Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Originally completed in 1984 under the title of AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (before some Canadian slasher film that had f*** all to do with American or nightmares forced it to adopt a new moniker), Buddy Giovinazzo's 16mm warhorse of a debut was picked up by Troma in 1986 and became known as COMBAT SHOCK. The movie was infamously marketed as just another exploitation picture with a poster design that makes it look more like an Enzo G. Castellari actioner high on the bullets and mullets. The grindhouse crowds who managed to catch this film likely expected a cheap Rambo imitation, but instead were subjected to a feature-length adaptation of the early Suicide epic "Frankie Teardrop" mixed with a large dose of PTSD character study. Comparisons to Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Lynch's Eraserhead also became normal, but if anything, COMBAT SHOCK feels more like a grungy slice of neorealistic life with occasional cuts to the violent, troubled past of its ex-soldier central character. We're in a vastly different battleground than what you'd expect from the studio behind The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High.
But even those two films had the temerity to become downright unpleasant at times, like in the image of a woman masturbating in a sauna to the Polaroid of a murdered bicyclist or a teenaged boy developing abnormal mammaries that inflate to the point of bleeding. Troma films now, by and large, are fashioned as more puerile and comical in their grotesqueries, and it's easy to view their canon as merely disposable, sex and splatter-fueled monuments to adolescent humor. COMBAT SHOCK is an outside project with none of the same sensibilities, a purposefully grueling and downbeat experience that, as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer director John McNaughton states, "makes you want to slit your wrists." You wouldn't expect a similar feeling after watching Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. or Cannibal! The Musical. When a character drinks from a carton of sour milk, it's as solemn a moment as it is sickening (I was amazed that John Waters zeroed in on that moment as being the most grueling).
Frankie Dunlan (Ricky Giovinazzo) has gone from the corpse-strewn jungles of Da Nang to the decrepit streets of Staten Island, but is still fraught by memories of his Vietnam stint. He's losing control of his mind and his surroundings, unable to find work so that he can keep his apartment, feed his distressing, impreganated wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) and Agent Orange-tainted newborn son, fix the facilities, and placate nefarious loan shark/pusher Paco (Mitch Maglio) and his burly henchmen. One fateful walk around the neighborhood en route to the unemployment office causes a day-long string of despair and misfortune to bear down on his troubled psyche until he becomes emboldened to take drastic measures to save his family from squalor.
The unpleasantly doesn't stop at Frankie, though. His old friend, Mike (Michael Tierno), is a junkie derelict who stalks the subway exits with a loaded gun looking to make some easy money. Trembling and vomiting out of cold turkey sickness, he eventually gets the fix he desperately craves only to wind up fiending for a hypodermic needle. He simultaneously shoots up and commits suicide with the aid of a wire hanger, and I will go no further than that.
I am most intrigued by COMBAT SHOCK/AMERICAN NIGHTMARE mainly because of how Frankie's deterioration doesn't fall into mere vigilantism or western motifs. Movies like The Executioner or the high concept vehicles for Stallone and Schwarzenegger during the 1980s rely on the hero's existing knowledge of remorseless killing for (self-)righteous purposes. Even in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle deludes himself into using murder to rescue a young prostitute and put an end to society's ills as he elaborates on them throughout the course of the film. When the bloodbath ends, he's idolized by the media and loosed back onto the streets in his cab, with the threat of him once again going renegade looming in his eyes. Frankie is straight up damaged, unable to cope with the cycle of terror and atrocity that ensnared him and not finding any chance at redemption back on the streets. Although he does meet an underage hooker in a blatant nod to Taxi Driver, there's nothing remotely cathartic or heroic about the trajectory Frankie Dunlan finds himself following. It's cold, hopeless and purely nihilistic.
The pacing is also a lot more leisurely, and the early scenes of violence are limited to the memories of Frankie on the battlefield and in the torture chamber, where he reveals himself to be distressed and in desperate need of a psychological evaluation more than having his fingers pinched with pliers. Everywhere he goes, the futility and cruelty of his existence arrives to torment him, triggered by the sight of a maggot-strewn piece of rotten meat or by the overgrown grass and desolation of his urban surroundings. The false expectations of wall-to-wall action promised by the garish artwork from previous Troma packages are validated by the structure of the story, which basically just follows Frankie as he goes from one shameful, self-defeating encounter to the next. There's even a particularly tough attempt at reconciling with his estranged father, who has lost all of his fortune and can't begin to confront the past the way Frankie reluctantly does all the time.
