The popular vigilante exploitation movie The Exterminator, written and directed by a then twenty-nine-year-old James Glickenhaus and released in 1980, starts with an explosive prologue set in war-torn Vietnam, which was actually shot in just four days as an afterthought to the main storyline (California strategically standing-in for the steamy Vietnamese jungle), with the film’s original eight week production schedule having long since wrapped. An action-packed, visually arresting pre-credit opener, almost certainly designed with the intent to lend Apocalypse Now-style grandeur to what was otherwiseset to be a guerrilla-esque low budget enterprise, this sequence dramatizes the mentally destabilising wartime experiences of one John Eastland (Robert Ginty) and his Bronx buddy Michael Jefferson (Steve James), using the lion’s share of the film’s budget to produce a sharply edited conflagration of red gel-lit pyrotechnics, Viet Cong-style POW brutality, and an early, Stan Winston-created, slow-motion decapitation, that’s considerably ickier than the campy gore of most of the grindhouse-level horror flicks who’s audience the film was marketed to appeal to.
Glickenhaus and his canny producer & friend, Mark Buntzman, seem to throw every penny they must have had at their disposal at the screen during this bombastic opening first couple of minutes, concluding the dazzling firestorm spectacle of dynamite blasts and blood with a sharp jump-cut that takes us precipitously from a helicopter shot of the Vietnamese jungle set aflame, to similarly framed aerial shots of neon-lit skyscrapers decorating the Manhattan skyline. The ensuing rawness of the urban experiences of The Exterminator’s boyish-looking anti-hero -- in which the harsh lessons of the crime-ridden, politically corrupt New York mean streets to which he returns become seemingly indistinguishable from the brutal, soul-corrupting, kill-or-be-killed survivalist creed that was necessary for him to physically endure through the horrors and hardships of jungle warfare, seem to back up this deliberate editorial conflation and are further reinforced later by repeated flashbacks to those opening Vietnam shots which occur at strategic points throughout the film. Almost every time, in fact, Eastland feels compelled to dish out more of his inventive brand of vigilante justice to the assorted hoods, pimps and sleaze merchants who make up the dirty denizens who infect the city’s unforgivingly amoral landscape, here: this is an exploitation action movie’s shorthand for the kind of deep character study that was memorably essayed by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver, several years before the film’s release, in which Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the flawed Travis Bickle as an unstable, disorientated and increasingly violent ex-marine, is juxtaposed with his reception as an unlikely hero, after his instability happens to erupt successfully against East Village pimps rather than the political candidate he first targets for assassination.
John Eastland is positioned as someone who emerges through the same creative wellsprings that created Travis Bickle, and the film occasionally plays to similar narrative and character beats. But he’s also presented as being far more straightforwardly sympathetic, lacking the troubling caveats and problematizing ambiguity so evident in De Niro’s characterisation.
Robert Ginty plays Eastland as gentle, mild-mannered and soft-spoken. Physically, he’s even less prepossessing than the then-mega skinny De Niro. And he’s also apparently much better adjusted to civilian life -- at least at first (he holds down a blue collar job in a meat packing warehouse and maintains a good relationship with at least one friend) -- and is therefore likely to be identified as an unambiguously ‘good guy’ by the audience. As the film progresses and Eastland becomes publically identified as the vigilante known as ‘the Exterminator’, the superhero connotations become hard to miss -- an aspect of the film that’s emphasised even more boldly by its poster campaign, in which the fetishized image of Eastland’s dark-visored motorcycle helmet (only really ever seen during one scene, as is the welders’ mask, also associated with the character) becomes symbolic of his double identity.
But the explicit importance atributed to Eastland’s past as a veteran of Vietnam (mirrored by the similar background given to the city cop charged with the task of hunting him down, who is played by Christopher George) and its role in determining his responses to the violence and unjustness that surround him on the street (‘It was like we were back in Nam,’ he confides to his paralysed buddy, after tracking down and disposing of his attackers; ’it didn’t matter whether it was right or wrong … I just did it.’) in fact also happened to provide the precedent for Ted Kotcheff’s similarly-themed movie First Blood when it later appeared, in which Sylvester Stallone also experienced flashbacks to POW jungle horrors in the midst of contemporary violence, as he struggled to adjust to life outside the discipline of the army.
