Following in the footsteps of the Criterion Collection, late last year Troma began an ongoing line of high standard (no, seriously), high quality (why are you laughing?) special edition DVD releases, starting with a two disc, 13th Anniversary edition of Trey Parker’s CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL. Titled The Tromasterpiece Collection, this new line has slowly grown, adding to it a director approved, color-corrected release of REDNECK ZOMBIES and an uncut special edition of THE LAST HORROR FILM staring Joe Spinell. For their fourth Tromasterpiece entry, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Hertz present a dreary, depressing work of independent cinema, uncharacteristic of the studio's usual output. Despite its lack of nudity, toxic mutants and fart jokes, Troma has rolled out the red carpet in celebration of COMBAT SHOCK's 25th anniversary, presenting the cult classic with a two-disc set that features the never-before-seen director’s cut for the very first time.
Returning home from a nightmare tour in Vietnam, Frankie (Rick Giovinazzo) finds himself in a downward spiral that shows no signs of slowing down. He's unemployed, his cupboards are bare, his pregnant wife constantly nags him, his newborn baby boy is hideously deformed (an apparent byproduct of the Agent Orange he was exposed to in Nam) and his toilet is broken. As if all of that isn't stressful enough, he also keeps having flashbacks of his time spent captive in a POW camp. In short, Frankie’s life is shit and so is the world around him. Wandering the streets of Staten Island, Frankie vainly attempts to find work and food, only to be turned down and further discouraged by the dirty, dilapidating city that surrounds him. Hounded by drug dealers (his only friends are unreliable dope addicts) Frankie attempts to make it through another day but as the world around him begins to crumble, so does his mind, leading to a inevitable yet still shocking conclusion.
Make no mistakes about it; COMBAT SHOCK is not for everybody. If you're already depressed or have had suicidal thoughts in the past, do yourself a favor and stay far, far away from this film. It’s liable to push you over the edge and I doubt neither Troma nor Buddy want to deal with the resulting lawsuits your relatives would no doubt be tempted to file. Bleak does not even begin to describe the wrist cutting atmosphere that saturates every second of this unforgettable film. I’m tempted to use the word nihilistic but I don’t want to sugar coat the experience for anyone. AMERICAN NIGHTMARES, the film's original title before being edited in order to receive an R rating, is powerful no budget, personal filmmaking. The budget appears to have been below minuscule and the acting is threadbare at best, but such limitations and inexperience only add to the film's strange sense of realism that borders on cinema verite. The only aspect that doesn't feel rooted in some form of crushing reality is Frankie’s garbled, deformed baby which looks like a discarded puppet with third degree burns.
Shot on 16mm, one aspect of AMERICAN NIGHTMARES that made me sit up and take note, particularly in contrast to the theatrical COMBAT SHOCK cut, which features several short stock footage inserts and MPAA requested cuts, was the film's pacing. Deliberate and calculated, be it on purpose or by accident, the film feels like the whole of a single day, just not a day I would personally ever want to live or even wish upon my most hated enemy. There’s always something happening, be it a run-in with a loan shark or a proposition from an underage hooker, but none of these interactions ever lead to anything remotely uplifting, resulting in a growing sense of despair that eventually takes on a life of its own as Frankie’s day only goes from bad to worse and then from worse to why even bother.
During an interview with Rick Sullivan, creator of The Gore Gazette, found in the documentary “Post-Traumatic, An American Nightmare” located on the second disc of this release, Rick recalls someone describing COMBAT SHOCK to him as a movie that stinks. Not that the picture wasn’t any good but that the film itself had an odor. Truer words have never been spoken. The settings, the actors, every aspect of this story appear to have been coated in a layer of filth. Take the raunchiest women in prison movie you can think of. Gather up every drop of sweat from each and every sun soaked convict and then ring the dirty liquid over celluloid and you’ll begin to get close to the level of uncomfortable filth that permeates throughout every frame of AMERICAN NIGHTMARES. When the film is over, you half expect your DVD player to have a ring around it or for the disc itself to smell like cat piss wrapped in an old diaper. It’s just nasty. And effective. Very effective.
Inspired by David Lynch's ERASERHEAD and Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, COMBAT SHOCK was picked up by Troma and edited to receive an R rating before playing theatrically in the mid to late 1980s. Credit should be given to Lloyd Kaufman for seeing the potential in Buddy G’s film and giving it shot, though his marketing campaign, which included a poster that made the film to look like a Chuck Norris vehicle, was quite deceptive. Troma would go on to release COMBAT SHOCK on VHS and DVD both times using the same misleading poster design. For its Tromasterpiece Collection release however, the Troma team has wisely decided to go with a much more fitting, if not spoiler heavy cover that strikes a more appropriate tone.
