"We're both so messed up. I don't know which one of us is worse."
- Duane Bradley, Basket Case

Friday, October 2, 2009

Combat Shock (American Nightmares): As Grim As It Gets

Maybe it's because I grew up on a steady diet of shoddy, second-rate VHS tapes for movies like Surf Nazis Must Die and Rabid Grannies, but I'm still taken aback when I see advertisements for the extremely well-polished Tromasterpiece Collection nowadays.

While the words "quality DVDs" and "Troma" used to be oxymorons, over the past few years Lloyd Kaufman's infamous production company has put out a wealth of behind-the-scenes material for releases such as Terror Firmer, Citizen Toxie and Poultrygeist. Now they are kicking it up yet another notch with this amazing anthology of cult favorites.

The fourth Tromasterpiece entry is Combat Shock, probably one of the most unrelentingly hopeless and depressing films ever captured on film. Seriously, not only does main character Frankie suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and war flashbacks, but:

1. His wife is a nagging bitch.
2. He's jobless and ravaged by poverty.
3. His toilet doesn't work.
4. His Agent Orange-infected infant gives the baby from It's Alive a run for its money.

And that's only half of his problems. The entire movie basically focuses on Frankie's struggle to cope at home in the face of extreme hardship, intertwined with his past experiences in a Vietnam prison camp. It's the cinematic equivalent of taking a break from ripping your fingernails off in order to give yourself papercuts. My best advice is not to watch Combat Shock if you are on suicide watch - you won't make it more than 10 minutes into this movie. Unless crippling drug addiction, underage prostitution, and broken father/son relationships are your cup of tea, it will more than likely put you over the edge.

While watching this film, it reminded me of the equally bleak Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Even though the subject matter is quite different, both movies offer a cold, objective eye towards urban decay and the foul characters that pollute it. While Ricky Giovinazzo's performance may not be as powerful as the one by Michael Rooker, he still perfectly conveys the pain and desperation his character is faced with. You can't help but feel sorry for the guy as he walks around New York, getting beat up by a gang and given the cold shoulder at the employment office.

As for the final scene, let's just say it leaves quite a haunting impression on the viewer; I won't spoil it, but it certainly fits in with the overall tone of the movie. In some sick way, I suppose it could almost be regarded as a "happy ending," especially when you consider the future (or lack thereof) for Frankie and his family. Hell, his wife fed their baby a bowl of watery bread crumbs! I know they had no money, but what kind of meal is that? No wonder the thing cried all the time.

In true Troma style, they marketed Combat Shock as an action-packed war film (see the above movie poster for evidence). Jesus, I can only imagine an audience in 1986 expecting Rambo: First Blood Part II and proceeding to walk out of the theater and head straight into therapy. It's a shame too, because it's probably a predominant factor as to why it didn't do so well at the box office upon release.

The new DVD itself is fantastic - besides two versions of the film (Troma's 92-minute version, known as Combat Shock, and the 100-minute American Nightmares cut), it has a number of interviews and documentaries, as well as a commentary with director Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit of Nekromantik infamy. I haven't summoned the strength to exhaust the special features yet, but I know I'm in for a treat when I eventually do.

Henry director John McNaughton summed up Combat Shock quite nicely when he said, "[This movie] makes you want to slit your wrists." But behind the mutant babies and exploitative violence is a powerful film with a message about the constant struggle that soldiers face every day of their post-war lives, an issue that is still timely today. It adds a layer of substance to the movie and really helps separate it from being just another run-of-the-mill genre film.

I have to give Troma credit for giving this movie the DVD treatment it deserves, and look forward to picking up the other films in the collection (especially Cannibal! The Musical). Here's hoping their reputation for putting out legitimate products continues to grow; bring on editions of Mother's Day and Bloodsucking Freaks! Not bad for a company that once upon a time also distributed the movie Killer Condom. Not bad at all.

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