Color, 1980, 102m.
Directed by James Glickenhaus
Starring Christopher George, Samantha Eggar, Robert Ginty, Steve James, Tony DiBenedetto, Dick Boccelli
Synapse (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC), Tango (US R0 NTSC), Synergy (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1)

The wild days of early cable TV were flooded with gritty action films that played late at night, earning a fan base among suburban dads and impressionable kids changed forever by the incandescent gore unleashed by HBO and Cinemax. One of the most popular titles from this era (and a mainstay on VHS shelves as well) was The Executioner, a particularly nasty vigilante offering that had to be cut down to earn an R rating but still delivered plenty of bite. The uncut version eventually surfaced in the early days of DVD, and not surprisingly, it's been given yet another facelift in HD for the Blu-Ray crowd.

In a violent Vietnam-set prologue, soldiers and best buddies John (Ginty) and Michael (James) barely escape from their lives after being captured with one of their cohorts, who gets decapitated in a jaw-dropping bit of business cut from most prints. Flash forward over the credits to New York City, where both of the men are enjoying relatively normal lives. Unfortunately that all comes to an end when Michael is brutally attacked at his place of business (a beer packing factory) by some thugs known as the Ghetto Ghouls. John is understandably distraught to see his best friend hanging by a thread in a body cast, while an investigating cop (Pieces' George) starts to look into the beating and takes time out to romance Mike's pretty doctor (The Brood's Eggar). John decides to go on his own spree outside the law, stalking the seedier back alleys of the Big Apple to wipe out not only the creeps responsible but any other criminal scum standing in his way.

Sort of an amped-up mutation of The Last Hunter, Death Wish, Taxi Driver and Street Law, this film features plenty of startling flourishes including a topless apartment drug binge accompanied by "Disco Inferno," a dog attack, a mobster lowered into a meat grinder, a motorcycle vs. muscle car chase scene, a sordid male whorehouse that could've stepped out of the same year's more infamous Cruising, and great glimpses of vintage 42nd Street including a marquee showing Cauldron of Death and Beyond the Door! This would make a great time capsule double feature with Bill Lustig's Maniac. Eggar basically has nothing substantial to do, but George and Ginty are effective in their roles as their parallel plots slowly weave together on the way to the slam bang climax. Not surprisingly, a vastly inferior sequel came soon afterwards but couldn't come close to this one. Not surprisingly, critics were hostile to this one immediately and haven't warmed up much since; in particular, Roger Ebert's savage review is quoted on the back of the packaging, which omits his final appraisal of it as "a small, unclean exercise in shame." Yep!

Previous DVD editions of this one were nothing much to write about apart from being uncut; they were pretty lifeless in appearance and featured no extras apart from the trailer. Synapse's redo features a much more detailed and colorful presentation, with some scenes even featuring borderline psychedelic uses of magenta lighting. Darker scenes sometimes have that rough and tumble look familiar from low budget '80s titles, but really, would you have it any other way? The release actually includes a Blu-Ray and DVD of the film, though the former is the way to go and definitely offers a significant upgrade if you're set up for it. For some reason the disc defaults to Dolby Digital mono (the same version as previous releases), but a restored two-channel stereo version is also included; the film itself and the trailer significantly tout the fact that it was in Dolby Stereo upon its original release, so it's nice to have this option finally available on home video. The opening scene in particular gets a big boost with the explosions sounding much more powerful. Apart from the trailer and some great TV spots, you also get a fun audio commentary with director James Glickenhaus (who went on to co-found the short-lived but beloved Shapiro Glickenhaus VHS line in the late '80s) and moderator Chris Poggiali, the encyclopedic film expert from the awesome Temple of Schlock. As expected, it's basically a crash course in New York location shooting that wouldn't be possible today, pinpointing the sometimes radically changed sites of Ginty's mayhem peppered with recollections about the interaction of the game cast. If you like your '80s vigilantes with a serious mean streak, you can't do much better than this.

Reviewed on August 24, 2011.