Look at that poster! How bad ass is that? Let me tell you something about it. It’s extremely misleading. While the sequel features a flame thrower prominently, there is one scene in this movie that has a flame thrower and it’s not even a flame thrower. It’s more of a blow torch. I guess that’s the nature of exploitation, though. The posters were always better than the movies. I don’t want to lead anyone into thinking that this movie sucks, though. I love it! This is how you rip off Death Wish proper. Take elements of Death Wish and mix them up with pieces of Taxi Driver and you have one hell of a vigilante movie on your hands.
I can’t put my finger on what is so appealing to me about vigilante movies. Themes of taking the law into your own hands really work for me. I’m a long time Death Wish fan and one of the first comics that I ever really followed was The Punisher. The thing is, I’m not the sort of person who feels like the legal system is a total failure. I actually believe in law and our current system of justice. So what the hell makes these movies so appealing to me? I’m hardly Travis Bickle. It’s not just the vigilante angle, though. I’ve always liked gritty movies from this period of Manhattan. The Ed Koch period. The urban jungle aesthetic is something that I like a lot and a lot of filmmakers through the 70’s and early 80’s really did it right with movies such as this and others like The Warriors. I’m getting away from my point, though.
We begin in Vietnam. John Eastland and his buddy Michael Jefferson are prisoners in a Viet Cong POW camp. The savage VC’s are torturing and killing their prisoners and Eastland is next. The soldiers witness a partial decapitation with a machette before Jefferson manages to break free, kill a couple of VC and get a gun to set the other POWs free. But that was several years ago. This is New York in 1980. Eastland and Jefferson work at a beer cannery and witness a bunch of thugs loading cases of beer into their car. Eastland is attacked when he tries to stop them and Jefferson comes to his aid. Later on, though, the thugs return and cripple Jefferson. Eastland does his best to comfort Jefferson’s wife but makes a promise to himself that he’ll get those motherfuckers, and he does. Eastland, armed with an M-16, tracks the thugs back to their pad and busts in with guns blazing. He makes quick work of all the thugs, but leaves one alive, whom he “interrogates” with a blowtorch. It doesn’t end there, though. Eastland discovers that mobsters are squeezing their plant for protection money and getting fat off of good people so he ambushes the mobster in the bathroom of a restaurant, robs his house, and hands off the cash to the Jefferson’s who really need it. The mobster, by the way, gets dumped into a meat grinder. Things start to go crazy here. These vigilante attacks haven’t gone unnoticed by the police and Dalton, the lead investigator is on the prowl for the Exterminator, who has since alerted the press of his work and his nickname. While the police are looking for Eastland, the government gets involved feeling the public pressure to get crime under control. So now it’s the cops AND the CIA.
Taxi Driver style, Eastland bags a prostitute one afternoon when it looks like he has nothing better to do. When he gets her up to a room, he discovers that she has been mutilated by her pimp, who also runs a child prostitution ring, and you know what that means. In one of the meanest scenes of the movie, Eastland convinces the pimp that he’s selling boys, busts into the chicken house and hoses the pimp down with bullets that he has altered to contain mercury. He discovers a New Jersey senator in the chicken house as well and gives him a taste of his own sadistic medicine before setting the whole place on fire and booking it. Meanwhile Jefferson is on his last legs in the hospital and asks Eastland to kill him, which he does. Coincidentally, Dalton is in the hospital, and with the death of Jefferson, Dalton crosses paths with Eastland. The list of suspects has narrowed considerably and Dalton finally makes contact with Eastland and wants to arrange a meeting, but the CIA has tapped the phone and intercept Eastland and Dalton before they can come to terms. With the government hot on his tail, Eastland is due for one last showdown before the credits roll.
James Glickenhaus is a filmmaker that is keenly aware of what it takes to properly exploit the popularity of certain genres. He made a name for himself with this movie and then went on to be involved in other cult pics like Maniac Cop and Frankenhooker. He was also responsible for that Jackie Chan/Danny Aiello abortion, The Protector. It’s no secret that this movie capitalizes on the wild popularity of Death Wish and Taxi Driver and never tries to convince you otherwise. If you liked Death Wish’s attack on street crime, you’ll love The Exterminator. As violent as Death Wish is, though, The Exterminator takes it to whole new levels. Paul Kersey never shot anyone with a mercury bullet and then set them on fire.
It wastes no time in setting up the movie. The carnage begins almost immediately with a partial decapitation as a machette cleaves a dude in the neck and his head falls to one side, still attached at the stump. That’s just a taste and easily one of the nastiest effects in the entire movie. It doesn’t take you long to realize that there probably wasn’t much of a script going on here. Eastland, played by the minor cult star, Robert Ginty, jumps from criminal to criminal without much of a plot thread to tie them all together. The ongoing story about Jefferson in the hospital is the only thing that seems to keep everything within a single scope. Once the gang that crippled Jefferson is killed, Eastland moves on to mobsters, then to pedophiles. There’s not much consistency at work but it doesn’t really matter because Ginty carries this movie with grit teeth determination. A lot of screen time is dedicated to Eastland loading weapons in a dirty apartment and thankfully, whipping ass on every criminal that crosses his path. Unfortunately, Eastland does things, at times, that contradict everything he has been established to stand against. At one point, he steals some guy’s motorcycle to chase down some gangbangers and earlier in the movie he hooks up with a prostitute. In a scene that is clearly reminiscent of Taxi Driver and also trying to communicate the idea that Eastland is going to help this girl, the only motivation ever put across is that he has a few spare minutes for a blow-jay and just happens to pick the girl who was tortured by her pimp the night before.
Christopher George, who plays Dalton the cop, never really strikes me as the New York homicide detective type and his scenes seem thrown in to give Eastland some kind of foil as an afterthought. Most of his screen time is spent wooing his doctor girlfriend and only briefly taking time out of his day to chase down the elusive Exterminator who rarely takes steps to cover his tracks. Eastland breaks in, busts caps and then leaves trace evidence everywhere, but the cops can’t ever seem to narrow down a suspect pool. The CIA angle comes out of nowhere as well and it seals the deal that this movie is trying to be in too many places at once. With a skillful hand writing the script, this could have been a more cohesive and better known vigilante entry in the pantheon of violent revenge movies.
As scattershot as it is, though, the acting isn’t what you would expect from such a low budget cash-in. Ginty is a likable fellow depite his predilection for young pros and it’s hard not to root for the guy who gives the pedophiles a taste of their own sadism. Christopher George, as unconvincing as he is, is always welcome as far as I’m concerned. He’s got a suave demeanor that says he’s anything but a cop. I actually found him a more convincing journalist in City of the Living Dead.
In the realm of Death Wish rip offs, The Exterminator is top notch. Plotwise, it’s a series of violent confrontations loosely tied together to form a weak revenge story but when it plays its style and action cards, it really shines. It’s mean when it’s violent and only slightly nonsensical. Fans of vigilante revenge movies will not be disappointed, unless you’re expecting to find a guy wielding a flamethrower in his war on crime. For that, you’ll need to track down bootlegs of Exterminator 2.