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Blu-ray/DVD Review: The Exterminator (1980)

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Out of all the cinematic subgenres that exploitation enthusiasts and grindhouse gurus around the world go nuts for, it’s a good vigilante flick. Our admiration for the genre is wholly understandable, too: who, at one point in time or another, hasn’t wanted to serve their own brand of justice to those who have wronged or hurt them? Although the genus of moving pictures started out several years before Charles Bronson first portrayed Paul Kersey in the unforgettable Death Wish, it wasn’t until that 1974 masterpiece of private revenge rampaged across screens all over the world that the copycats started to come out to play.

And there were many of ‘em, with many wonderful, noted actors at the helm. Eastwood. Brynner. De Niro. Hell, there was even one with Robert Ginty — although he hardly qualifies as “wonderful” or “noted” in the books of most film scholars, especially the ones that actually remember who he was.

Ginty, the late musician/actor who is probably best remembered to fans of mainstream film and television efforts as that guy from The Paper Chase TV series, won his first starring role (albeit below top-billed actors Christopher George and Samantha Eggar) in James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator, a film that tantalized the taste buds of many exploitation lovers with its astonishing and wild poster, which depicted an unidentified man in a motorcycle helmet and army fatigues brandishing a flamethrower aimed directly at us. It’s an iconic image of b-moviedom, wherein we could imagine the sight of a lone warrior, alone in an urban wasteland, sending an entire legion of bastards, punks and thugs to meet their apologetic maker with one swift wave of self-contained conflagration.

Of course, as anyone even remotely familiar with the world of exploitation movies knows, such a scene never actually appeared in The Exterminator (although there is a small bit where our hero intimidates a hooligan with such a contraption): it was just part of another magnificently-lurid advertising campaign. Don’t throw your hands in the air just yet, though, kiddies: The Exterminator still manages to go for the throat (literally) in one death scene. And several other body parts in others — including a sleazy meat-packer mob boss whose life comes to a grinding halt via his own industrial meat grinder!

Now, for those of you who still crave some sort of lucidity in their movies, The Exterminator tells the tale of Vietnam vet John Eastland (a subdued, but highly-effective Ginty). Still traumatized by the war after all these years (though he hasn’t aged a day!), Eastland’s attempt to live a normal life goes awry when some punks permanently hospitalize his former army pal (actor/stuntman Steve James, a few away from the American Ninja series, and who also served here as a fight consultant) who had once saved his life in the war. After dispatching of the heavies responsible for such a senseless, heinous act (one of whom is played by the great Irwin Keyes, who would return in Exterminator 2 playing another villain), Eastland figures “Aw, what the hell!” and starts making the New York City safe.

This, naturally, doesn’t sit well with the local authorities, including former Vietnam soldier Det. Dalton (Christopher George, who isn’t quite as hammy here as he would later be in Enter the Ninja, but who nevertheless still shines his inimitable acting qualities for all to see), who is hot on the trail of the unknown vigilante. For the sake of something resembling a subplot, writer/director Glickenhaus decides to give Christopher George the opportunity to woo Samantha Eggar, who plays a scientist. Meanwhile, Ginty strolls the streets of the Big Apple, destroying the destructive elements of society — a merciful act that is doomed to fail once especially once a paranoid US Government starts keeping a tab on things.

To say there’s a minor political undertone here would be putting it mildly, although the story is so made for the 42 Street theaters of the time that they often get buried in the onscreen carnage. But, hey, who wants to be bored by a riveting political commentary when they can see Robert Ginty scrubbing out the scum of New York?

Exactly. And there’s even a brief appearance by Stan Getz to boot.

A longtime target of abhorrence from outraged critics and audiences alike — none of whom were able to stomach the movie’s cold-bloodedness (a number of scenes undoubtedly inspired some of the debauchery present in Hobo With a Shotgun) — The Exterminator has been brought back to life via Don May, Jr. and his Synapse Films label for this much-anticipated Region Free Blu-ray/DVD Combo release. Presented here in a director’s cut which reinstates some previously-missing violence, The Exterminator has been lovingly restored from original vault materials.

The movie is presented in an all-new 1080p/AVC transfer and in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Despite its age and the film elements in question (this wasn’t exactly a Class-A production), The Exterminator looks damn good here. Accompanying the main feature is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo soundtrack, which has also been restored. There’s also a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono mix to be found here.

Special features are somewhat limited, but commendable nevertheless. A theatrical trailer and a few TV spots are presented in HD, and there’s a newly-recorded audio commentary with filmmaker James Glickenhaus himself, who seems quite eager to share his memories of the making of the film with us. There’s also a handful of promotional bits and pieces for the film: a theatrical trailer and several TV spots. Finally, there’s the aforementioned SD-DVD of the film, just so those of you without a Blu-ray player can justify the purchase of this kick-ass title. Consider it as an incentive. And, should that not entice you, be mindful that Robert Ginty came back for Exterminator 2: he might come back for you, too, should you not invest in this cult class-ick.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.