Thursday, 29 October 2009

Combat Shock (1986, Buddy Giovinazzo)

The rather misleading poster for the 1986 'theatrical' release.

Combat Shock aka. American Nightmares, 1986, directed by Buddy Giovinazzo.

Version reviewed: The excellent Regionless 2009 Tromasterpiece Collection release ("2-Disc Uncut 25th Anniversary Edition") from Troma Retro (Troma Team Video).

"Combat Shock" was the first feature from Buddy Giovinazzo. Shot on 16mm, it's the gritty and downbeat tour of Hell from the point of view of one Frankie Dunlan. Giovinazzo brings an arty flair to his gutter-level film which shows a world where things will always get worse for absolutely everyone and everything in it. There's not too much of a story - it's essentially the final day of the main character, who I can't bring myself to call "hero", but actually none-the-less performs as an essentially noble man throughout everything he is confronted with. He is given plenty of opportunities to escape the responsibility of his life and family and he never takes them. Right up until the last few minutes, he is pretty sympathetic, even after certain things (which I won't spoil) come to light which redefine all seen before.

An hellish and gory Vietnam.

"Combat Shock" was part of a wave of films in the 1980s that were made by dedicated men, lots of friends and very little money. Usually shot on 16mm, films like "The Evil Dead", "Maniac", "Deadbeat at Dawn", "Basket Case", "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and "Street Trash" are today often regarded as classics and "Combat Shock" is no exception. Lacking the polish of "Street Trash" or even "Maniac", it more closely resembles "Deadbeat..." and "Basket Case", it's hero ankle-deep in grime. This is real thread-bare stuff - scenes in Vietnam were clearly not filmed in Vietnam, but the Staten Island scenes have a lot of impact and Giovinazzo's visual style is really impressive. A few sequences don't work - I'm definitely not sure about all those super intense, Tetsuo-like human-stop-motion scenes, but the cumulative effect of the whole film is undeniable. It's really impressive what Buddy did with basically nothing. It's cumulative effect is memorable. There are few films that can be so depressing and so hypnotic at the same time.

The new "Tromasterpiece Edition" DVD of Combat Shock is one of the best, if not the best DVD Troma has ever put out. It features two whole DVDS and a lot of extras. On the first disc, it ports over from the first DVD the (pretty good) transfer of "Combat Shock" and the audio commentary by Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit, but adds a brand new transfer - for the first time on home video or even wide release, Buddy Giovinazzo's original cut named "American Nightmares". Running a good few minutes longer, as far as I can tell the most obvious difference is the opening is missing from the director's cut. Troma, for their theatrical "Combat Shock" version release, added a brief opening credits with stock footage from the Vietnam war, cut with footage from the existing movie and scored by some famous composer I can't remember right now. It, admittedly, didn't fit the film perfectly but it got it off to a very exciting and effective start, adding scope and legitimacy to the scenes in Vietnam that follow (and actually "open" the "American Nightmares" cut). So, even though my preference will have to go to the director's full intended vision, I'm very glad Troma would put both cuts on the disc as the "theatrical version" has a bigger budget feel (having both the great looking stock footage and the fact it's a 35mm blow-up transfer) and is a different, more streamlined film. The director's cut has a very nice new transfer from the 16mm materials and is represented well.

Disc two apes a little style from the "Visions of Hell: The Films of Jim Van Bebber" boxset, and includes a large chunk of short films by director Buddy Giovinazzo. The shorts are simple but compelling, especially "Subconscious Realities", the immediate pre-cursor to "Combat Shock". There's also later shorts that were supposedly to springboard into full length features, both of which are great - "Maniac 2: Mr Robbie" is a kinda remake of "The Psychopath" and "Jonathan of the Night" is an interesting, gritty twist on the vampire legend. There's a selection of music videos by Buddy and Rick Giovinazzo's band, Circus AD (I think that's what they're called? I'll check). In short, this is incredibly in-depth and impressive.
The big extra on disc 2 is the documentary "Post-Traumatic: An American Nightmare", which features no contributions from anyone involved with the film directly, but rather other filmmakers praising and analysing the film. Impressive figures making appearances include John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Richard Stanley ("Hardware", "Dust Devil"), William Lustig ("Maniac", "Vigilante", "Maniac Cop"), Jim Van Bebber, Scott Spiegel (Evil Dead II) and Roy Frumkes, who pays Buddy back for his appearance in Frumkes' "Meltdown Memoirs" on the "Street Trash" DVD. Even more strange than Buddy's' absence in "Post-Traumatic..." is Lloyd Kaufman. In fact, I don't believe he appears on either DVD at all, even in an intro, which is very strange for a Troma release. That's respect for the film. (Post-script: I remember now, he conducts one of the interviews with Buddy on another section of disc two!) The documentary is a great extra, presumably made by someone outside of Troma, but none the less a fantastic addition with a lot to think about for fans of the film.
There's also three recent interviews with Buddy Giovinazzo (none are the one included on the previous DVD, and one featuring Jorg again and with some really bad sound), one with Rick Giovinazzo, the trailer and also a brief featurette showing you (and me) the filming locations as they are in 2009.

I have to praise Troma here - no one else in 1986 would have released such a transgressive "horror" film, but Troma had the vision to do so. They supported Buddy's vision so much this new release was really birthed at his own dissatisfaction with how the previous DVD treated the film - it was, apparently, cut by a Troma employee for no good reason. Secondly, in 2009, Troma has done Buddy and the film right with the greatest-yet addition to their Tromasterpiece line, a thorough and whole hearted representation of the film on dvd. It's a pretty thorough and astounding DVD release and stands resolutely with the releases of other, comparable films mentioned in this review by companies such as Blue Underground, Synapse, Dark Sky and Anchor Bay.

If you have never seen this film but like low-budget but compelling exploitation films, give "Combat Shock" a try. There's never been a better time and the film is timeless in it's ability to revolt.

The original artwork for the Tromasterpiece Edition. Am I the only one who liked this cover better?


  1. if you get to interview Buddy, please ask for more info on his band featured in the music videos. like, did they release any records or perform live? tough to find anything online.
    GREAT job on the Ed Bishop piece.

  2. Actually, it's funny you said that; Buddy's agreed to do an interview and it's in the works at the moment! I'm just putting questions together that I think are good and I'll definetely throw that one in. I didn't think of it myself, but it's definetely a good question!