Few filmmakers captured urban terror and anxiety as brilliantly as William Lustig. Born and raised in The Bronx on a steady diet of grindhouse movies, the native New Yorker made a name for himself in the 1980s with a slew of grimy exploitation pictures that revelled in unapologetic sleaze and depicted his city as a deadly hellscape. His debut, Maniac (1980), is a morally repugnant slasher film which follows a psychopath who preys on innocent women and keeps their scalps as souvenirs. Then, in 1988, he helmed Maniac Cop, a horror-thriller penned by Larry Cohen which told the story of an undead police officer with some scores to settle against his former employers. That film spawned a further two sequels featuring the ghoulish law enforcement officer, all of which take place in the streets of the Rotten Apple.

In 1982, however, Lustig unleashed Vigilante, an urban retribution potboiler made to capitalize on the surge of movies of this ilk that followed in the wake of Michael Winner’s 1974 trendsetter, Death Wish. Like Winner’s controversial Charles Bronson vehicle, Vigilante tells the story of an everyman who adopts the way of the gun after his family is brutalized by vile scumbags. The film follows Eddie Marino (Robert Forster), a factory worker who’s had enough of the justice system that failed him and his family, so, with the help of a few friends, he decides to deliver his own brand of justice.

There’s no denying that Vigilante is reminiscent of Death Wish and the countless other movies featuring regular Joes who become outlaws much like the gunslingers of the Old West. However, Vigilante transcends the genre’s derivative elements through sheer unpleasant execution as kids are murdered and truly despicable bastards rape and kill while cops and judges turn a blind eye. The fact that crime can be random, cruel, and punishing towards good people is also emphasised to great effect; Marino’s family doesn’t deserve their plight, and the nastiness that triggers his vengeance crusade is troubling, heartbreaking, and truly grim.  

Of course, this only makes the payback feel all the more satisfying, and Lustig and co. do a great job of making lowlifes getting their comeuppance feel exhilarating. This is due in no part to the outstanding performance by Robert Forster, who plays the part of a suffering father and husband hell-bent on righting the wrongs that befell his family with a sense of grounded realism and conviction. The film’s nihilistic tone isn’t for the faint of heart, and when the end credits roll, you’ll feel like you’ve been pulled through the ringer by the teeth.  

When Lustig approached screenwriter Richard Vetere to help him bring his vision to life, he did so with an urban spaghetti western in mind. Lustig was heavily inspired by filmmakers like Sergio Leone and wanted to re-envision their style in a contemporary city setting. He also wanted to create a genre yarn that embodied the hard-hitting sensibilities of Italian exploitation fare. The end result was a bleak shocker-cum-tragedy that serves as both a love letter to its cinematic influences as well as a chilling reflection of a contemporary real-world city in decay.

Vetere drew upon real life for inspiration when he was penning the script, as a way to channel his frustrations pertaining to the high crime and corruption that polluted the asphalt jungle of NYC during the ‘70s and ‘80s. The writer had encountered gang culture first-hand following an incident where a group of chain-wielding thugs attacked his Volkswagen Bug, much to the apathy of the cops when he reported the incident Elsewhere, stories of controversial judge Bruce ‘Turn ‘Em Loose’ Wright letting criminals off the hook frequented the news cycle, while junkies and hookers hung around street corners looking for their respective fixes. “For me, Vigilante was a revenge film,” he told Diabolique. “But in many ways it was my taking action to save a dying city.”

To suggest that the film implores everyday citizens to pick up a gun and clean up the streets is a little far-fetched, but it certainly represents the consensus of the terrified and frustrated citizens who had to live in the city at the time. People were scared and didn’t feel protected by the institutions in place to protect them. Their city was also experiencing a crack epidemic that fueled crime and addiction. Vigilante is a cathartic response to that unrest.

“I understand the attack on vigilantism, but those who attack it have no experience of what it is like to live with crime on your doorstep and the feelings of helplessness,” Vetere says in response to critics who believe movies like Vigilante are endorsements of regular people taking the law into their own handds. “It was prevalent for over 15 years in NYC if not longer. And is always people living in low income neighborhoods and public housing who suffer the most from it.”

Vigilante films are often criticized for being pro-gun and ideologically extreme. Michael Winner once joked that he’d be more right-wing than Hitler if he was a politician, and this seems to be the mentality that some commentators associate with the subgenre he propelled. And while some of these movies do endorse the notion of citizens administering the death penalty against wrongdoers (Troy Duffy’s 1999 action-comedy The Boondock Saints, for example, is a well-known self-confessed murder fantasy), Vigilante gives a voice to the everyday people living in the trenches who just wanted their rundown neighborhoods to be safe.

Fortunately, the film resonated with people across the socio-political spectrum — from gun-toting conservatives to liberals who understood the city’s dangerous climate or just appreciated the film’s ability to entertain. But it wasn’t only fed up citizens and enthusiastic genre fans who gravitated towards the movie either. According to Vetere, the Vigilante was even embraced by the criminals it was lashing out against, recalling one evening where he took a date to see the film and found the theater packed with gangbangers: “They reacted loudly and were talking to themselves but then the movie came up they started shouting the lines out loud. They knew them all. Later when I left the owner told me that they had come to several of the shows. They loved the film and when it was over some of them came over to me in a manner of respect.”

Whether viewed as an unapologetic call for action during a period of unrest, or an gung-ho slice of exploitation, Vigilante is still one of the best movies of its kind. By no means did the film change the game when it came to urban retribution thrillers, but the sense of anger and frustration that permeates every frame certainly makes it one of the most memorable and impressive of the bunch. At the same time, the film also works as an entertaining actioner with an unpleasant mean streak; so if you just want to watch some shoot-outs, car chases and dirtbags being hurled from rooftops then look no further. NYC might have been a terrifying place back then, but the city certainly produced more than its fair share of brilliant genre pictures during that period.