Glickenhaus considers the surprisingly nuanced First Blood to be a far more authentic sequel to The Exterminator than producer Mark Buntzman’s own self-directed follow-up The Exterminator ll, but the director’s juxtaposition of the action movie dynamism which featured heavily in the film’s prologue, with his depiction of a grimy, urban milieu of vigilante street violence, wrought in the wake of the success of the Death Wish franchise (which Glickenhaus purposefully declined to see before shooting in order to avoid its exerting undue influence on his approach), in a way provides a justification and precedent for Stallone’s character, John Rambo, to later transmute from the conflicted veteran of Kotcheff’s slightly more mature First Blood into the uncomplicated gung-ho action hero who became a pin-up totem for Conservative America, and, embarrassingly, went on to pal up with the pre-Taliban Mujahideen in the cause of expelling Soviet Communism from Afghanistan during the rebarbative Rambo lll.
This film being the unwitting template for the “Rambofication” of the genre is an accidental by-product of Glickenhaus’s love of unalloyed action cinema (the first couple of minutes of The Exterminator feel more like the unabashed action flicks of Glickenhaus’s later years, such as McBain, than anything else in the movie); but for the most part, the film looks just like one of the seamy, faintly disreputable exploitation flicks that would have been seen playing round the clock in the kind of theatres glimpsed on those "pre-clean up" 42nd Street sidewalks, which are caught on film here when we see Ginty’s John Eastland character traversing these famously sleazy environs in disconcertingly vérité-like sequences that capture the place and the period, and the people who frequented the area, in all their greasy, sleaze-ridden glory.
In fact, The Exterminator makes for a perverse kind of love letter to some now-mostly vanished (or newly varnished) areas of New York, which, at the time, were quite infamous -- mostly because of films such as this one -- for being illustrative of a history of urban decay, poverty, riots and racially divided gang culture; but a “love letter” to these locales is nevertheless exactly what the film was for the two men behind it's making, though a love letter rendered in the starkest, most graffiti-covered imagery of dereliction and decline possible.
For Buntzman and Glickenhaus however, engaged as they were in the making of a hard-hitting, low budget exploitation flick, their gritty surroundings largely freed them of the need to bother with spending time and money on building costly sets, when all they had to do instead was step outside their front doors to find plentiful, evocative evidence of political and social apathy in a fully-realised showcase: a real-life soundstage of urban decay sprawling before them thanks to a decade's worth of neglect. On this UK Blu-ray’s featured commentary track, producer Mark Buntzman waxes nostalgic about many of the locations captured on film here, most of which have long since been redeveloped or gentrified, and have therefore -- to him -- subsequently lost most of their character. Areas of the Bronx, circa 1979, which in this film look literally like uninhabitable bomb sites, their tenements merely burned-out husks surrounded by piles of wood and rubble left over from the widespread arson and riots of the 1970s when the area was at its poorest, also serve to provide the film with its squalid urban ambiance, and make a fitting backdrop for the screenplay’s feral gangs of long-haired, denim-clad criminal goons. Meanwhile, Central Park is depicted here as a bleak concrete hole, daubed in spray-painted graffiti and roamed at night by gangs of druggie wasters wielding flick-knives, who prey on poverty-stricken little old ladies -- taking great delight, during one provocative sequence, in stamping on their unfortunate victim’s grocery bags and stealing the few dimes she has left in her purse.
The images of the infamous 42nd Street seen here, captured in those previously mentioned shots from a hidden hand-held camera (and lionised by Basket Case director Frank Hennenlotter on one of the disc’s featurettes, as the colourful centre of his education in Grindhouse cinema) recall a time before the area’s current renovation, when it was still a gritty, grimy inferno of neon-lit peep show emporium hoardings and dirty Grindhouse theatres -- its crowded, litter-strewn sidewalks jostling with a colourful, semi-destitute army made up of every type of pimp and pervert, hustler and whore.
These days it’s a tourist stop-off for upmarket theatre and musicals.
When the film starts setting out Eastland’s tough New York environment down at the city docks, in which the meat packing warehouse firm he works for is shown as prey to jive-talking youth gangs and opportunistic mobsters alike (the latter collecting protection monies in the full knowledge of the corrupt authorities), we can see Glickenhaus really was shooting these scenes at the original dockside market locations, and many of the background ‘extras’ are just the local people who happened to be around at the time. There’s a sense of gritty verisimilitude borne up on the authenticity of this street-level setting, even if the plot follows a customary ‘vigilante flick’ trajectory.
