Combat Shock Review
Whilst the 1976 misogynistic torturefest known as Bloodsucking Freaks had proven that Troma were a film company capable of releasing some grossly unpleasant material, the eighties saw the company develop their core output into the garishly colourful and utterly preposterous über-trash horror which has become synonymous with their name. This unique brand of horror, whilst still somewhat unpleasant in certain respects, contained such a rich quotient of ridiculous humour and playful mischief that one could almost garner some low grade affection for their material, and, perhaps, for some of their more naive characters.
Whilst Troma were carving out this particular niche in the steaming gutter of the eighties film industry, a young film enthusiast called Buddy Giovinazzo was demonstrating an impressive level of resourcefulness; pulling together film students and friends, purchasing stock war footage from local traders, and making the Staten Island greenery look something like the Vietnam jungle (though one does admittedly have to squint a little; indeed, some may want to squint a good deal more when the film really starts to roll). Perhaps it's no surprise that Combat Shock would find its filthy opening into the vein of the alternative film underground via the Troma label; a conduit of similar resourcefulness if ever there was one.
Yet Troma providing an outlet for the film presented quite a dichotomy, and as such the film was received with mixed responses. On the one hand, it's difficult to conceive of a less fitting film for what was the increasingly silly Troma catalogue, yet on the other, the film did feel stylistically Troma-esque; there's the grotesquely artificial baby, the visceral gore, and the overarching sensation that we're trapped in another world which bears similarities to ours, but is also fundamentally different. Giovinazzo draws us into a bizarre and dark world through the eyes of Vietnam war veteran Frankie (a kind of über-impoverished Travis Bickle), and the director's zero budget resourcefulness, rather than diluting the power of the film, actually ramps up the sensation of claustrophobia, paranoia, and repulsion. The endless plop of the dripping tap and the electronic wail of the baby's cries are transparently artificial, yet this artificiality of the audio disrupts our sense of normality, and we feel the brittle fragility of Frankie's increasingly disturbed mental state.
Upon its release, Combat Shock was marketed in somewhat misleading fashion; the vivid imagery seemed to suggest an action film a la Rambo, but why disappoint fans expecting a full-on war film, and alienate those who would appreciate a gritty, low budget urban drama? For all of his youthful penchant for graphic gore, Giovinazzo's picture is a study - albeit a somewhat crude and naive one - of the devastating impact of the war on American soldiers. The director portrays this impact on a number of levels, and it's not just Frankie's precarious and barely grasped mental cohesion which he focuses upon. Giovinazzo follows Frankie's hell but also captures the diabolical web which extends beyond the broken epicentre of the veteran's consciousness. The director shows how Frankie's wife and deformed child are victims as much as the soldier himself, he highlights the sorry decline of Frankie's estranged father, and he also highlights the plight of so many people who drift onto and off of Frankie's radar.
What Giovinazzo perhaps highlights with the most acrid vigour - and, to some extent, most presciently - is the way in which Frankie and his fellow veterans have been utterly forgotten by the country that owes them such a debt. For all of the infrequent yet hard-hitting gore in the film, one of the most uncomfortable scenes is at the local labour office, where the veteran meets with the employment officer. The depiction of the socially comfortable and almost flippant officer opposite the desperate and dishevelled Frankie makes for tough viewing, although the officer's bizarrely memorable line - 'life is hot, Frankie' - does lend a further sensation of other-worldliness to proceedings (listen to the commentary for an explanation of this scene).
Without actually watching the film - and many people won't have done, and many people shouldn't - it's difficult to understand just how squalid, filthy, and astonishingly bleak Giovinazzo's realisation of Frankie's hell is. The representation of the locations is rather like a set of Russian dolls; at the macro level, the Staten Island location is unremittingly appalling, bleak, and rundown. Travel to the centre of the Staten Island location, and you enter a smaller vision of hell inside the family's unfeasibly grubby flat, where cupboards are bare, toilets are blocked, walls are filthy, and no recognisable remants of comfort or homeliness are visible. And enter the final location - the worst one of all - inside Frankie's shattered brain, and just like the flat, and Staten Island, the location is forgotten, unloved, vandalised, broken, and devastated.
