The Plot: Robert Ginty plays John, an ex-Vietnam veteran who has come back to the real world with his one close friend Mike (Steve James), as very different men. In the war they saw a great deal of brutality but learned to depend on one another and that carried on once back at home. The two work alongside one another at a packing plant and look after one another whenever necessary. When Mike finds a few punks stealing cases of liquor from their storage building on the job, he and John tool the young guys quickly. They think their troubles are over, but the punks find where Mike lives and decide to teach him a lesson. They choke him with a chain and plunge a stabbing object into his back, after everything is over Mike is left paralyzed with a broken neck. John swears vengeance on the punks who did this and tracks them down, killing them one by one. His problems don’t stop there however, as now John feels it is his responsibility to earn some kind of money in order to look after Mike’s family. He finds himself now tracking down gangsters and criminals in order to take the cash necessary to keep Mike and his family afloat. However there is a detective on John’s tail, but will he put an end to this extermination of the criminal element?
The Exterminator is, without question, the definition of a cult movie. Taking place within strong genre stereotypes, it’s the sort of flick that doesn’t flirt around with pushing things over the limit. It jumps head first into the darkest edges of reality that it can find, then somehow manages to make these things seem… dare I say it, fun? The Exterminator is an entertaining movie, there’s no getting past it. In the same way that we gleefully watch Charles Bronson blast some young hooligans into next week – there’s that same level of satisfaction in watching Ginty go to work on the vermin of New York City. It’s a fantasy that we’ve all had in some form or another, but The Exterminator is interesting in the lengths that it takes in showing the depravity and utter lunacy taking place on the streets. Kicking things off with the brutality of the Vietnam war, where we’re shown a scene featuring Ginty and his friend Mike captured and forced to watch as their buddy has his head quite literally slit from off of his shoulders. The scene is a punch to the liver, because no one walks into an “action” movie expecting brutal gore such as this. It completely throws you into a new element when you’re watching and causes you to step back for a second. It’s a punchline to end the scene, but it starts off our movie with a bang and causes you to re-evaluate just what you were expecting in this movie. It also shows us that the violence in this movie can and will be ugly. Within the realm of “action” cinema, it might be the goriest and most disturbing scene I can think of. Coming so early in the movie, it just makes all of the future violence seem that much more brutal.
That introduction is also interesting for the fact that it’s the most we ever see of the world outside of this decaying version of America. The budget for this sequence alone had to probably eat up the majority of the film’s money too. Literally the movie opens with an explosions that catapults a GI roughly eighty feet into mid-air. It’s quite something the dramatic turn we take when the film hits America, as we’re lead to believe that this is going to be a much larger movie than could have been expected. However, once it’s back at home in the states, the movie turns into the psychological revenge film that you might have imagined it to be. That is to say, it scales back down quite a bit. As we watch John’s transformation from an every day Joe into The Exterminator, we are able to get into his mind better due to the stripped down nature of the movie from this point out. Mind you, we still have car chases and squibs galore – but The Exterminator is a low budget take on genre cinema and it can’t help but look and feel a lot smaller than a movie like Death Wish. Certainly not a bad thing, as it brings with it that vibe of Punk Rock cinema. Where things are done by limited means, but with far greater intentions. The movie keeps itself together by a strand of narrative, which being so bare kind of fits with the stripped-down aesthetic. There’s a nearly legendary sequence in the film where John discovers that his friend is paralyzed and must then confront his friend’s wife, after consoling the poor woman we immediately cut to John with a flame thrower and one of the punks responsible. It completely breaks the mold in terms of what a “revenge” movie is supposed to be. Normally, you would expect this character to start small or spend days tracking down those responsible – but not in The Exterminator. Here, the quest for revenge lasts roughly a nano-second. You just have to love it. It’s confrontational, it’s different and it once again changes the perspective that you’re watching the movie from. At this point, who knows where it might go?
The Exterminator is a mixed breed of varying genre elements. It has its moments of visual intrigue and artistic flare, such as a moment where John flashes back to killing the Vietnamese leader who was responsible for his torture – while essentially recreating the event and shooting a gang member in much the same way. An interesting idea that works in the context of the movie and makes you see the world from John’s point of view for a second. A world where people chain you up and butcher you and your friends. A world where a loving father is beaten and maimed without a reason. At this point the character sees his enemies all around him and he chooses to vanquish them. Maybe that’s a little too deep for this movie, but it’s there if you want to see it that way. As well as having possible dreams of artistic integrity, you have to take note of all the fun little moments that surround the movie. There’s that exploitation level of “coolness” that the movie looks to bring about with it. Things like John adding poison to the heads of all of his bullets. Such a thing would be redundant, superficial and likely wouldn’t even work in real life anyway: but in the context of this movie, you just have to shake your head and say “that’s awesome!”. There’s also a positively amazing moment where John kidnaps and threatens a mafia boss while hanging him over a meat grinder! I won’t spoil the conclusion of that scene, but let’s just say it’s probably everything you expect!
Although, The Exterminator is not a perfect film. Not by a long shot. As much as I loved it for its cult appeal it does suffer from some rather tedious plotting and to be honest, I wonder if the “police investigation” angle was completely necessary in the first place. This film, unlike Death Wish, doesn’t actually deal too heavy into the politics of the vigilante – so you would at least expect the officer on the opposite side of the law would offer some exposition while maybe fleshing out a hard boiled character. That is not the case here. Christopher George, who most of us remember from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, plays the cop James Dalton who is hot on the trail of Ginty but unfortunately his character is running around in what could be a completely different movie. His character becomes embroiled in a love affair with this female nurse and the point of it all is lost on the audience. These scenes just add nothing to the story. The character of James Dalton has no real character growth because of this love affair, the nurse never gets involved in The Executioner plot line, the two never join forces to discover The Executioner’s identity… the subplot is just there and ultimately doesn’t feel necessary or pertinent. I say this as a fan of Christopher George too! While on the other hand I had never seen anything else from Robert Ginty, but absolutely loved the man in this film. It has been said a million times over in a million reviews for this movie – but the guy really does not LOOK the part of a vigilante out for justice. However, through sheer charisma and bravado, he takes command of this role and really makes it his. His quiet but cool performance holds the entire movie together and his every-man appearance adds so much to the movie.
Writer/Director James Glickenhaus has had a working relationship with another well known genre film personality, that of Frank Henenlotter. Glickenhaus produced the two Basket Case sequels as well as Frankenhooker and even had a cameo in his most recent film Bad Biology.
Bares a strong resemblance to The Executioner series of books originally written by Don Pendleton throughout the 1970’s. The series follows a Vietnam vet who becomes a vigilante when the mafia intimidates his family back at home. The series is said to have also inspired the Marvel Comics character The Punisher.
The opening “Vietnam” sequence was shot in the Indian Dunes desert, just outside of Palm Springs California.
In territories outside of the US, the ending of the movie was changed to a more somber affair. This was due to legal issues in certain countries that refused any film that glorified illegal activity without showing direct consequences.
The Exterminator isn’t a perfect movie. Not by a long shot. The moments that drag, mostly from the love affair that Christopher George has, takes a lot out of the movie. It is still a very solid revenge/vigilante flick, even with these negatives. That’s why I’m giving it a four out of five. It’s humbled, but not stumbled by these goofy moments. It’s still the sort of movie you really HAVE to see as a genre fan and I’m glad that I was finally able to do so!