While the travails of returning veterans of the Vietnam conflict were to provide a context for the many Hollywood films that went on to document the alienation of the battle-damaged solider who comes home to a country that just doesn’t understand what he’s endured, The Exterminator gains traction by identifying the buddy movie-style relationship between the doe-eyed Robert Ginty’s John Eastland and former stuntman Steve James’s Michael Jefferson as the initial motivating factor for everything that subsequently happens in the narrative.
We saw Jefferson save a grateful Eastland’s life back in that action-packed 'Nam prologue. A year later and they’re both scratching a living working as packers in neighbouring New York dockside warehouses. When he catches a bunch of Bronx hoods helping themselves to crates of Mike’s employer’s stock of beer, Eastland confronts them and, with his old pal's help, delivers some swift and humiliating justice, leaving the unprincipled looters reeling, but later, even thirstier for revenge than they had been for stolen beer. Unbeknownst to Mike though, these “Ghetto Ghouls” track him back to his neighbourhood, which, unfortunately just happens to be in their own rough, tough part of the Bronx, where Mike also lives in one of the cramped semi-derelict tenement with his adoring wife Marie (although the set-built interior looks a great deal more habitable than the locations used in the exterior shots of Mike's neighbourhood). They attack him from behind with a clawed meat hook and leave him permanently paralysed from the neck down -- unable to live independently of an artificial breathing apparatus and unable to speak or move. The two friends, who survived everything the Viet Cong could throw at them, thus find the streets of their own neighbourhood have become a much greater threat to wellbeing – in fact, the place is now effectively a warzone. So Eastland responds to his best buddy’s cruel plight in the only way open to him: he prepares for battle! He tracks down one of the Ghetto Ghouls and gets him to divulge the whereabouts of his gang’s clubhouse … with the aid of a flamethrower! Then, armed with a rifle, he slaughters the hoods one by one to the strains of ‘Disco Inferno’ by The Trammps -- which is blaring out of the sound system in their hideout at the time (quite an unusually catholic bunch of street hoods this lot really, what with their unusual taste in camp disco, combined with the trendy Che Guevara poster in their wall!).
Having reassured his mute, immobile friend that he’s taken care of business, Eastland’s next priority is sorting out Mike’s family financially. This brings him into open conflict with the mob, and indirectly with the CIA and a corrupt city Mayor, who, between them, have the city’s police force in their pocket. The right wing, anti-liberal agenda of most vigilante flicks would usually see Eastland’s mission to clean up the streets portrayed as the tough antidote to years of soft-hearted, lily-livered liberal tolerance; but here, it is notable that the blame is put at the door of paranoid security services who see a Soviet plot behind the activities of this self-styled Exterminator, and mob and city officials who are complicit in maintaining the status quo -- both of them making a pretty packet out of things staying exactly the way they are!
Eastland’s ludicrous method of disposing of the mob boss who’s behind that extortion racket that’s being run at the expense of businesses and warehouses down at the loading docks, finally convinces the viewer that Glickenhaus is not taking this stuff as deadly seriously as most of the other films in this sub-genre tend to take themselves: after lowering the offending Mafioso into a giant meat grinding machine (we see raw mince spewing out the other end, accompanied by profuse screaming on the soundtrack!) the film takes more of an episodic turn as Eastland goes hunting the streets on a more generalised superhero-like remit -- dishing out his brutal instant justice to those he finds posing a danger to the public. The influence of Taxi Driver can perhaps be detected in Eastland’s relationship with a prostitute he meets by chance while idly drifting along the sidewalk one evening -- who’s been subjected to torture by one of the pervert clients of the sleazy pimp who forces her to work in a filthy 42nd Street brothel.