Disc one of two in what is labeled as an uncut 25th anniversary edition, features both the theatrical and the director’s cut of the film, with the latter being the preferred, if not slightly more depressing version. Struck from the first 16mm answer pint, AMERICAN NIGHTMARES is presented full frame with its original titles, special effects and music intact. Picture quality is often hazy, with drab colors but such cloudy conditions only add to the desolate tone. I would compare it to the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE in that the grain is as much a part of the film's experience as the gore, the muck and the mire. The mono audio is passable with dialogue and Rick Giovinazzo’s score easy enough to understand if not at times a bit distance. Rick, Buddy’s brother, continues to write and conduct for motion pictures to this day, amassing an impressive list of credits that include MADAGASCAR, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and AUSTIN POWERS. The theatrical version appears to have been ported over from its initial DVD release in ‘99, bringing with it an audio commentary with writer/director Buddy Giovinazzo and Jörg Buttgereit, director of NEKROMANTIK. Personally I can barely understand a damn thing Jörg says, buy Buddy come across an articulate, honest and passionate filmmaker who managed to capture an uncomfortable byproduct of war that feels more relevant today than it did during the Regan Era in which is was shot.
What sets this release apart from past Troma efforts is not only the obvious care given to the content but the relevance of its supplementary material. There’s no wacky Lloyd Kaufman introduction before the film, no random PSA ads or blatant Troma cross marketing. Instead, disc two is stuffed with pertinent, entertaining and welcomed extras. As previously mentioned, “Post-Traumatic, An American Nightmare” is an all-new 30 minute documentary that includes interviews with John McNaughton (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER), Richard Stanley (HARDWARE), William Lustig (MANIAC), Jim VanBebber (DEADBEAT AT DAWN) and many more, as they discuss their first experience with the film and the impact it had on them. Buddy himself is featured in a four minute interview, shot handheld by Mr. Kaufman, who has a bad habit of circling the face of his subjects, getting as close as he possible and making everyone slightly uncomfortable in the process. Buddy’s brother Rick is also interviewed in a six minute segment label “Unscarred”. Among other anecdotes, Rick recalls first suggested himself for the part of Frankie and the secret joy his brother had in making his clean-freak brother lather himself in dirt and sweat everyday. Lloyd again accosts Buddy for an on screen, shaky cam interview at the 2006 Tromanale in Berlin. Talking in what appears to be a back ally stairwell, the interview is very dark but audio is sufficient enough to hear Buddy’s remarks. Interviews are rounded out by another stairwell sit down, with a reunited Buddy and Jörg, taken at the 2009 Berlin Festival.
“The Early Works of Buddy Giovianazzo” is a collection of short films and music videos, many of which are presented here for the first time. MR. ROBBIE (recently found on Troma's THE LAST HORROR FILM SE DVD) features Joe Spinell in one of his final roles as a murderous kids show host, sympathetic to a young viewer’s plea for help. JONATHAN OF THE NIGHT tells the story of a vampire on the prowl with his sister and appears to have been a seed trailer, shot to entice investors into backing a feature version of the story. SUBCONSCIOUS REALTIES chronicles one dope head's bad trip after eating too much laced liverwurst and THE LOBOTOMY tells the tale of a sex addict and the controversial treatment employed to cure him. Both shorts feature Buddy in supportive and leading roles respectively. Three music videos for Circus 2000 A.D., a three man band in which Buddy plays drums and his brother Rick plays bass, are also included along with the short film CHRISTMAS ALBUM, which finds a young man compelled to murder after listing to a satanic tinged LP, a Christmas gift from his girlfriend. All of the included shorts appear to be from 16mm prints or home video sources. “Hellscapes”, a short comparison photo gallery of the film's locations then and now, along with the film's original theatrical trailer, round out an impressive retrospect on Buddy’s early cinematic endeavors. Trailers for MAD DOG MORGAN (currently scheduled as the fifth title in The Tromasterpiece Collection), THE LAST HORROR FILM; STORY OF A JUNKIE; BLOOD, BOOBS AND BEASTS and TROMA’S WAR are also included and be sure and keep an eye out for an easter egg on disc two that features Jim VanBebber’s spot-on impression of Frankie’s baby.
Wrapped in liner notes by Shock Cinema editor/publisher Steven Puchalski, Troma has out done themselves, amassing an impressive and respectful package that more than gives Buddy G’s classic its due. (Jason McElreath)
BACK TO REVIEWS