The Exterminator is the very definition of exploitation cinema. Landing somewhere between Rambo and Death Wish, it possesses the moral justifications of neither, adopting the latter’s quasi-fascist vigilante theme and basking in the thrill of the torture. As far as writer/director James Glickenhaus is concerned, poverty breeds paper-thin monsters who would serve well as target practice in an arcade shooter, and becoming a mindless serial killer is the only way to save humanity from stereotype-led damnation. Described by Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert as a ‘sick example of the almost unbelievable descent into gruesome savagery in American movies’, it’s unsurprising that the film sparked such an outcry from some corners. Like most vigilante flicks of the era, the plot is pure childish fantasy, which makes the explicit nature of events all the more troubling, but as long as you’re not sick enough to go out and imitate this kind of processed baloney, it’s pretty harmless stuff, and if nothing else you have to appreciate its sheer audacity.
The late 70s/early 80s were awash with unscrupulous, low-budget flicks thanks to the emergence of home video, a medium that was unregulated prior to the Video Recordings Act of 1984. This opened doors for lots of upstart directors with bottom-rung ambitions. If a theatrical run was out of the question, they had the VHS/Betamax market to fall back on, and people were willing to rent pretty anything given the right motivations. Being able to watch movies from the comfort of your own home was still very much a novelty, and renters were generally willing to give anything a try. The easiest way to turn heads with very little money was to shock and disgust, and nothing taps into our basest desires quite like the vigilante character. Most of us have been wronged at one time or another, and there’s nothing sweeter than a bit of homemade justice ― at least in principle ― but with so many lawyers and loopholes some criminals simply fall through the cracks, and with suburban gang culture and gun crime on the rise, the days of settling disputes with a bout of fisticuffs were over. It’s no wonder the sub-genre would become so popular.
But vigilante movies were nothing new. In fact, they had a long and storied history and were already a staple of modern cinema. Its origins go as far back as 1938’s Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood ― a far cry from the flamethrower-wielding likes of The Exterminator. Classics such as Ingmar Bergman’s rape revenge fantasy The Virgin Spring and Akira Kurosawa‘s samurai masterpiece Yojimba, films of universal critical acclaim, both stand tall in the realms of cinematic vengeance, as does Frank Miller’s Mad Max franchise, which took the concept to the dystopian wastelands of the Australian outback. The Western genre would lay claim to the same eye-for-an-eye model during the 1960s, movies such as Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western The Wild Bunch bringing a healthy dose of catharsis to its bloody and lawless leanings, along with Clint Eastwood’s much lauded The Man with No Name. Eastwood would later take the vigilante mantra to the urban battlegrounds, the Dirty Harry series bringing the urban vigilante flick to the American mainstream.
The Exterminator may have the production values and creative despondency of a low-budget dud, but its morally bankrupt formula proved a winner commercially, the film raking in an incredible $35,000,000 at the US box office. It also garnered a lot of negative attention for actor Robert Ginty, who would agree to return for Cannon sequel Exterminator 2 four years later, gaining a reputation as a shill for politically incorrect trash with no critical merit. In a 1984 interview with The New York Times, Ginty would defend himself against such accusations. ”I didn’t say no to ‘The Graduate. If it had been offered to me, I might have accepted it,” he quipped. “‘The Exterminator’ made $35 million, so people like to talk about it. And I don’t mind talking about it. But I can separate very clearly my politics from my acting, which some of my compatriots have difficulty doing. As an actor, you act. You say words written for you. I’ve played a very violent repertory of movies, and what they’ve done for me is given me an economically viable career.”
