Monday, January 21, 2013

DVD Review: COMBAT SHOCK (1984)

Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: 0 NTSC
Duration: 94/97 Min. 
Rating: Unrated 
Video: Fullscreen (1.33:1) 
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 
Cast: Rick Giovinazzo, Veronica Stork and Mitch Maglio
Director: Buddy Giovinazzo

Synopsis: ‘Nam, a green jungle hell. A terrifying place of death, violence and bloody war where seeing your buddies die in front of you is a daily event and getting your seed corrupted by Agent Orange is an occupational hazard. Poor Frankie came home with a messed up head and scrambled DNA, now he has a mutated baby, a nagging wife and a grim collection of junkie friends to deal with. In the dilapidated tenements of Staten Island, life is harsh and sanity is transitory at best.

Here in my hands I have Buddy Giovinazzo's gritty descent into urban madness, Combat Shock (1984). It's  a film I saw on the VHS shelf many times as a young teen while browsing for horror and one I passed over every single time for several reasons.  One, it was marketed as a war film of sorts, the title just didn't draw me in while I was on the prowl for previously unseen gems from John Carpenter and George A. Romero, the directors of choice at the time. If I had actually known what a gritty and demented head-trip this  was I probably still would have passed it over as that too wouldn't have been my cup of tea at the time, it would have been too fucked-up for me to truly appreciate at that age.

Arrow Video's edition offers two versions of the film, we have Combat Shock (1984) and Govonazzo's original cut of the film American Nightmare that runs about five minutes longer, this is the cut I watched for the reviw. It opens with a nightmarish 'Nam sequence as Frankie (Ricky Giovinazzo) is pursued through the jungles by the Viet Cong, his voice narrates over the scenes explaining that he "goes back there every night, I know it isn't real but the terror is real" just before he abruptly wakes up in his dingy Staten Island, New York apartment. It's straight from one nightmare and directly into another, he wakes up to the sound of his nagging and pregnant wife, the hiss of a humidifier and the otherworldly cries of his deformed infant son, apparently the victim of his father's exposure to agent orange. The dingy apartment is completely disgusting, the toilet is broke, the fridge is empty and the walls are covered in grime - it's a shit hole. When your day begins with a glass of soured milk, what can you say, it's gonna be a shitty day.

Suffering from some pretty obvious post-traumatic stress Frankie is outta of work and he's struggling just to scrape out an existence and provide for his wife and son. The wife ain't no picnic either, she's hungry and tired of living the way they do, she's quite unsympathetic to his post-'Nam struggles and adds more stress to his already dire state of mind. Then there's the clay-faced child screaming away in the background, it's haunting wail is nerve shattering, a hideous aberration of a child that Frankie doesn't really seem to have any attachment to  This creepy child aspect of the film bares more than a passing resemblance to  David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), there's a lot of Lynch's film present throughout the film, right alongside gritty NYC cinema like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and William Lustig's Maniac (1980) - I would say these three film's definitely informed Giovinazzo's vision without resorting to copying any one of them but the influence is present throughout.

Most of the film is dedicated to Frankie walking the streets of Staten Island,  it's a wastelands and the landscape is oppressive, it's looks burned out and one wouldn't be too surprised if cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers might emerge from the sewer and drag Frankie screaming to his death, but that's not what happens. The creatures on these streets are child prostitutes, pimps, drug addled homeless and violent street toughs.  When Frankie walks past a stray dog eating scraps off the street I was unsure of he would fight the animal for the scrap of food or possibly kill and eat the dog, that's how desperate things are here, this is dark and haunting stuff.

While walking the streets Frankie winds up at the unemployment office where there's no respite given, he bares witness to the harsh realities of poverty including child prostitution, a random woman stealing a gun off a junkie's corpse, plus he is subjected to the menace of thugs to whom he owes some debt, the scumbags threaten the safety of wife and child if the debt is not repaid, and he encounters his childhood friend Mike whom is now a destitute junkie resorting to street crime and pouring drugs directly into his  festering sores for lack of needles, perhaps this is a glimpse into Frankie's own not-too-bright future, things definitely seem hopeless. On top of everything else his own sanity is being chiseled away by not just the oppressive nature of his own reality but by memories and vivid flashbacks to his time in 'Nam as a POW. Watching the film I was overcome with hopelessness and despair, this is potent stuff. 

The acting is a bit spotty at times but Ricky Giovinazzo is outstanding as the crumbling Frankie, he secures the film, it's a fantastic portrayal of a desperate life  Some of the effects work is extremely accomplished for such a low budget endeavor with some great blood work, gunshot wounds and scenes of torture, the finale especially exceeds with bits of viscera and grue on display. The deformed child abomination maybe not so much, but for a puppet created for $140 it's not too shabby either. Adding to the atmosphere of the film are several memorable music ques from actor/musician Rick Giovinazzo who performs a haunting synth score.  The film's nihilistic ending is deeply affecting, as his frayed sanity snaps under the strain of poverty and hopelessness Frankie takes things into his own hands to save his wife and child in the only way that makes any sense to him, and it's a shocker ripped right outta the tabloids. 

