The year was 1981, and I was just shy of 12 years old. It was the height of “martial arts mania” for me and my good friend Freddy, with both of us taking karate lessons and covertly studying the ways of the ninja (this site’s own Big McLargehuge chose Judo, the same way he chose Mac over PC, RC Cola over Coke, and Godzilla over Star Wars. He’s difficult that way). Chuck Norris’ An Eye for an Eye had opened downtown at The State Cinema as the headliner in a double bill featuring some other flick called The Exterminator – a movie I knew next-to-nothing about save for the fact that the poster featured a guy in a motorcycle helmet wielding a flamethrower.
Being well under the age of admission, we enlisted the aid of Freddy’s father – a jovial, wonderful man who barely spoke a lick of English – to serve as our chaperone to this R-rated, ultra-violent double feature. My parents, of course, were blissfully unaware, thinking we were sitting safely in the suburban multiplex just miles from my house rather than hunkered down in the grimy seats of a downtown theater in a part of the city known mostly for prostitutes, drugs, and gang violence. In other words, it was the perfect setting for my first grindhouse experience.
As we sat in the theater, surrounded by what I liked to imagine were all manner of thugs and criminal masterminds just waiting to test our fighting skills, the lights dimmed, and the familiar image of the Avco Embassy logo flashed across the screen. Soon, we were plunged into the jungles of Vietnam, and bearing witness to some of the goriest combat I’d ever laid eyes on. Heads were lopped off, men were blown to smithereens, and bodies were riddled with more bullets than Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (even though, at that time, I’d only the heavily edited network version to go by). And that was all before the opening credits. Needless to say, The Exterminator had me hooked, and, by the time this bloodbath was over, I knew that, no matter what sort of roundhouse kickin' awesomeness Chuck Norris had up his sleeve, The Exterminator would be the flick I'd be talking about come Monday morning at school.
The Exterminator is one of dozens of Death Wish clones produced in the late-seventies/early-eighties to cash in on both the aforementioned Bronson classic’s box-office as well as the very real public concerns over sky-high urban crime rates that were sweeping the nation. The film introduces us to John Eastland (the baby-faced Robert Ginty), a Vietnam vet who works alongside his best friend and fellow veteran, Michael (Steve James), at a meat-packing plant in New York City. When a gang of punks break into one of the storage lockers on site, John finds himself overwhelmed by the thugs, but James arrives in the nick of time, taking out the three gang bangers and, once again, saving his pal’s bacon (earlier in the film, we see Michael do the same in Vietnam while John’s held captive by the NVA). The next morning, however, Michael’s ambushed by the gang, beaten, and paralyzed, sending John into a vengeance-fueled frenzy. As John works his way through the ranks of the violent street gang, he sees the positive effect his handiwork has on the city. Soon, John’s fighting crime wherever he sees it, taking on all manner of scum from simple pick-pockets all the way up to the mafia bosses who lord over the city’s meat trade. With the C.I.A. breathing down his neck, Detective James Dalton (Christopher George) – a Vietnam veteran, himself – heads up an investigation to discover the identity of this self-proclaimed Exterminator, but, as Dalton gets closer to finding out the vigilante’s identity, he begins to question whether or not he’s on the right side in this new war.
Revisiting The Exterminator on Blu-ray was like stepping into the Way Back machine for me, but, even though I was completely gassed by the heady fumes of nostalgia, I was quite delighted to see that this exploitation cheapie still holds up well today. I’m a sucker for revenge/vigilante flicks with despicable villains getting their comeuppance in the most extreme manner possible, and, in this previously unavailable unrated director’s cut, The Exterminator doesn’t disappoint as John doles out his particular brand of justice with increasingly sadistic (and gory) methods.
The film works best while the action focuses on John and his quest to rid the streets of scum, but, sadly, The Exterminator is saddled with a wholly unnecessary romantic subplot involving Dalton and the attractive-yet-completely-disposable Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Egger), and the scenes of Dalton courting Stewart drag the action to a halt. Sure, there’s a bit in which the couple find themselves confronted by some of the very same scum John’s declared war against, and it’s suggested that said encounter alters Dalton’s stance on John’s activities. The same results could have been had in a much more thematically relevant manner, however, and the film would simply work better had they excised the silly love story altogether.
The Exterminator takes out the trash on Blu-ray courtesy of Synapse Films, who’ve lovingly restored this cult-classic with a near-pristine 1.78:1 transfer. The image is sharp and crisp with exceptional detail and clarity throughout, and just the right amount of fine cinematic grain. The transfer is virtually free of any hint of print damage or artifacting, and colors are nicely replicated, with warm skin tones, deep, lush blacks, and the vivid day-glow red/orange blood of the era. The transfer is accompanied by a restored 2.0 track that smartly avoids trying to squeeze out more than the source intended, offering a nicely balanced and satisfying aural experience.
Extras include a commentary track by director, James Glickenhaus, as well as the film’s original trailer, and television spots.
While the added weight of a superfluous romantic subplot occasionally bogs down the action, The Exterminator still manages to shock and entertain with ultra-violent aplomb, even after more than thirty years. As always, Synapse Films has pulled out all the stops, putting together a gorgeous new transfer, restored audio, and a few unexpected bonuses, making this a bloody blast from the past that fans of vigilante flicks and exploitation cinema will certainly want to add to their Blu-ray collection.