Eastland’s mental state remains somewhat enigmatic throughout all this: on the one hand, he never appears to be as deranged and anti-social as Travis Bickle does; on the other, the episodes that define his war against crime on the city streets are always accompanied by flashbacks relating to his experiences in Vietnam, thus giving the distinct impression that some kind of inability to adjust to civilian life lies behind his violent actions. The episode in which a pumped up, pistol-wielding Eastland (firing with mercury-tipped bullets for added harm!) invades the brothel -- which turns out to cater to an obese, paedophilic Congressional senator (David Lipman, who later turns up again as a more comical variety of sleaze merchant in Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker – which was also produced by James Glickenhaus), a particularly grim specimen who enjoys raping young boys and taking a soldering iron and superheated vaseline to the breasts of nubile young women -- provides the movie with its quota of sleaze and briefly introduces antagonists so heinous that it’s probably figured nobody will mind seeing them reduced to blackened heaps of charred bone by the Exterminator’s excoriating flamethrower.
Meanwhile, the mounting toll of expired scumbags now clogging up the city morgue thanks to Eastland’s enthusiasm comes to the attention of detective James Dalton (Christopher George) who sets out to track down the helmeted vigilante, unaware that he and his prey are both merely being used as pawns in the cynical Machiavellian schemes of the powers that be. Christopher George migrated to low budget euro horrors and exploitation flicks during the 1980s and is always a likable persona in these movies; here though his easy-going detective is underwritten and gets little to do but chat-up Samantha Eggar’s Dr Megan Stewart (rather a minor role for Eggar, from during a period in her career she now disowns) over the heavily-bandaged remains of the ground-up mobster (later they steal a private hospital room to make out in – obviously no regard for bed shortages here!), but he does give us a glimpse of Eastland’s law-abiding alter ego, George’s character being also a veteran of the Vietnam conflict and a natural maverick; someone who doesn’t quite fit with his surroundings, but who has nonetheless found a way to accommodate the mismatch by throwing himself into legitimate detective work. The fact that both Eastland and Dalton in the end are rather similar types of person who have simply taken a different route in life, one that eventually forces them into conflict with each other, leads to a rather poignant and inevitable confrontation and a conclusion that is surprisingly downbeat and unforgiving for this genre.
The Exterminator in HD strikes just the right balance between presenting an authentic low budget classic in its best possible incarnation and staying true to the film’s original grainy Grindhouse origins. Arrow Video have done a good job here with a transfer in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio which is quite capable of reproducing the film’s unexpectedly vivid colour gels in rich hues when they’re needed, while the general documentary feel of the work isn’t betrayed by overdoing the contrast. The basic uncompressed LPCM mono audio provides probably the best way to hear the film in this format – the upgraded stereo mix on the US release is thought to be too weak by many.
Commentary: Producer Mark Buntzman recalls the making of the film during conversation with moderator Calum Waddell, in this engaging and informative track. Waddell always manages to combine a witty conversational style with an ability to ask the right questions, and Buntzman is a good subject, delivering plenty of anecdotes about these early days in the film business and his attempts to make the film stand out in the marketplace. He talks about the casting, the shooting and the subsequent reception of the movie by the censors in various parts of the world.
Fire and Slice: Making The Exterminator – an interview with James Glickenhaus: Glickenhaus is no-longer a filmmaker but looks back with fondness on the making of this movie, which was only his second, and remembers lead actor Robert Ginty and the many experiences encountered during the eight weeks of shooting.
42nd Street Then And Now: Director Frank Henenlotter takes us on a video guided tour of the area which was once infamous for its rows of trashy Grindhouse cinemas, where everything from sexploitation to horror could be found in abundance. Henenlotter spent most of his youth here, catching as many screenings of the dubious delights this place once had to offer as he possibly could. He has plenty of unsavoury stories to relate, as well as providing the viewer with a sketched history of the development of the area over the last few decades. The place is rather different now, the Grindhouse havens having been swept away in the drive to make 42nd Street a tourist hotspot. Henenlotter regrets the loss of the area’s charm and claims it was never as dangerous as it was often claimed to be. A fascinating and funny nostalgia piece memorialising a vanished age of exploitation.The disc comes packaged with the usual and much-appreciated Arrow Video regulars: a reversible sleeve offering several alternative covers, as well as the new artwork especially commissioned for this release. There's a double-sided foldout poster and, last but not least, a collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by film critic David Hayles.
TITLE: The Exterminator/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 1980/BLU-RAY RELEASE DATE: 7 November 2011/GENRE: Action/LABEL: ARROW VIDEO/REGION: B/ASPECT RATIO: 1.78:1/DIRECTOR: James Glickenhaus/CAST: Robert Ginty, Steve James, Christopher George, Samantha Eggar