In Vietnam John Eastland (Robert Ginty) was held captive by Vietnamese soldiers. While trying to extract information from him, they beheaded one of his friends before his eyes. But Eastland survived, although is a little more bitter as a result. Moving forward it is 1980, and he and his old friend Mike (Steve James) are working in a warehouse by New York’s docks. After a run in with a gang, Mike is left paralyzed from the neck down, his life in tatters. Sick of the terrible fate that has fallen upon his friend, Eastland takes to the streets to avenge the men that maimed his friend. But this is just the start, Eastland having dispatched these thugs, feels the need to take the place the cops seem incapable of filling. Nicknamed The Exterminator, Eastland takes to New York’s means streets, to rid the city of it’s vermin.
In the UK The Exterminator has always been treated a little unfairly, it’s releases have either ben in poor quality prints, or highly edited forms. The recent Arrow Film’s release sees the first clean and uncut version of the movie that UK audiences have been able to see, and for the first time the film can finally be enjoyed for what it is.
Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s as New York’s Guardian Angel’s (a real life vigilante group) took mainly to the subways of the city, the movie industry became fascinated by the aspect of vigilante’s. Vigilante, the Death Wish movies, and Exterminator were the leaders in this genre. New York’s violence, and depressed areas had reached such an alarming extent, that all anyone thought about was how to put things right. The Exterminator is one of the finer examples of the vigilante film.
The Exterminator is not for the faint hearted, it’s pretty harrowing stuff, the story looks at everything from street gangs, protection rackets, prostitution, and the most depraved level of sexual abuse. It’s got that edgy feel about it very common of the era, it’s very dark and dirty, there is never at any point any need or requirement to show New York as anything other than truly horrible throughout the entire movie, accept that is during the opening and closing credits. It’s during the credits that you are given a walled in effect, you see the New York that officials would want you to see; the effect this has creates compounds the overall darkness of the movie.
Even in its unedited form, The Exterminator needs a lot of acceptance on the side of the viewer, besides clearly being shot on a tight budget, it also is poorly assembled, scenes cut short far too early, the joins often very rough, but maybe this was intentional, a way to make the movie more gritty.
Unlike Vigilante, and Death Wish, there is a lot more emotion rolled up into the movie, Christopher George plays cop Dalton who becomes obsessed with The Exterminator, while exorcising his obsession he falls for a doctor at the hospital played by Samantha Eggar. On the other side you see Eastland trying to console Mike’s wife and children. While it’s all rather brief emotion, there is at least some, which in many ways sets The Exterminator on a different plateau.
The Exterminator is not a piece of cinematic gold, what it is however is a lesson, a look back at a time that New York was the murder capitol of the world. A cult classic in every sense of the word, it’s something that certainly deserves your time.