The Exterminator is a vigilante action film from 1980 directed by James Glickenhaus. It stars Robert Ginty as John Eastland, the vigilante himself, Christopher George as a cop hunting Eastland, and Steve James as Eastland’s war buddy Jefferson.
It tells the now-cliched story of a Vietnam war vet who vents his spleen on various New York City mooks after his best friend is beaten and paralyzed by them.
The story opens with a flashback to the war, with Eastland’s unit undergoing an interrogation session by their NVA captors. Eastland’s war buddy springs them from the POW camp in a last-second getaway. We then flash to 1980 as the two buddies work on a loading dock in New York. After dispatching some would-be robbers, the two go for an after-work drink. Here we learn Jefferson and his family are the only friends Eastland has. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the thugs didn’t care much for the way he roughed them up earlier. They show their anger by promptly choking him with a chain while shanking him in the spine.
Eastland takes this about as well as you can expect and sets out to avenge his best friend. We are then treated to Eastland menacing a street punk with a flame thrower to get the location of the guilty party. Cut to Eastland implausibly pulling an M16A1 tat he brought back from the war for the raid. He finds the mooks partying with some hookers and jamming to Disco Inferno.
He then dispatches one thug by playing him 18 rounds of the 20 round twist on his M16, before going on to deliver one of the films most powerful lines. When asked why he is so angry over a “N****r”, Eastland angrily replies:
“That N****r was my best friend you Mother F****!” He then knocks him out. He chains the gang up in a rat-filled basement and gives the rodents something to nosh on for the next few days.
This seems to give Eastland a taste of the street vigilante life and we see him turn a mafia boss into hamburger, break up a child sex ring, and clean up the streets from random street punks with ever-increasing satisfaction. During this time he is being chased by George’s character, and by the CIA acting on behalf of the US government who are worried Eastland is making them look bad.
It eventually comes to a head in a shoot-out, just like you would expect but with a nice little twist.
Some Noteworthy Points About The Film
The Exterminator wasn’t the first film about a Vietnam Vet coming home to even more woe, having PTSD, and seeking his own bloody satisfaction after the police let him down. Rolling Thunder is an earlier example but nowhere near as much fun. Eastland clearly has bouts of PTSD but it’s not heavily played up. When his best friend is killed, it’s clear he lost his only family. While dispatching a mook, we see a quick flashback to one of his kills during the war. This works well demonstrating his mental scars.
Some of the violence in the film was probably shocking for a lot of viewers at the time. A man gets processed into hamburger, a pedophile is shot in the groin, and a man is tied to a bed and set on fire… to name just a few of the kills. Some of the worst stuff is not shown on camera but it’s implied. We see a hooker with burn scars on her body and a young, naked boy tied to a bed and gagged for the pedophile. The pedophile who later gets into an argument with Eastland’s 44mag and loses. We don’t see any of the physical or sexual abuse happen, but its enough for your imagination to do its horrible work.
The actors in the film are exploitation regulars. Christopher George, the detective after Eastland, is notable for being the bad guy in the Cannon masterpiece Enter The Ninja. The war buddy who meets a rough demise is played by Steve James. James went on to be in such timeless classics as American Ninja 1, 2, 3, and The Delta Force, among others. Ginty would go on to make the sequel to The Exterminator.
The director of the film, James Glickenhaus, went on to direct a few more films such as McBain and Shakedown. He produced some other works of high art like Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2. In my opinion, The Exterminator is his best film.
Because It’s in my nature, I have to mention a well-known scene where Eastland drills holes in his bullets to insert mercury. This makes for a very cool scene showing how seriously Eastland has taken his vigilante craft. Even displaying his no doubt recently purchased, just for thug hunting, reloading equipment. Sad to say adding mercury to bullets is pure Hollywood bullcrap that would accomplish little more than you mercury poisoning yourself and causing contamination.
The Exterminator is one of my favorite films in the vigilante genre. It features a character and a story told a thousand times by now but it was still fairly new in its day. The action of the movie is tame by modern standards, but it’s still graphic at times and its action scenes keep you engaged. The graphic sexual abuse is implied but you don’t have to sit through any I Spit On Your Grave-style rape scenes. The story is of course set in sleazy, grimy New York City in the 1980s.
This is a time when the crime rate there was so infamous even a kid like me heard about it all the way down in KY. Movies like The Exterminator appealed to a lot of people sick of out-of-control crime. The movie is clearly a more exploitation version of Death Wish, but that is not to say it is not worth watching. One of the things I like about the story is how fast Eastland works, and how much more effective he is over Bronson’s character.
The movie locations show some of the conditions in the city at the time and it works as a cool little time capsule. The main character walks down 42nd Street at one point, showing it in its glory days. The commentary by the director mentions the actor walked down the street with real people going about their business. An early shot in the film shows one of the standard neighborhoods in New York and it looks a lot like a bombed-out German city during World War II.
I highly recommend watching it, especially if you like a revenge story. I personally like it better than Death Wish. My only gripe would be that I wish it did have some more gun fights, but it’s a small gripe Synapse Films released it on BluRay disc and you can purchase it from their website.
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