Posts Tagged ‘troma’

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You honestly have to wonder — what would low-rent exploitation producers have done in the early 1970s without Charles Manson? Cinematic variations on the murders attributed the impish, always-horny Rasputin and his so-called “family”  were positively everywhere for awhile there, and if it weren’t for the bloodbath on Cielo Drive we wouldn’t have had such entries into the grade-Z canon as The Helter-Skelter MurdersI Drink Your Blood, and Simon, King Of The Witches , to name just a (very) few. In addition, we wouldn’t have had the superb and genuinely chilling documentary Manson, and hell — on-again/off-again “Family” associate (and convicted murderer) Bobby Beausoleil even appeared in Van Guylder’s 1969 sexploitationer The Ramrodder and  legendary underground auteur/”black” magician Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising.

So yeah, there’s no doubt about it, friends — the tentacles of Charlie and his associates/accomplices were spread far and wide throughout Hollywood there for awhile. The always-entertaining and thought-provoking Dave McGowan, who runs the “conspiracy”-themed website Center For An Informed America (www.davesweb.cnchost.com — and Dave, if you’re reading this, please write more often, your work is sorely missed!) even has a “flow chart” of sorts up called “The Six Degrees Of Charlie Manson,” detailing the various connections within the movie and music industries of the guy whose birth certificate reads “No Name Maddox,”  that’s absolutely mind-boggling.

All that being said, somewhere underneath the veritable cottage industry of dark rumblings and shadowy, slithering tendrils that have sprung out from what arguably remains America’s most notorious crime spree there’s still, in fact, a very real, concrete set of murders that took place —and even if the events and motivations surrounding those murders remain hotly debated and endlessly speculated about to this day, their bloody end result is certainly not in question. To that end,  if  a “just the facts, ma’am” approach is what you’re after, one of the more straight-forward re-tellings of the so-called “Manson murders” is to be found in 1971’s “Sweet Savior,” a movie that transposes the infamous events from California to New York, sure, but otherwise doesn’t take too many liberties from what we know to be true (or at least what we think we know to be true).

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Starring former ’50s teen heart-throb Troy Donahue as a charismatic cult leader named Moon who keeps his mostly-female acolytes tethered to his will via a potent combination of psychedelics, sex, and “trippy” pseudo-philosophy, the film — better known by the title Troma gave it in 1985 for home video release, The Love-Thrill Murders — doesn’t shy away from Manson/Moon’s alleged racism, sexism, and anti-semitism, but director Bob Roberts looks at the crimes from an angle few were willing to consider in the years immediately following in their wake — namely that the victims were every bit the drugged-out, hedonistic degenerates that the perpetrators were.

These days, of course, it’s pretty well accepted that Sharon Tate and her party guests were just  as immersed in the late-60s Hollywood drug culture as Charlie and his girls, and that it’s quite likely that everyone at the house on that fateful night knew each other, but in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the general public perception, eagerly sold by the mass media,  was that Tate and her friends were absolute saints and the no-good hippie scum who slaughtered them like, as was written on the wall in blood, “pigs,” were Satanic reprobates spewed out from the very pit of Hell itself. Remember, we’re talking about a time here when Roman Polanski was viewed as a grieving widower who lost not just a wife but an unborn infant, as opposed to these days when he’s known to be an admittedly great director, sure, but also a child molester who can’t set foot on American soil.

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It would be too much to say that Roberts portrays Moon and his coterie of impressionable young beauties as being sympathetic in this film, but his Tate stand-in character, bored-and-wealthy socialite Sandra Barlow (Renay Granville) and her crowd are shown to be moving in the same milieu as the Manson-family-in-all-but-name, and even invite their eventual murderers over to their party willingly, thinking they’ll provide some “kicks” for the evening. Those “kicks” unfold more or less exactly as the court records state they did in real life, so in that sense The Love-Thrill Murders is a bit on the dry side, but the challenging editorial viewpoint Roberts takes with his story’s presentation more than makes up for any lack of creativity on his part. He certainly isn’t saying the “beautiful people” who get butchered up “have it coming,” by any means, but he is saying that if you flirt with danger for cheap thrills, sometimes you don’t come out alive.

