The Exterminator (1980)

Director: James Glickenhaus

Starring: Robert Ginty, Christopher George, Samantha Eggar

CIA AGENT – “This Exterminator is the most dangerous serial killer in the United States and he’s in New York City! What do you think about all this?”

DALTON – “I think you need to take a shit. It’s coming out of your mouth instead of your asshole.”

One of the more popular vigilante films to hit during the grindhouse era, The Exterminator tells the story of a man out to clean up the city’s crime by dishing out some pain of his own.

John’s best friend Michael saves his life while they’re both fighting in Vietnam. After completing their service they return to New York to try to return to some sort of normality, but shortly afterwards Michael is mugged by a gang and left paralysed from the neck down. John vows to repay his friend by hunting down the gang and making them pay for their crime.

He doesn't look like your typical action hero but he means business

This should be a fairly straightforward movie, but after John deals with the gang he decides not to stop there. Instead, he decides to take on all crime and clean up New York by dishing out punishment to every sleazeball around. The media start calling him The Exterminator, the police want to catch him and the CIA start hunting him down because they think he’s working for a rival party to expose the government’s inability to deal with crime. Can John stay on the run from those who want to stop him?

The Exterminator gained a cult following in the grindhouse cinemas of the ’70s and early ’80s, and was also one of the more notorious films released on VHS in the early video boom. It’s unsurprising then that The Exterminator‘s most memorable moments are the more violent scenes, which are mostly executed (no pun intended) with style.

The Vietnam scene is effective stuff

By far the most notable example of this is the Vietnam prologue where special effects guru Stan Winston (The Terminator, Jurassic Park, Alien, Predator) was drafted in to help create a chillingly realistic decapitation scene. It’s a truly shocking moment and one that no doubt contributed a great deal to the film’s cult success.

While the rest of the film never quite manages to match this prologue in terms of shock factor, it comes close at times. A scene involving a giant meat grinder doesn’t look very convincing but is made so by the screams emitted by the victim, whereas a moment involving a prostitute and a soldering iron is still wince-inducing even though it mercifully takes place off-camera.

Robert Ginty is decent as the titular Exterminator. He plays the role completely straight, without any over-the-top rants or ridiculous ‘action movie’ facial expressions. He’s got one or two cheesy lines (“if you’re lying, I’ll be back”) but for the most part he’s a good lead.

The Exterminator is grindhouse cheese but it’s entertaining grindhouse cheese. The set-pieces are effective, the acting is understated but spot-on and the whole film’s got an unashamed seediness and grit to it. The final scene ruins what could have been a powerful ending, but that aside it’s one of the better-made films of its era.

The Exterminator has just been released in the UK on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. It comes with a commentary and a couple of documentaries, and you can get it by clicking here. It’s currently out of print on DVD but you can find it used in a two-pack with the similarly awesome Maniac Cop by clicking here.
The US has its own special edition Blu-ray/DVD combo, so if you’re on that side of the Atlantic you can click here to get it.

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