You don’t often find Troma described in the same sentence as the words “legitimate masterpiece”. Even many people that like Troma flicks will make a comment along the lines of “this film was great…for Troma.” Anyone that claims Troma has never released anything worthwhile has obviously never seen Buddy Giovinazzo’s LEGITIMATE masterpiece, Combat Shock. Sure, Troma didn’t finance it or make it in-house, but they had the good sense to see the amazing film that it is and spent money marketing it and getting it out to the masses. Combat Shock is, to put it bluntly, the best grassroots, indie cult film to emerge from the 80s.
Frankie Dunlan has a shit life. After serving in Vietnam, his country has basically forgotten all about him and he’s now jobless as well as penniless. He lives in a dilapidated, unfurnished apartment with his wife Cathy and newborn baby, who is terribly deformed thanks to Frankie's exposure to Agent Orange during the war. The child is in horrible health, there’s no food outside of breadcrumbs and spoiled milk, and the landlord has promised to toss them out on the street by the end of the day due to back-rent accumulating to an unacceptable amount. Frankie’s wife pleads with him to contact his estranged wealthy father for help, but he refuses, and decides today has to be the day to get back on his feet.
The world however isn’t very accommodating. He owes money to a local drug dealer/loan shark, whom he encounters early on in the day, threatening to pimp his wife and sell his baby on the black market if he doesn’t come up with the money. After waiting in line to be seen for half of the day at unemployment, they still can’t help him find work due to his lack of relevant trade skills. He runs into an old war buddy, who is now hooked on smack, living in an abandoned train-station and is holding up various people just to get by. He offers Frankie a take, but he just can’t bring himself to stoop that low. Along with frequent Vietnam flashbacks and a feeling that the entire world is against him, Frankie has no choice but to make some drastic decisions, no matter the consequences.
Combat Shock is like going through heroin withdrawals while scooping out bits of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, and the nihilism of late-50s noir, putting them into an unwashed, crusted-over blender, and accidentally putting your hand in as you turn it on. There are few films that can properly convey their intended impact to nearly every person that experiences it, but Combat Shock is among that rare breed. It also has a lasting power that just cannot be ignored. The viewing I took in to write this review was the fourth time I’ve seen the film, and it still makes me feel just as shell-shocked and shaken as it did all those years ago. This is the epitome of a “feel like shit” film, and regardless of whether you appreciate that sort of thing in cinema or not, you have to respect a filmmaker who sets out to create a film that will evoke such strong feelings and actually succeeds without using cheap tricks to manipulate his audience. This is pure, heartfelt filmmaking at its best.
Sometimes a film benefits from being shot on a small budget using lesser equipment, and thanks to the tone Giovinazzo was going for in Combat Shock, it definitely works wonders here. Using 16mm, the film has a suitably grimy look that wouldn’t have been possible if the more polished 35mm format had been used. Specks of dirt that appear on the print at times and the overall less-than-crisp appearance help the film a lot more than it does hamper it. The acting, which is mostly delivered via actors that never worked before (and rarely, if ever, again), is astonishingly compelling. Could you complain that it’s a bit amateurish in spots? Sure you could, but then you’d be nitpicking, and anyone that allows the small missteps in line delivery affect their overall opinion on the film is obviously specifically looking for something to bitch about. Rick Giovinazzo, who has gone on to have a very successful career as an orchestrator and has been involved in everything from X-Men 2 to Ice Age, turns in a magnificent performance as Frankie, and his detached, brooding demeanor is powerful indeed. You will definitely develop feelings of sympathy for him and the frustration he’s feeling in regards to a universe that has kicked him to the curb like nothing more than a piece of unwanted trash.
