself suggested by the first film’s catchy but utterly deceptive poster art) and, er, a garbage truck. Buntzman’s film easily ranks as one of the worst sequels ever made, although it has modest kitsch value.
Both Robert Ginty and actor Irwin Keyes (who plagued a Ghetto Ghouls thug) appeared in the sequel, whereas Christopher George went back to the lower B-movie realm, appearing in a series of slashers, including Graduation Day (1981), Pieces (1982), and Mortuary (1983), his final film.
Steve James also appeared in Glickenhaus’ The Soldier (1982) & McBain (1991), and Cannon’s Enter the Ninja (1981) with Christopher George for director Menachem Golan. Dick Boccelli appeared in Glickenhaus’ Shakedown (1988) and McBain (1991). Scene-stealer and prolific character actor Tom Everett (playing a greasy, scummy sex motel clerk who asks Ginty "Do you want da sheets?") later appeared in Renny Harlin's Prison (1988), and Jeff Burr's Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990).
In spite of his success as an independent producer / director, Glickenhaus has only directed 8 films: The Astrologer / Suicide Cult (1975), The Exterminator (1980), The Soldier (1982), The Protector (1985), Shakedown (1988), McBain (1991), Slaughter of the Innocents (1993), and Timemaster (1995).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan