THE EXTERMINATOR (James Glickenhaus, 1980)

A burning car and a muscular man pointing a flamethrower in The Exterminator, a movie by James Glickenhaus.

The Exterminator (1980)
Running time: 104 mins.
Directed by:
James Glickenhaus. Produced by: Mark Buntzman
Robert Ginty, Steve James, Samantha Eggar, Christopher George.

The EXTERMINATOR is a derivative and pretty rough exploitation picture. The film’s storyline is sketchy and thin but still packs one or two twists. And there’s enough message – if you care to look for it beneath scorched, bullet-riddled bodies, gratuitous explosions, jaw-dropping prosthetic effects (courtesy of Stan Winston!) and glimpses of the Deuce in its squalid heyday.

The Story of The Exterminator (1980)

Two Vietnam vets, John Eastland and Michael Jefferson, come back to “normal” life in a scummy, crime-ridden New York of the 1980’s. When the “Ghetto Ghouls” gang assault Michael, living him crippled for life, John has nothing but revenge on his mind. Armed with a flamethrower and a Magnum pistol, the Exterminator goes on a violent rampage through New York’s slums and sex dens.

First Impressions

At first I found THE EXTERMINATOR underwhelming. The story felt shallow, confused and technically the film was not very well-made. I had a hard time getting past the often cheesy dialogue and the impact of the action scenes was undermined by choppy editing. Yet, over the years, I felt compelled to revisit THE EXTERMINATOR several times, eventually embracing its technical shortcomings. In particular Robert M. Baldwin’s gritty cinematography does a great job capturing the feel of New York’s urban decay. THE EXTERMINATOR has plenty of authentic rawness going for it. The use of grimy NYC locations really amps up the suffocatingly sleazy vibe. The use of real locations makes THE EXTERMINATOR such a special experience.

Production values

It’s hard to pinpoint just how low-budget the film is. Whereas the Vietnam prologue goes all out on squibs and pyrotechnics, the film’s middle act is more restrained midsection. In terms of dialogue and storytelling THE EXTERMINATOR is like a student film, but with some serious cash thrown at it when it comes to the action scenes and daring stunts.

Technical quality

In terms of editing, James Glickenhaus crosses the line on occasion. This disregard for the basic grammer of editing further adds to the film’s spatial disorientation. Also, some inappropriately long slow-motion shots stick out amid the poorly blocked action scenes, lending THE EXTERMINATOR a confusing, nearly-arthouse vibe.

The Cast

Robert Ginty as the Exterminator makes for one of the least macho action heroes of the 1980s. He’s just your average guy who unleashes his savage side in quest for revenge. Ginty’s performance won’t shake the pillars of the universe but it does the job. Genre film veteran Christopher George (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) comes across as very likeable in what is a fairly undemanding role as cop hot on Ginty’s trail. The always welcome Samantha Eggar is wasted in a supporting part as George’s romantic interest. Look out for a couple of cop extras from Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE in the brief scene at the police station.

Final Thoughts

While not meant to win any awards, THE EXTERMINATOR still is of some value as a document of its time. It deftly captures the vibrant, anxiety-riddled at the dawn of the 1980s, with the Vietnam trauma looming over the bankrupt New York. One only wonders what could have been had Robert Ginty and Steve James swapped their roles in THE EXTERMINATOR.

Trivia: Glickenhaus’ early feature THE ASTROLOGER plays on TV in the intensive care ward where Steve James’ Vietnam hero is slowly wilting away wired up to a machine.

Reviewed by Alex Bakshaev in September 2020