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(This review refers to the 100-minute, never-before-seen director's cut of Combat Shock, originally titled American Nightmares.)
Legendary grindhouse sleaze-festival Combat Shock will do things to you. Unpleasant things. For nominal protagonist Frankie, time served in the Vietnam War brings back memories, Combat Shock brings back memories for me, too, though I've never served in the military. Maybe those memories will help us process this outlandishly bleak, tragic exercise in low-budget nihilism - so dedicated to its convictions it'll pretty much burn up your television with bile.
Memory one: high school, 1985 - I open my oral report on domestic violence by leaping from my seat in a black trench coat. Pulling a realistic cap gun, I unload the clip into a girl I think is kind of cute. Somewhat tellingly, the caps actually fail to go off. I'm sort of saddened to think that this would be national news if a kid tried to do this today, but I guess I was born too soon.
Memory two: community college - a report I write about the role of women in renaissance art merits only a B+. My point is that while women produced much great art, they didn't stand a chance. The professor claims I'm simply churning negative information over and over.
So, Combat Shock, roughly contemporaneous with my high school death wish - about which we can reflect that such savage, hopeless violence doesn't play anymore - is also similar to my report, in that the movie, while passionate and well intentioned, simply wallows in hellish pain, violence and despair for about 90 minutes, then cuts to black. I objected to my B+ but I'll give Combat Shock an A. Its modest aim - to detail how Vietnam, and crushing indifference back home in America, destroys Frankie's life - is brought home with devastating accuracy. Just don't cue this up for date night.
Ominously opening with scenes of sustained tension from the war, Combat Shock sounds the bugle: eerie tones and a soldier running scared, confusion, then a welter of shredded bodies in the mud. Frankie wakes from his never-ending nightmare in a hellhole apartment that defies description. His long suffering wife can't tolerate his inability to find work, or even keep the toilet working, and their baby is a mewling horror with Agent Orange-caused birth defects. So Frankie shambles trash-strewn streets in a trench coat, long greasy hair plastered to his face while junkie friends O.D. and employment agencies laugh at him. What's a vet on the edge of oblivion to do when the past won't let him go and the future spits in his face? For director Buddy Giovinazzo, the answer lies in a mini orgy of death-wish violence with zero chance at redemption.
Were my words half as assured, potent and lethal as Giovinazzo's movie, I'd end my review now, 'cause it's one-and-done when even God's given up on you, but I've got a few more things to say anyway. As Frankie, Buddy's brother Rick inhabits his role to an uncomfortable degree. He is lost in his mind, tortured by flashbacks and beyond hope. Being an unknown (then and now, this is his only acting role) obviously helps, but you may never see a more gritty, distressed and despairing character. Wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) shows the seams a bit more, but her shrilly outlined depression at being trapped in purgatory with a mutant child is palpable. Giovinazzo's meticulous, meditative takes of Staten Island squalor (not to mention that apartment, one that would drive most folks to a quick suicide) full of dead-languid pacing, insure you'll have a really unpleasant time with this film. Brother Rick's score (R. Giovinazzo's had an amazing career as a Hollywood orchestrator) seals the deal. Only a disco-fied motif overused at the unemployment office demonstrates strain, while everything else consists of uneasy drawn-out tones or stuttering synth sounds, propelling us headlong with the action into anguish.
Combat Shock's no budget, amateur acted one-note samba is not for everyone. Most would say it sucks. Those fools just don't understand Buddy Giovinazzo's mastery of urban despair, suicidal depression and the effects of war on battle-scarred vets. Combat Shock isn't fun - I'd love to have seen the faces of grindhouse habitués looking for cheap, schlocky thrills - but it sure is good.
Both American Nightmares and the 92-minute theatrical release version, lovingly and somewhat misleadingly titled Combat Shock, appear in fullscreen 1.33:1 ratio, as per original intent. Neither version is likely to make you rush out to buy a new flat-panel TV. In fact, despite some gruesome bloodshed and mutilated bodies, you'd likely get a more authentic experience watching this on a black-and-white CRT tube TV, circa 1975 manufacture date, that's hiding in your grandma's basement. Nonetheless, the grainy, semi-washed-out images are as clear and sharp as they'll ever be, and worthy of the attention of all fans of down-n-out cult cinema.
Sometimes a bit muffled, or plagued by poor ADR, Dolby Digital Stereo Audio nonetheless does justice to both versions of Combat Shock. The mix isn't terribly dynamic, of course, but dialog is nicely balanced with soundtrack elements, and Rick Giovinazzo's often amazing score sounds truly great.
Troma really gives it up with the extras. About the only thing missing is a nice making-of documentary, which would be largely impossible, since Buddy G was pretty much running around filming Combat Shock guerilla-style with one camera anyway. First up, you get both the Theatrical Cut and the 100-minute, never-before-seen Director's Cut on disc one. While the theatrical cut has a slicker credits sequence with stock footage of actual Vietnam bombings and napalm attacks to add authenticity, some of the violence and squalor has been truncated. However, the shorter theatrical cut has a Commentary Track with Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit (the notorious director of Nekromantik). It's a spot-on track filled mostly with Buddy's reminiscences, tidbits and insight into the actual production, information about pretty much everyone involved, and with Buttgereit chiming in every so often with down-to-earth comments.
Disc Two contains a new 30-minute documentary Post-Traumatic, An American Nightmare featuring the likes of Bill Lustig and Jim VanBebber among other sleaze-cinema notables. These gloom-inaries discuss the times and impact of the movie with candor and awe, creating a fun time for viewers. You also get The Early Works of Buddy Giovinazzo including 5 short, pretty entertaining and weird films, (from 7 to 15 minutes each) and three music videos from the Giovinazzo brothers no-wave band. Making a command appearance is Mr. Robbie, (aka Maniac 2) also seen on The Last Horror Film Tromasterpiece DVD. Four Interviews, each about seven to ten minutes in length, include Buddy and Jorg at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, Buddy cornered by Lloyd Kaufman at the 2006 Tromanale in Berlin, an interview with Rick Giovinazzo and lastly an interview in which Buddy reflects on Combat Shock 25 years later. Hellscapes takes ten minutes to check back on some of the Staten Island locations used for filming, many of which appear unchanged, some are simply fenced off, and some seem different, but just as seedy. The Original Theatrical Trailer, other Troma Trailers and a two-page essay by the formidable Steven Puchalski, that comes nestled in the standard keepcase with flipper, complete this grimy grip of extras.
Combat shock refers liberally to earlier, more-well known films, such as Taxi Driver and Eraserhead, but you'll be doing it a disservice stepping into a viewing with those movies in mind. While much less, Combat Shock is also so much more. Filled to the brim with nerve-shredding nihilism, total despair, and a take no prisoners attitude - actually, it takes prisoners and tortures them before killing them - Combat Shock is one of the bleakest films you'll ever have the chance to see. It's so bleak it's almost laughable, but the pathos is too real, even with a mutant baby. This 2-disc edition rides the line between Highly Recommended and the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Series. I'm pretty sure you readers can make that judgment call yourselves.