The rawness of Buddy Giovinazzo's camera works wonders to convey the fetid, filthy side world Frankie inhabits, where people freely p*ss in abandoned stations and the old stomping grounds one would imagine Dunlan frequenting as a kid have deteriorated and became vandalized. When I talk about COMBAT SHOCK feeling more like neorealism, I refer not just to the anti-glamorous 16mm camerawork and the mostly untested acting on display, but the legitimate location footage captured. Giovinazzo is also careful enough to hide the seams in his attempt to transform Staten Island into Vietnam, as most of the establishing outdoors shots were filmed within crawling distance of the mall. And although much of the acting is left up to first-timers (Ricky G's performing resume begins and ends with this one), they look authentically poor and grimy, as if Buddy had discovered them this way just like he did his settings.
Buddy's conviction to this material is quite impressive, but I wish he would've cut back a little more on showing his mutant baby boy. It looks less like a byproduct of chemical warfare than the deliberate E.T. knock-off its designer imagined it as. Too much exposure of it gradually reveals its cheapness in a distracting manner. The abrasive mewling sound (think Eraserhead) works with the overall harshness of most of the sound mix, which leans on synthesizers and screams to a discordant effect. Ricky Giovinazzo's musical score also could've exercised a little more restraint, as the nervy disco motif that plays during much of time Frankie walks the streets wears out its welcome fast. But he does a fine job of helping to show the tension within Frankie's mind and what happens when he focuses it outward. Although Buddy wound up having trouble making a prolific name for himself as a filmmaker, Rick would go on to become an orchestrator for dozens for major motion picture film scores, including Angels & Demons, Transformers, The Simpsons Movie, and X2: X-Men United.
Troma has done a greater service to Buddy G's film more than what was previously accomplished with Redneck Zombies and The Last Horror Film. Not only does the studio include the theatrical version of COMBAT SHOCK which was screened during the 1980s, but they've allowed for the inclusion of the original cut of the flick under its original AMERICAN NIGHTMARE title. The re-edited release edition drags out the opening with the addition of stock footage (therefore going overboard on the establishing shots to an absurd degree), cuts out some exposition between Frankie and Cathy in the crummy apartment and also removes some of the grislier sights from late in the film. Although it was originally 85 minutes in length, the DVD preserves the extended version of the theatrical print that runs a close 92 minutes. AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is approximately 96 minutes long on DVD, and packs the biggest punch overall.
Both COMBAT SHOCK and AMERICAN NIGHTMARE are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, noticeably rough in terms of picture quality but without any major transfer issues that relate specifically to the source materials (a great deal of the shots were achieved with a wind-up Bolex 16mm camera). There is grain prevalent and the image looks considerably faded because of its age and filmic origins, but that only adds to Buddy's deliberately dingy style, given as much clarity as Troma can afford it. Overall, it's a B-level visual presentation. The audio mix is simple Dolby Digital 2.0, which may not mean lots of flashy stereo effects but it does assure relatively clear reproduction of the looped dialogue and claustrophobic soundtrack clutter.
Select the COMBAT SHOCK version and you can access the lone special feature on disc one, an audio commentary with Buddy Giovinazzo that is moderated by Jörg Buttgereit, the German director of the divisive art house sickie Nekromantic. Buttgereit doesn't ask a lot of pressing questions and essentially takes the passenger seat as Giovinazzo goes into exhaustive detail about the real life gung-ho mission to make this movie. There are enough stories to make a pretty compelling book (or extended chapter therein) on this film's production, as Giovinazzo reflects on all the casting decisions, the many choices as a filmmaker he both defends and looks back on with self-deprecating shame, the influence of Fassbinder in regards to his relentlessly grim philosophy, and all of the changes made once the film was acquired by Troma. Buddy's not ashamed to admit that he trashed a fully remodeled apartment for the sake of his art or that he used his wedding gift funds as a completion bond. There's even discussion of a Norwegian cut of his film that fades to black before Frankie decides to save his family. It's a really solid listen that's also quite rare for a Troma DVD.
The second disc is devoted entirely to supplements, including a slate of recent interviews featuring the Giovinazzo kin. Lloyd Kaufman catches up with Buddy twice, the first hand-held conversation, heavy on close-ups and 180-degree head pans, lasting four minutes in a low-lit room and the latter near a stairwell at the 2006 Tromanale festival in Berlin, also running close to four minutes. The former focuses mostly on the genesis of the project and the decision to cast Rick, an introverted and overly hygienic man, in the lead role. The second time around, Buddy recalls being upset by people walking out during the screening before the wire hanger scene and admits that, yes, the use of the mutant baby could've been done better. Buddy sums up the film's relevance by suggesting that the same situations could happen now in the current post-Iraq realm of recession and foreclosures, and the sad thing is that I agree.
There is also a seven-minute chat between Buddy and Jörg in Berlin, filmed in 2009 but virtually inaudible due to heavy background noise, hollow sound quality that dips in and out and Jörg's thick accent. The main topic appears to be bootleg DVDs, which was how the Kraut saw the film back in the 1980s. Despite their casual manner, the overall poor nature of the presentation, which is tagged by an apology only at the end of the interview, will make you want to skip it. Instead, go watch the six-minute "Unscarred" featurette which profiles Rick Giovinazzo, who recalls getting his masters degree around the time of this film and auditioning for the lead role after numerous screen tests he felt weren't right. The most amusing stories concern the gory finale of COMBAT SHOCK regarding a spontaneous reaction from Buddy's wife, a registered nurse, as well as from when the apartment was being resold after filming.
The half-hour "Post-Traumatic: An American Nightmare" is a brand-new retrospective on COMBAT SHOCK based on the testimonies of many cult horror luminaries, including John McNaughton, William Lustig (Maniac), Scott Spiegel (Intruder), and Richard Stanley (Hardware). From Chas Balun's appraisal of the film in Deep Red Magazine, the subjects proceed to discuss how they first came into contact with the film be it on video or on the festival circuit at events like Splatterfest ‘90. They also attempt to give it context by discussing its place in a mid-1980s heavy on Reagan-era populism and machismo. Despite some overbearing and superficial comments (Deadbeat at Dawn director Jim VanBebber seems to want to steal some of Giovinazzo's thunder despite making the more fantastical, action-oriented film), the majority of the interviewees do a solid job of discussing what the film means to them and just how unique it was. I particularly liked Stanley's opinion that it's "more of a scream for help than a movie."
Several of Buddy G's short films from before and after the production of AMERICAN NIGHTMARE turn up on this DVD. Several of the stars from that film turn up in the earliest of these shorts, particularly Michael Tierno and Mitch Maglio. 1981's Christmas Album stars Tierno as a young husband who spins a Satanic spoken word album on Christmas morning and is lulled into a homicidal rage against his wife. The same year's The Lobotomy stars third Giovinazzo sibling Bobby as a sex criminal who undergoes the titular operation but is seen mainly in a fantasy world replete with saxophones and sadism. Tierno returns to headline 1983's Subconscious Realities, about a burnout who gulps down an Indian-developed liquid that causes a series of odd hallucinations (S.S. floggings, bleeding calendars, Dick Cavett!), culminating in a bizarre wedding sequence in which the vows are flipped very perversely. Finally, three music videos from 1982 feature Circus 2000 A.D., the no wave trio with Ricky on bass and Buddy on drums: "Leave This World," "Planet T.T." and "Something in the Water."
Jonathan of the Night and Mr. Robbie were promo reels for projects that didn't make it past pre-production. The former will be familiar to those who owned the old laserdisc for Maniac or the recent Last Horror Film special edition DVD as it was the planned follow-up to that earlier Joe Spinell vehicle. The late actor was to play a kid's show personality who came to the rescue of abused children by murdering their parents; the short shows him dispensing of a coke-sniffing cook. Another blow to the blowman comes in Jonathan of the Night, about a debonair young bloodsucker who preys on a shifty drug dealer whilst telepathically sharing the experience with his simultaneously-feeding sister.
Topping off the supplements disc are "Hellscapes," a photo montage contrasting the Staten Island locations from the past and the present, many of which have only gotten worse with age, and a slate of trailers. The original theatrical trailer for COMBAT SHOCK and its Tromasterpiece Collection promo are accounted for alongside bonus ads for The Last Horror Film, Story of a Junkie, Blood, Boobs & Beast, Troma's War, and the upcoming Mad Dog Morgan deluxe edition re-release. The back of the sleeve contains a set of liner notes by Steve Puchalski of Shock Cinema.
I'll admit that I heard about COMBAT SHOCK years before Troma announced a two-disc special edition, but, like The Last Horror Film, I ignored it in the hope that it would get better digital treatment in the future (lucky me). I was also aware that there was an alternate version called AMERICAN NIGHTMARE thanks to numerous exploitation video outlets. The movie remains an endurance test, whether you might find it terribly flawed or undoubtedly cheap but mainly I mean that it is difficult because of its subject matter. War may be hell, but I wouldn't want to be in Hell's Kitchen, either. Although the original cut of the film is more well-rounded and worthy of a high yet highly restricted recommendation, COMBAT SHOCK is ambitiously brutal and nothing like your average Troma production. And the overall DVD presentation for Buddy's bloody baby is so far the best of all the titles in the Tromasterpiece Collection.
Film grade: 4/5.
Video grade: 4/5.
Audio grade: 3/5.
Extras grade: 4.5/5.
Final grade: 4/5.
COMBAT SHOCK is a Troma Team release. The film was originally rated R theatrically, debuting on May 14, 1986, but is presented unrated for DVD, containing strong scenes of violence, profanity, drug use, and adult content. The unrated cut runs 92 minutes long.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age