*** Originally published on Beyond the Marquee, 03/12/12 ***
Hey Doc, it’s Malone. Just caught up with an old classic on the blu disc: The Exterminator (1980). Synapse Films has graciously released a two disc combo (Blu + DVD) of the original director’s cut complete with more gore, a director’s commentary, a restored stereo soundtrack mix, the theatrical red- band trailer and a handful of TV spots… and I’ve gotta say, I had a blast.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it centers around John Eastland (Robert Ginty), a Vietnam Vet who always seems be getting his ass kicked, whether it’s by the Viet Cong or New York City street thugs. Fortunately for him, his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is always around to bail him out. One morning as Jefferson heads out to meet Eastland for a beer, he’s mugged by some punks who not only steal his dough, but leave him paralyzed by clawing him in the back with a mini 3 pronged garden tool. Perhaps the director had something to say about day drinking? In any case, once Eastland finds out about this, he sets out for revenge with an arsenal of weaponry brought back from the war. Starting with street punks and moving on to mob bosses and corrupt senators, he not only seems to rediscover his cajones, but he actually begins to enjoy killing the scum of the city. Enter another Vietnam Vet: Detective James Dalton (played by Christopher George who easily gives the best performance of the film despite being about ten years too old for the part.) Dalton is hot on the trail of this new vigilante, now nicknamed The Exterminator and will stop at nothing to bring him to justice. Well almost nothing. He’d probably catch the perp if he could stop chasing the skirt of sexy Dr. Megan Stewart (Samantha Egger) who just happens to be caring for the paralyzed Jefferson. Oh, what a tangled web we weave.
Who will win, morality or justice? When do we begin to question our morals? When do we begin to question the establishment? This could get deep.
But it really doesn’t.
Sometimes things are left unexplained. How does Eastland capture the first street punk he happily tortures? Why isn’t the mob also trying to hunt The Exterminator? Why does a man so obsessed with wiping out scum attempt to sexually exploit a young prostitute only to find that someone already did it worse and THEN get angry? Well, you have to remember the era. This was the time of Death Wish. Plot holes and underage prostitutes were as much staples to a gritty film as bad CG is to anything done by Steven Sommers. Sure you get a little bit of the two Vets: one who readjusted to society and one who became unhinged , but the real focus here is the gore of the kills. You’ve got decapitations, torture by flame thrower, a guy getting destroyed in a meat grinder, car explosions and bullets galore. The opening Vietnam sequence alone seems to have the entire budget of a lower-end Canon picture. All around fun!
Now as for the disc itself, one thing you have to remember when you release a Blu + DVD combo set is that the Blu MUST look better than the regular disc. Synapse really put out a crisp, clean looking Hi-Def transfer. One of my greatest joys is watching an old revenge movie like this and seeing a couple of scratches and pops in the film. It makes me feel like I’m watching it in a theater. This had just enough. It didn’t look like the print was found crumpled in a dumpster like some I’ve seen, but every time I lifted my feet I was half-way expecting them to stick to the floor. The DVD looked really good as well. Not as sharp as the blu, of course, but clean with a bit of blur – which I consider a good thing. It brought me back to the era of renting cheap action VHS tapes and popping up a bag of ACT II extra butter popcorn on a Friday night. Normally, I’d just get rid of the extra disc or use it on my old SD set in the bedroom, but this really brought out a different movie watching experience. Film or video? 70′s or 80′s? The choice is yours here. Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t. You know what I mean, Doc?
The new stereo sound remix was pretty good. You could tell Synapse really put some effort into it and I’m sure there are folks out there who would bitch if it weren’t an option, but I kept switching it back to mono. I mean, it sounds great, but I say if you’re going to watch a movie like this, watch it the way it was meant to be seen – warts and all. A nice stereo mix seems to me like sipping an expensive Cabernet with Little Caesar’s pizza. Sure it’s nice, but sometimes boxed wine is all you need. However, if you really need to be reminded that things are moving from the left side of the screen to the right, you’ll be pleased.
The disc is pretty sparse on extras, but what’s there is worth it. The trailer is cool, but I really enjoyed the TV spots. The narrator’s voice made me laugh as it sounded like they hired a low-rent Don LaFontaine, but they weren’t 20 rehashes of the same spot like you’d find on many “bigger” DVD releases. Each one was different enough that I was happy to sit through them all and feel like I was back in 1980 sipping a can of Schlitz.
Similarly, the director’s commentary wasn’t all fluff like in most major home video releases. Studios increasingly seem to treat commentaries like an audio track that they know nobody’s going to listen to… and they’re right! Nobody wants to sit through 2 hours of their half-assed formality. But Synapse gave commentary listeners a real treat with this one. Director James Glickenhaus is actually informative, talking about the making of the film, the little production snafus, the happy accidents and occasionally an explanation of what you’re watching. It’s just like the commentaries that used to be found on DVD extras (who knew that the Vietnam sequence was shot in the same place where Vic Morrow died years later… and it was the same pilot flying the helicopter!)
I give this film 3 out of 4 devils. If you’re into revenge films from this era, like Death Wish or just want to go back in time for a few hours, you’re going to love this one. The few extras are goodies that will have you watching the movie a couple of times over and it’s a great watch with friends. And beer. Never forget the beer, Doc.