And then there’s the ending, which is one of the most disturbing, nerve-shattering moments in all of cinema. It’s like taking a sledgehammer to the skull, and its effect is never lost upon repeated viewings. Once you see it you’ll never, ever be able to forget it. It’s the perfect way to slam the door shut on Frankie’s living hell, and there’s no sugar-coated, glossy finality to the proceedings. This is what it unfortunately comes to for some, and it’s unflinchingly honest, forcing you to stare the grim reality of it all right in its dead, unforgiving eyes.
What more can be said? As mentioned earlier, I’ve seen Combat Shock four times, my last viewing over two weeks ago, and writing up this review has managed to dredge up all of the feelings the film evokes in me once again. I honestly hate reviewing films I love this much, because I always feel I can’t convey the proper message to serve justice as to just how incredible they are. Hopefully I’ve done so here, as if you’ve never traversed down the decaying urban landscape of Frankie’s nightmarish, devastating reality, you’re sincerely missing out on one of cult cinema’s most overwhelming, fascinating experiences.
Combat Shock gets the treatment it rightly deserves, being inducted into Troma’s Tromasterpiece collection, and Troma has successfully delivered the best release it’s ever slapped its name on. The film itself is available in the more well-known R rated cut, as well as the original director’s cut, under the name of American Nightmares. This was the version that caught Lloyd Kaufman and company's attention, and has never been seen out of its original festival run. Both versions look pretty much identical, although the American Nightmares cut looks a bit better to my eye, being transferred to DVD from the original 16mm print. As I mentioned in the review, it looks very rough around the edges, but you can’t fault it for that whatsoever, as it compliments the film nicely. The Dolby Digital stereo track serves its purpose, with all of the dialogue coming through just fine and the music sounding nicely robust. The Combat Shock cut is also accompanied by a commentary track with Buddy Giovinazzo and Jörg Buttgereit of Nekromantik fame. Not sure why he’s involved, outside of the fact that their ideals on crafting low-budget shockers is likely the same. Giovinazzo does most of the talking during the track, going over how they shot the film guerilla-style with no permits, his cast and crew of friends and colleagues, and where the inspiration came to make the film.
This being a 2-disc release, the second disc is packed to the gills with Criterion-esque extra features (including menus that are unabashedly similar). First up is a half-hour documentary entitles “Post-Traumatic: An American Nightmare”, which deals with the film’s impact on cult cinema, and features interviews with fellow filmmakers Richard Stanley (Dust Devil, Hardware), John McNaughton (Henry), William Lustig (Maniac, Vigilante), Roy Frumkes (Street Trash), Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn), and more. The doc mainly serves as an ego-stroking piece on how awesome Combat Shock is, but hey, it definitely deserves the praise! Buddy Giovinazzo is featured in three separate interviews, one solo, one with Jörg Buttgereit, and one with Lloyd Kaufman, all of which are insightful and worth checking out. Rick Giovinazzo also gets the spotlight for an interview (apparently his first ever), and he speaks about working with his brother and all the fun they had together making the flick (fun was involved in this? Say it isn’t so!)
Arguably the coolest inclusions are the early works of Buddy Giovinazzo, which spans music videos for his band Circus 2000AD (he was the drummer, Rick was the bassist, along with a friend who served as guitarist and vocalist) to student films and later shorts. Jonathan of the Night is my personal favorite, a gory little ditty about a yuppie vampire that only feeds on those that deserve it. Apparently, this was to be the springboard to a feature that obviously never came to fruition. The same can be said about Mr. Robbie, which was basically a promo reel for a proposed Maniac 2 with Joe Spinell, who died before it could be produced. Rounding out the shorts are Subconscious Realities, relaying the effects of a bad trip, The Lobotomy, which sees a chronic masturbator reformed, and The Christmas Album, which is a creepy number about a demonic record that evokes homicidal thoughts. More features to dig into include a “then and now” segment looking back at the locales in which the film was shot (some of the changes are amazing), the film’s original theatrical trailer, and liner notes courtesy of Shock Cinema editor Steven Puchalski. Without a doubt, this is the cult DVD release of the year.
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