You can level much criticism at Giovinazzo's primary feature; it's not always very realistic, it's bleak beyond compare, the artificial baby doesn't look remotely convincing, the 'jungle' shots of Frankie contrast horribly with the stock war footage, there's the occasional continuity error (check out the scene where Frankie's wife has got out of bed to attend to the baby, but is back in bed asleep in the next shot), and the shocking climax, poorly executed in some ways (and expertly executed in others), is too abhorrent even for many hardened underground film enthusiasts. Yet it's difficult to argue against the way the filmmaker vigorously seizes his constraints and limitations and transforms them into tools, tools which he exploits to craft an albeit bleak but undeniably powerful piece of filmmaking. Not only does Giovinazzo manage to pull together much of his cast using fellow film school students, family members, and old contacts, but he also manages to wring out semi-respectable performances from his assembled throng, as well as some unintentionally comic moments. Of course, one shouldn't expect any late entries into the Academy Awards list for any of the performers, but Ricky Giovinazzo, Buddy's brother, is surprisingly compelling as the dejected and traumatised lead, and Veronica Stalk performs with tenacity in her role as the veteran's wife, amplifying the sense of Frankie's mental incarceration by nagging him incessantly. Michael Tierno takes on a challenging role as drug-dependent veteran Mike, and his scene in the train underpass is one of the most unflinching and despairing moments in the film. Mitch Maglio does well enough as gang leader Paco (though other gang member Morbe, played by Nick Nasta, just looks too silly in his bandanna to be genuinely threatening), but the most convincing performance in the film beyond Giovinazzo's lead is that of Arthur Saunders, playing the black pimp Frankie runs into; Saunders is genuinely unpleasant and convincing in his short time on screen, and it's a surprise that he doesn't appear to have featured in any films beyond this mid-eighties shocker.
The other impressive output of Giovinazzo's resourcefulness is the visuals. Combat Shock is an unimaginably grim picture, yet the director delivers us some surprisingly smart visuals, considering his dearth of budget. The early scene of carnage in the jungle showcases some gruesomely convincing effects (thanks to the efforts of Ralph Cordero, Jeff Matthes, Ed Varulo, and Brian Powell), and Giovinazzo constructs an exhilarating segue by rapidly flashing multiple images of carnage before us which lead into Frankie waking up in his grubby apartment. The shots of Frankie's traumatised face as his mind continues to deterioate are also done with some creative style. And the method the director employs when projecting war images onto the veteran's face is one of beautiful simplicity, yet delivers an effective result.
Buddy Giovinazzo's Combat Shock, in stark contrast to so many of its Troma siblings, is one of the most bleak, harrowing, and depressing depictions of American life in the Troma catalogue and beyond. Eschewing any attempt to create cheap thrills by producing a gory war film, Giovinazzo delivers something much more powerful, unleashing a devastating critique of America, an America which has forgotten those which it owes such a debt, an America which can fight futile wars abroad yet can't provide even the barest level of dignity for those living in the grim streets of downtown Staten Island, an America which makes no effort to help its most deprived and most desperate obtain work... For all of the gory shocks and depressing violence, Combat Shock is a film of honesty, integrity, and creativity, and a film which still speaks out to the America of today.
Arrow release Buddy G's post-war shockfest on a rather splendid double DVD package. Disc one contains the feature itself, plus an extended version of the film known as American Nightmare (the original name for the film before the team had to change the name because of another movie with the same title), which is a director's cut of sorts. The original Combat Shock runs for a total of 91 minutes and 40 seconds, whereas American Nightmare runs for 96 minutes and 46 seconds, and is the cut of the film that you should really watch first, as this is the film in the presentation which the director intended you to see.
Many people will have caught Combat Shock on dodgy VHS bootlegs over the years (and on the audio commentary, Buddy G notes that some fans have told him that seeing the film on DVD is the first time they've 'seen it in colour', as the bootleg copies had been subject to so much re-copying that the colour had completely faded!), and if this is the case, you will be delighted with Arrow's transfer here. If you're new to the film, it's important to set your expectations, however. Buddy Giovinazzo shot his film over two years starting in 1984 with virtually no budget; indeed, he accumulated some equipment as the film made progress thanks to contacts at the film school he studied at. With this in mind, you should expect a fairly low quality presentation.
That said, Arrow have still managed to deliver a presentation which is perfectly absorbing and doesn't distract the eye too much from the depressing action on screen, once you become accustomed to the frankly awful quality of the source image. The image is severely lacking in accuracy (you'll notice this from the glowing opening credits onwards) and contains a high level of grain, and though I understand that the transfer has been taken from the source material, you should expect to see substantial variations in colour depth as the film plays out. Indeed, the transfer here could almost be mistaken for one taken from a few different sources, although the interspersed stock footage of the Vietnam war in the opening sequence doesn't help with the continuity of the image colouring. The colour presentation itself is generally fairly anaemic and washed out, but in many ways this is fitting for a film which is so devastatingly grim and nihilistic, and this principle is furthered by the various flecks and minor damage which appear on the image. The film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and it's a credit to Arrow that they have resisted the temptation to apply extensive processing to the visuals, and despite the numerous flaws with the image, they have delivered a transfer which looks as clear as we might be able to hope for whilst retaining the credibility of a no-budget film from 1986.
In terms of the two DVD set, the first disc contains both versions of the film, with optional audio commentary playing over the original version of the film.
Unfortunately, and perhaps inexplicably, there are no subtitles. Since there are also no audio options, the DVD menu is delightfully simple.
The second disc contains the extras.
