“The people of New York have been terrorized by criminals for too long. Politicians have stood idly by as thugs and killers have taken over our streets, our parks, our lives. As of today, this will no longer be true.” signed, The Exterminator
A giant explosion and a man being catapulted into the air, looking like he just got expelled from an erupting volcano. Cut to American G.I.’s shooting M16s in the jungle – or what’s supposed to be the jungle. It looks suspiciously like an Arizona desert with some tropical foliage transplanted from Stein’s Garden and Gifts, but nonetheless …
We’re introduced to our protagonist John Eastland here, in Vietnam, where he and his platoon are captured by the Cong. A thin and unremarkable man except for his impressive mustache, he is nonetheless tied up, while his taller, more muscular and all-around more threatening trusty black sidekick, is merely made to kneel on the ground with his hands on his head. The Viet Cong soldier points a machete at him and questions him about the date of a future invasion, but he’s not talking. So to show that he means business, the Cong takes the machete and nearly decapitates another P.O.W., the blade going through the man’s neck and spine as smoothly as John Rambo’s knife through paper in First Blood. Eastland rethinks his position, and gives up the information.
Meanwhile, the Viet Cong soldier entrusted with guarding black sidekick Michael Jefferson has turned his back on him, even though he’s unrestrained, so as to watch the action with the beheading and the interrogation. Too bad for him, because Michael has a secret weapon in his mini-fro, a piano wire meant for stranglin’. Just as Eastland is about to be shaved insurgency-style, black sidekick sneaks up behind and strangles the soldier, takes his M60 – I was not aware that the Viet Cong had those – and proceeds to gun down every damn communist in the place. Except one, the one who was going to behead Eastland, who is seen crawling away in the water. So Johnny picks up a pistol laying nearby and shoots him in the head. He looks a lot more nervous about the whole thing than Michael, who is smooth as Shaft if he was played by Jim Kelly, but we see that Michael is not a total pussy, even if he did give up the info under pressure.
The G.I.’s flee the area in a chopper, amidst heavy enemy fire and against a backdrop of rock cliffs that look distinctly un-Vietnamese. As the bird flies and the ‘Nam gets farther away, we cut to the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline. Cue opening credits and theme song.
The Exterminator was released in 1980 and is not only one of the best vigilante films of all-time, but also one of the best films to showcase the scummy underbelly of New York City. Unjustly dismissed by Roger Ebert as a Death Wish rip-off, The Exterminator actually occupies a crucial midpoint in 70s and 80s action cinema, being both influenced by its predecessors and also influencing films that came after it. There are so many categories to check for this film I don’t even know where to start: vigilante justice, check; Vietnam veterans, check; NYC street gangs, check; revolt against degenerate urban scum, double check.
John Eastland is played by Robert Ginty, who looks like a slightly older and slightly sleazier Luke Skywalker. He’s so normal and plain as to be un-castable nowadays. Black sidekick Michael is masterfully played by Steve James, who later went on to play black sidekick to the likes of Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin in Delta Force, and to Michael Dudikoff in American Ninja, thus taking his place alongside other black sidekick luminaries like Felton Perry of Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Robocop fame. (For the inside scoop on why Michael Dudikoff never became the major star he should have become, see Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.)
After being treated to some glorious helicopter footage of New York, while Roger Bowling’s urban cowboy anthem “Heal It” plays on, we see John and Michael working together at a warehouse. John happens on some members of the Ghetto Ghouls gang stealing some of the merchandise. He attempts to stop them but is overpowered. Just like back in ‘Nam, Michael has to come to the rescue, which he is more than able to do. Using his martial arts training – Steve James was a master of Tiger Claw Kung Fu in real life – he easily disposes of the three thugs, then picks his friend up off the ground.
But the Ghetto Ghouls – who look like every other New York street gang ever put on camera between 1974 and 1988 – aren’t about to let their humiliation slide. They track Michael down near his home, in an utterly decimated part of town, and jump him.
Actually, “jump” is far too mild a word. The act of violence that is graphically depicted in this scene is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen on film. It involves a garden tool, and that’s all I’m willing to say about it. Maybe it’s just because I first saw The Exterminator when I was seven years old, and the memory has stuck with me, like John Eastland’s memories of ‘Nam that periodically flashback in the film. But nonetheless, to this day it gives me shivers every time I see it.
Michael is left paralyzed for life, and John Eastland is transformed. He is no longer the weak, cowardly man who black sidekick always had to save – he has become The Exterminator. Director James Glickenhaus apparently felt that no more explanation than that was required, since he immediately cuts to Ginty in full Exterminator mode in a dank cellar basement, where a member of the Ghetto Ghouls is inexplicably chained up. He says he doesn’t known anything about what happened to the Exterminator’s friend – but Ginty’s got a flamethrower that says otherwise. He leaves the tied-up scumbag with an ominous warning: “If you’re lying, I’ll be back.” That’s right, it was Ginty the Exterminator who said it first, not Arnold the Terminator. Arnold later paid homage by using the exact word-for-word line in Twins.
The rest of the film is pretty much a classic tale of vigilante justice. What starts as a quest for revenge for Michael’s attack quickly becomes something much bigger, as John Eastland encounters the extent of the corruption and decay in the city. He goes after the mob boss who extorts money from the warehouse he works at, ambushing and kidnapping him at landmark New York steakhouse The Old Homestead.
The killings of the Ghetto Ghouls and the mafia don bring the attention of the police, which introduces us to Detective James Dalton, played by Christopher George. When we first meet him, he’s investigating the attack on the Ghetto Ghouls at their clubhouse.
“Just what we need, another psycho killer around here.”
“Couldn’a happened to a nicer bunch.”
Detective Dalton tracks down a prostitute named Candy who was there when the massacre happened. After a scene in which a trucker inexplicably picks up a short and homely streetwalker while passing up the much more attractive Candy, whose ass and thighs look amazing in 80s hooker hot pants, Dalton swings in and takes the young lady down to the station.
But not to be booked. He ties her up to a chair in an interrogation room, and as she squirms and moans in fear, he encircles her, stone-faced and silent. We don’t know what he’s going to do. Maybe he’s a bad cop. Maybe this is the rape room – hey, this is New York in 1980.
But Dalton is a good cop, and he just wants to get information from the poor girl. Later, the suave 70s detective – he looks like he stepped out of The Seven-Ups – puts the moves on a female doctor at the hospital and takes her out on a date at a nice outdoor restaurant. We see the incredible beauty of the night skyline, of the city seen from afar, which is then contrasted with the filth and degeneracy of Times Square seen up close. The sweetness of their date is contrasted with the savagery of a prostitute’s torture by a fat, disgusting pedophile who has ordered the brothel owner to find him a girl for a threesome with himself and an underage boy. One wonders if this character could possibly have been made any more loathsome – and then we find out that he’s a State Senator from New Jersey.
The next day, we see John Eastland on Times Square, walking past all the brothels and porno theaters wearing a green army jacket, looking more than a bit like Travis Bickle. There, he encounters the same cast of characters that Travis described in Taxi Driver: “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies – sick, venal.” I guess not much changed between ’76 and ’80.
Walking along, the same prostitute that was tortured by the chickenhawk and the brothel owner propositions him. After bargaining down the price a bit and asking her age (is he making sure she’s old enough, or young enough?) he goes for it. Seems the Exterminator needs a little release after all his exterminatin’.
The guy who works the desk at the hourly motel is probably the best character in the whole film, and will have you saying, “Ya want da sheets?” long after the film is over. “You gotta have the sheets,” Ginty says, and they go off to their room. The Exterminator is about to become The Ejaculator, but alas, a hero’s life is a hard one, for fate has delivered unto him another victim who cries out for justice. When he sees the scars on her chest from the chickenhawk’s torture – a rather bizarre way to give the audience the obligatory 80s action movie boob scene – he switches from John the John back to John the Exterminator.
Cut to our hero – or is he an anti-hero? – making hollow point bullets. In contrast to regular ammo, hollow points break apart once inside the body and do major damage. But that’s not good enough for the Exterminator, who also fills them with mercury. The scene goes on for several minutes, like a weird contemplative interlude, which culminates in a shot of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Condemned of Altona lying next to a user’s manual for an Uzi submachine gun. (Sartre had died earlier that same year. A supporter of radical Maoist groups, he probably would have appreciated the juxtaposition.) It’s a strangely prolonged scene in a film that is otherwise filled with abrupt cuts, such as the aforementioned jump to the flamethrower interrogation scene, and another cut from the mafioso’s apartment, after a fight with a dog, to the warehouse, and the lowering of said mafioso into a meat grinder.