DVD: The film is presented in it's original fullframe 1.33:1 aspect ratio and like the film itself it's a gritty and sleazy affair. The interlaced transfer is dull, colors are muted and black levels are pretty awful but some might argue that the trashy presentation, artifacting and all, might just add to the potency of the  film, it doesn't in my opinion but it's not likely we will ever see a restored, cleaned-up high definition presentation either so it is what it is. The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is a bit muffled at times, shot on a 16mm Bolex camera the audio was post-dubbed and for what it is it's not awful but like the video it's not great either, that said this is completely watchable and it's distracting to the point of being unwatchable. 

Arrow Video's 2-disc edition mirrors Troma's own Tromasterpiece Collection with the added incentive ofa  reversible sleeve with newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphries and a collector’s booklet with writings from author Anthony Timpone, press book extracts and a new introduction by director Buddy Giovinazzo.

It contains both the 94 minute Troma theatrical version  of the film and the longer 7 minute American Nightmare version constituting Giovinazzo's  original cut - the Tromatic version also benefits from an audio commentary with the director whom is joined by Nekromantik (1987) director Jorg Buttgeeit - it's a great commentary with the director rattling off pretty much anything you could want to know about the film, it's quite candid and he openly addresses the film's shortcomings and limitations plus Troma's re cutting of the film.

Post-Traumatic: An American Nightmare (29:12) is a half hour documentary on the film’s impact and influence featuring interviews with William Lustig (Maniac Cop), John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Scott Spiegel (Intruder), Richard Stanley (Hardware), Roy Frumkes (Street Trash), David Gregory (Plague Town) and others offering their appreciation of the film and it's haunting power. A lot of credit is given to Chas. Balun's Deep Red fanzine for spreading the word about the film. 

Also included are five of the director early short films including Mr. Robbie (7:56) featuring Joseph Spinel (Maniac) as a children's TV clown whom answers kids letters for help and meads out punishment brutally, this was a fun one with some good gore. Jonathan of the Night (12:58) is a modern day vamp tale, Subconscious Realities (15:26) is a drug tale, after dropping some serious acid a young man is plagues by nightmarish visions of pervy priests, coffins and vile wedding vows. The Lobotomyy (7:13) features a chronic masturbator at an asylum, this one is particularly memorable for a fun electronic freak-out score and the last tale Christmas Album (7:04) has a couple gathered around the Christmas tree unwrapping each other's gifts, for some reason the young man becomes increasingly unpleasant after opening each gift until the situation spins wildly out of control, fun stuff. Also included are three music videos for Rick Giovinazzo's post-punk band Circus 3000.

Interview with director Buddy Giovinazzo (4:06) is an on-camera interview conducted by Lloyd Kaufman wherein Buddy discusses the film's truth, the infamous sour milk scene and the guilty pleasure of putting his brother through the wringer during filming. Unscarred: Interview with star Rick Giovinazzo (6:33) features the star of the film revisiting it after 30 years, topics covered are the tribulations his mother endured during the filming and the final scenes, which were quite upsetting for him. Der Combat: Buddy Giovinazzo and Troma President Lloyd Kaufman at the Tromanale in Berlin (4:25) again features Lloyd catching up with Buddy and discussing the origins of the film, shooting it on 16mm and the film's influences. 

Rounding out the features on disc two are an interview with  Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit at the Berlin Film Festival (7:53) who appear together on the commentary track which I would assume was recorded around the same time, the Original Theatrical Trailer (3:17) and Hellscapes: The Locations of the film revisited (2:42) featuring then and now video shots of locations used in the film.

Special Features: 

- Feature Presentation of “American Nightmares”, director Buddy Giovinazzo’s Original Cut
- Feature Presentation of “Combat Shock”, the Troma theatrical cut of the film
- Audio Commentary with writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit (Nekromantik)
- Post-Traumatic: An American Nightmare (29:12)
- Buddy’s Early Works: Five short films directed by Giovinazzo

- 3 Circus 2000 Music Videos (11:36)
- Interview with director Buddy Giovinazzo (4:06)
- Unscarred: Interview with star Rick Giovinazzo (6:33)
- Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit at the Berlin Film Festival (7:53)
- Der Combat: Buddy Giovinazzo and Troma President Lloyd Kaufman at the Tromanale in Berlin (4:25)
- Hellscapes: The Locations of the film revisited (2:42)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (3:17)

Verdict: Combat Shock/American Nightmare rises above it's shoe-string budget to offer up something quite unique and unforgettable, a soul-shredding post-'Nam nightmare that just makes you wanna take a razor and open up your wrists out of despair, this is powerful film making albeit one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences you might ever have, a post-war tale of poverty and insanity that contains just as much unpleasant truth today as it did 25 years ago. 
4 Outta 5