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If you want to watch this flick, you’ve only got two options — either find it on VHS or catch a shitty rip of it that’s up on a website whose initials are Y.T., since for whatever reason (probably a legal limbo of some sort) Troma’s never put this out on DVD  despite the film having a relatively decent reputation. I personally view movies like I Drink Your Blood, that use the basic trappings on Manson-ism as set-up but then veer off into telling completely different stories with no connection to reality whatsoever, as having a bit more sheer entertainment value, but for its audaciousness (at least for its time) alone, The Love-Thrill Murders is definitely worth a look. In addition, Donahue’s surprising effectiveness in the lead role, Roberts’ unflinching portrayal of the murders (the film got an “X” rating upon its initial release), and a nice little “twist” ending that finally does diverge from the Vincent Bugliosi-approved (and, some would argue, created from wholecloth) version of history all combine to give the proceedings a bit more “oomph,” as well.

The disinterested and/or merely curious probably won’t find much here to either attract or hold onto their attention, it’s true, but for those of us still morbidly intrigued by the entire, let’s face it, Manson legend, The Love-Thrill Murders makes for some interesting — at times even compelling — viewing.

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One thing about making a movie for five or six thousand bucks — it isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) that hard to make a tidy little profit.

Evidently, 1991 shot-on-video shlock horror/comedy Killer Nerd, which we reviewed on this very site awhile back , did just that, because exactly one year later, co-directors/writers/producers Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne Alan Harold were back behind the Sony Betacam with “star” Toby Radloff, best known as Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor sidekick, back in front of it for a sequel, Bride Of Killer Nerd —a movie which, at its core, is basically more of the same (honestly, what else would you expect?) but is no less fun for that fact. Truth be told, one could even make the argument that this is a superior picture, but it’s not like it matters all that much since it’s basically a six of one, half a dozen of another comparison when we’re talking about these two flicks.

After evading the law in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, titular Killer Nerd Harold Kunkle (Radloff, essentially playing himself, and not “acting” per se so much as simply reciting lines) has moved his base of operations to the bright lights of Cleveland — his “operations” consisting, once again, of being stuck in a dead-end office job where he’s the butt of everyone’s cruel jokes. Harold’s feeling pretty damn depressed about his eat, work, sleep routine, though, and vows that if his life doesn’t somehow change significantly within a month, he’s going to relieve the tedium by committing suicide.

The fickle hand of destiny, however, seems to have other things in mind for everyone’s favorite psychotic geek — yes, friends, none other than Cupid himself has set his sights on the forlorn Harold, and has arranged to have his solitary path in life cross that of one Thelma Crump, a bespectacled, awkward, clumsy, off-kilter high school girl who is at the very least his equal by every standard of measurement on the social outcast scale — when they meet at church one fateful morning it’s love at first four-eyed sight, and nothing, as the saying goes, will ever be the same for either of them.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking — it sure sounds like ol’ Kunkle’s chasing after jailbait here. Before you spend too much time thinking about that angle, though ( which would be a monumental waste of energy on your part since the filmmakers obviously didn’t) it should be pointed out that Thelma is portrayed by Heidi Lohr (the same actress who played Sally, the woman who rebuffed Harold’s advances in the original Killer Nerd), who’s gotta be at least  35 years old if she’s a day. So let’s all just relax and let these two love-struck losers have their day in the sun, shall we?

Obviously, though, the good times can’t last forever, and when a group of popular kids at Thelma’s school invite her and her new beau to a party they’re having as a paper-thin pretext for extracting several ounces’ worth of revenge on her for a  laundry list of perceived transgressions she’s supposedly committed against their clique, it’s not long before the legendary of battle cry of “nerd nerd nerd NERD NERD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” once again issues forth from Harold’s — ahem! — dentally-challenged mouth and he unleashes the beast within to save his lady-love from the twisted machinations of the jocks and jock-ettes.

You know the drill — the red Karo syrup’s gonna flow generously as Kunkle hacks and chops his way through those who would dare sully his fair maid’s honor, but once the slaughter begins in earnest it becomes pretty clear that the object of his affections is every bit as unhinged as he is, if not more so!