Later, after Eastland sends a letter to the press (quoted at the beginning of this review) calling himself The Exterminator and letting everyone know that his one-man war is on, the federal government takes an interest in him. It seems that by doing the job that the government can’t or won’t do – cleaning up the scum who pollute the city – he’s making them look bad. They can’t have that, not in an election year.
The CIA sends Agent Shaw to meet with the NYPD and make sure they take care of the problem. But Detective Dalton’s not having it. He’s a Veteran himself, and seems more than a little sympathetic to the Exterminator. He tells the CIA: “I think you have to take a shit, and it’s coming out of your mouth instead of your asshole.”
The CIA agents in the film are doubly interesting because they appear to be a subtle reference to the JFK assassination. In 1969, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison charged businessman Clay Shaw with being part of the conspiracy that killed Kennedy, and said that Shaw was a CIA agent. (This was famously dramatized in Oliver Stone’s epic film JFK.) The Agency denied any connection with Shaw and he was acquitted of all charges. But in 1979, CIA director Richard Helms admitted under oath that Shaw had, in fact, been a contract agent. That was one year before The Exterminator, in which the CIA agent is named Shaw and – just in case we don’t get the hint – he’s also a sniper, who tries to take out the Exterminator in the final scene. “Nice shooting,” his partner says, perhaps not for the first time
Late 70s through early 80s cinema was dominated by the Vietnam War. That hugely unpopular war had ended in ’74, but the national psyche was still severely traumatized. Of the millions of Americans who served in the war, many were killed or injured, and many more suffered psychological damage that may have been just as bad, or worse. What’s more, they came back home to a country radically changed, which neither gave them the welcome parades that their parents got for World War 2, nor a healthy economy in which to readjust to civilian life. (Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes about this in his book On Killing.)
Part of the reason that films like The Exterminator were popular in their time was because they addressed some of these issues, albeit in an emotional rather than intellectual way. We lost the war against the Viet Cong over there (maybe because, as John Rambo said, “Somebody wouldn’t let us win!”) but we could win the war against crime and degeneracy here, at least in the movies. Vets were largely powerless in real life, but on film they could be empowered to effect real change in the world, by doing exactly what they’d been trained to do. (See also: The Park Is Mine.) When John Eastland visits Michael in the hospital after taking care of the Ghetto Ghouls, he tells his friend, “It was strange. It was like we were back in ‘Nam. It didn’t matter if it was right or wrong – I just did it.”
I think it’s highly likely that The Exterminator was an influence on First Blood, which is still the best Vietnam veteran tale of American cinema. Just as likely is that Taxi Driver was an influence on The Exterminator. The character of John Eastland occupies a halfway point between Travis Bickle and John Rambo. All three characters are ‘Nam vets. Bickle and Eastland both live in New York, and both wage a one-man war against the scummiest elements of the city. Eastland and Rambo both walk around in their army jackets, and both have no friends except their respective black sidekicks (but Rambo’s black sidekick, Delmore Barry, is dead even before the film begins.)
Bickle and Eastland also share an affinity for Times Square prostitutes. But whereas Bickle is too repressed or just messed up to act out his obvious desires, which he stokes with endless porno viewings, Eastland would have likely gone through with it, if the girl hadn’t turned out to be a victim. His desire to fight crime is stronger than his libido – or maybe torture scars are just a major boner-killer.
As we pointed out in our review of Death Wish 3, Paul Kersey is a very different kind of vigilante hero, who prior to the tragedy that befalls his family was the epitome of normal. For Bickle, Eastland, and Rambo, any trace of normalcy in their lives was before the war. Eastland is not as messed up as Bickle, but he’s not as normal as Kersey either. He’s a man who’s been through hell in Vietnam, who’s now come back to a different kind of hell here at home, on the mean streets of New York City.
Review by Joey Mook