It’s amazing to think that a movie of this calibre could have any kind of political resonance, but very few films demonise America’s urban youth culture quite like The Exterminator, which treats the inner-city crime world’s ‘lunatic fringe’ with the transparent aggression of a terminal illness. The no-nonsense cure comes in the form of John Eastland (Ginty), a Vietnam veteran who escapes the horrors of war, only to be confronted by the urban battleground of New York City. Still reeling from the murder of his soldier friend on foreign shores, Eastland is soon pushed over the edge when his city chum is pounced upon by a gang of racist thugs and left paralysed, resulting in the kind of laughably dramatic scenes that must have been the inspiration for Nordberg’s hospitalisation in the original Naked Gun movie. Just watch the reaction of his friend’s wife. The unrestrained melodrama is absolutely jarringly priceless ― yet another reason why this movie should be taken with a rather healthy helping of salt.
The scene that precedes it is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is downright horrendous — not just in terms of graphic brutality, but in the way in which it depicts inner-city life. So bereft of individuality are the gaggle of perpetrators featured here that you’d have no qualms about pulling out a pistol and shooting them dead yourself, and the thin characterisation doesn’t stop there. While Rambo and Death Wish gave us somewhat authentic, morally conflicted characters whose immoral plight you could empathise with, The Exterminator gives us the kind of bland lead who would struggle to light up a terrestrial TV cop show, a man who goes from A to B to the bloody recesses of C while you’re still trying to figure out the nature of his unethical alphabet. He even manages to come to the aid of a tortured prostitute in the kind of half-assed sympathy play that trivialises all of the world’s social issues. This woman isn’t drug-addicted; nor is she on the hustle. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have any emotional baggage whatsoever. She simply needs a man to put a bullet in her cardboard oppressors and all is roses.
Though the films’s violence might be considered tame by today’s standards ― a spectacular beheading within the first two minutes not withstanding ― it is the implications and lack of insight that pang of nihilism, making for some pretty startling viewing. Because of Ginty’s inability to portray any kind of notable character evolution, his moral crusade seems like outright insanity, and when the pursuing detective James Dalton (Christopher George) inevitably sees the error of his ways and gives the City’s most notorious and horrifically creative killer a pass on moral grounds, you realise that the screenplay didn’t give Ginty a chance. Just imagine such a plot development in today’s world. It’s unthinkable. But back in 1980 it was completely reasonable.
The movie does have some visual authenticity. Glickenhaus does a fine job of capturing the grainy underbelly of ’80s New York with some rather nice framing of the city at large, giving us a few relatively decent stunts to boot. We also get an opening scene in Vietnam that cost a pretty penny (twenty percent of the movie’s $2,000,000 budget). The scene was actually shot at Indian Dunes National Park in California, but it’s still rather impressive for a movie with such monetary restrictions. We also have a by-the-numbers romance between Dalton and Dr. Megan Stewart, but even with the added bonus of The Brood‘s Samantha Eggar, the sub-narrative fails to register, with no time to develop beyond noisy meetings in a club that defy comprehension. I was also disappointed by the fact that, unlike its wholly misleading promotional poster, Ginty doesn’t walk around in a bicycle helmet wielding a flamethrower, which was half the reason why I was looking forward to seeing the movie. He does use one in an early scene as a source of intimidation, but I was expecting the biker version of Jason Voorhees setting goons on fire left, right and centre. Underhanded 80s promotion, you gotta love it!
Another notable face comes in the form of future Cannon go-to sidekick, Steve James, who in 1985 would subject the American Ninja screenplay to rewrites in order to transform his character from an inane subordinate into the brick shithouse with the million dollar smile action fans would grow to love. It’s not surprising when you consider his role here: the helpless black buddy to McGinty’s benevolent white knight, though the use of the word Benevolent is spurious at best. James, who was originally cast as a peripheral bartender before impressing so much with his reading that he landed a supporting role, is twice the personality of his white counterpart. For me, the movie would have been much better had their roles been reversed.
Ultimately, The Exterminator is second-rate trash, but at the end of the day, who cares? If you’re actively watching this movie so long after its release, you’re doing so for its fabled disrepute, and as a vehicle for breakneck exploitation it will not disappoint. There are some who will condemn you for watching this kind of mindless garbage, but more damning is the notion that those people are unwilling to accept the fact that human beings are compelled as much by darkness as they are by light. After all, it is just a movie.