The same disclaimers apply to the audio as to the visual presentation of this film, but the audio is similarly a rather pleasant surprise on the whole. You should not expect anything remotely grand, but the stereo presentation is clean enough, and there are no distracting problems with the levels in either direction. Naturally, we're presented with a film which has a fairly flat audio output due to the source material, but in fairness the audio acquits itself well as it remains inconspicuous. Rick 'Frankie' Giovinazzo's low-key synth-tastic soundtrack is also delivered in decent enough fashion, and any irritation you experience will be more closely related to the soundtrack itself, rather than its presentation on this disc.
Whilst they may not be hot off the press, the sheer volume of the extras here make this a real treat for hardened fans of the film. The casual viewer will probably be turned off by the thought of having to experience the living hell of Frankie's world in the film once again, but if you consider the film worthy of intelligent analysis and reflection, you'll be delighted with what Arrow have collected for you here.
The most enjoyable extra is the Audio Commentary with Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit, the latter being the director of Nekromantik and a friend of the Combat Shock craftsman. This commentary is one of the best I've heard in quite some time, perhaps because of Giovinazzo's engaging, honest, modest, humorous, and self-deprecating manner. He talks fondly of the film and the time during which he made it, but is also grounded enough to laugh at some of the mistakes he made, and he shows some fresh perspectives on some of the ways he executed this grisly post-war drama. The discussion between Giovinazzo and Buttgereit is warm and informed, and this warmth provides some much welcomed relief to the disturbing visuals playing out beneath their voices.
Arriving a very close second behind the commentary is a half hour documentary on the film called Post Traumatic: An American Nightmare. The piece is a collection of interviews with various notable commentators, including Jim VanBebber (director of Deadbeat at Dawn; watch out for the side-by-side shots of the two films, which are surprising and fascinating), William Lustig (Maniac and Maniac Cop), Scott Spiegel (writer for Evil Dead II), and John McNaughton, who most people will know for the bleak yet brilliant Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the later Wild Things.
A collection of early shorts grouped under the moniker Buddy's Early Works make for compelling and amusing viewing. The quality is predictably pretty poor and the films don't meet the murky quality of Combat Shock, but it's a fun watch nonetheless. Look out in particular for the collection of music videos which Buddy directed for the band he and Rick were in. The music is perhaps better than might be expected, and the videos are typically bizarre!
An Interview with Buddy Giovinazzo runs for a modest four minutes, but is still good value, hearing the writer/director talk in his usual engaging and modest fashion about the film. His integrity and his recollection of his rejection of commercial interest during the making of the first film is extremely refreshing.
A piece called Unscarred: Interview with Rick Giovinazzo is slightly longer at six and a half minutes, and it's interesting to hear the actor recall how he saw the film differently when watching it recently, having forgotten much of the minutiae surrounding the film. He also recalls his professional career in a band at the time, and how he came to be in the film (he volunteered to screen test for the film after seeing the other substandard screen tests). Particularly amusing is his description of himself as 'OCD', and anyone who has seen the film will realise that many scenes will have proven challenging to somebody of such a description!
Der Combat: Berlin Tromanale is a four minute piece filmed at the Tromanale Film Festival in Berlin. This slot is essentially another Buddy interview, filmed in grainy fashion in what must be the grimiest stairwell in Berlin. Once could be forgiven for mistaking the stairwell for one of the locations in the original film, and the most intriguing piece of information imparted here is that Rick (Frankie) is now an arranger for some major Hollywood films. Also, look out for a surprise Lloyd Kaufman shot as the camera pans round towards the end of the piece.
Buddy and Jorg in Berlin tracks the two directors at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival chewing the fat in what could quite conceivably be a toilet (but probably isn't). The pair discuss the history of the film, how they met and became friends (16 years ago at the time of filming), and the moral principles surrounding bootlegging.
Hellscapes is an excellent short of under three minutes, which compares the scenes of Staten Island in Combat Shock with shots of the same locations today. Depressingly, some of the locations look little better than they do in the film, although the labour office has become a gym, and the underpass where some of the action takes place has now been closed off.
A misleading and gratuitous three minute Trailer ('more action than Rambo! More gut wrenching violence than Commando!', it screams) rounds up the impressive set of extras. Whilst the extras are clearly not new, it's still a bumper crop and will serve fans of the film well.
It's grim, gritty, and depressing beyond compare, and its low budget and amateur nature will alienate most viewers outside of a niche underground audience. For those prepared to endure - and it is something of an endurance test - its nihilistic yet thoughtful depiction of a troubled man mentally unravelling in a country that has lost the decency to help him maintain his dignity and sanity, the reward is a film of a power which belies that of its no-budget roots. Arrow supply a decent transfer under the circumstances, and the bumper crop of extras are warmly welcomed indeed, despite not being especially hot off of the press.
A final word of warning, though; if you are of a sensitive disposition, or, indeed, if you like a nice, fresh splash of milk in your cup of tea, you may wish to avoid the grimy realism of Buddy G's 1986 feature film.