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I won’t kid you, this is pretty low-grade stuff, even for late-’80s/early-’90s SOV fare. But what the fuck — it’s fun low-grade stuff that never for one instant sets its sights any higher than what it knows it can realistically (or unrealistically, as the case may be) achieve. Bosko and Harold are keenly aware of the limitations of both themselves and what and who they’ve got to work with, and proceed accordingly. If you or I made this thing we’d probably be too goddamn embarrassed at the final result to show it to anyone but our closest friends and family — and we’d make sure they were good and drunk first — but these guys had the balls to show the world (well, okay, an admittedly very small segment of the world) the fruits of their labors, and that’s pretty admirable in my book. If you don’t have much by way of brains or ability, balls alone can still take you a long way.

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Bride Of Killer Nerd is available on DVD paired with the movie from whose cam-corded loins it sprang in a one-two punch Troma bills as a “Killer Kollector’s Edition.” Besides the always-annoying-but-strangely-welcome Lloud Kaufman self-promotional intros and assorted crap, there are decent commentaries for both films featuring Radloff and Harold, an on-camera interview with Radloff where he reminisces further about his days as the original bullying-victim-getting-even, and a smattering of trailers for other Troma product. The flicks are presented full-frame with mono sound, and if any remastering of either the audio or video variety has been done it’s been pretty cleverly disguised since they both look and sound like crap, but no matter —that’s the way it should be.

Underneath all the thoroughly (but charmingly) unconvincing blood and stiffly-intoned angst, Bride Of Killer Nerd is, in this reviewer’s opinion, an unrelentingly optimistic work, with a message of hope for us all — after all, if Toby Radloff can find true love, anyone can.

There must be something in the water in Maryland, because I honestly think no other state has produced more backyard cinematic auteurs. I’m not talking about Baltimore-born-and-bred Oscar winners like Barry Levinson here, obviously. No, I’m thinking more the kind of guys who figured all they needed to make a movie was either a 16mm camera or a hand-held VHS camcorder, some friends, a few thousand bucks, and most importantly, the will to just get out there and get the job done. The kind of guys who watch a movie and think to themselves “heck, this shit doesn’t look that hard, I bet I could do it!” Maryland’s been damn generous when it comes to producing moviemakers of this ilk — after all, John Waters, Don Dohler, and Tony Malanowski all hailed from there, each with less ability, experience, and money than his predecessor, but arguably more determination. The name Pericles Lewnes should be added into that list somewhere as well, I’m just not quite sure where.

Who, you say? And why the uncertainty as to his placement in the dime-store pantheon?

First, the who — like the other esteemed folks just mentioned, Lewnes hailed from the Baltimore suburbs and didn’t know anything in particular about movies other than the fact that he wanted to make one and had some like-minded acquaintances (a good many of whom chose to have their work on his picture credited pseudonymously — hence the deliberate lack of reference to actors and actresses, screenwriters, etc. that you’ll find for the balance of this review — no, I’m not just being lazy) who were willing to chip in with the scripting, acting, and “special” effects —so in 1989 he set about to make what he considered to be the most outrageously stupid movie he could think of, a tongue-in-cheek (to put it midly) shot-on-video splatterfest with perhaps one of the more deliberately no-frills, here’s-what-this-flick-is-about, take-it-or-leave-it titles in cinematic history,  Redneck Zombies (whether or not Lewnes and company were aware of the earlier super-8 effort out of Texas, Ozone! Attack Of The Redneck Mutants, I have no idea).

The total budget for their movie was just under $10,000, it was shot in Maryland farm country, and the “plot,” such as it is, can be summed up more or less completely in one sentence thusly : “Incompetent army fuck-up loses barrel of “chemical warfare toxic wate” (the script’s exact words) somewhere in the sticks, local inbred hillbilly clan uses said barrel as part of their new still, green moonshine comes out, everyone who drinks it turns into a zombie, and gory hijinks ensue when a group of city-folk campers who apparently barely know each other (and frankly have no reason to given their diverse cultural backgrounds etc.) and can’t seem to talk about anything other than sex and how fucking tired and/or lost they are encounter aforementioned redneck mutant zombies.” Damn if that wasn’t the quickest and easiest story recap I’ve ever churned out in a couple years of movie blogging.

So that’s who Pericles Lewnes is, and what he made. Now, as to why I’m not quite sure where he should fit in on the list of homemade moviemakers out of Maryland —

"Care to try a drink from our new still? I just had one ---"

First off, chronologically speaking it’s pretty cut-and-dried — Waters preceded Dohler who preceded Malanowski (who got his start working for Dohler) and they all preceded Lewnes. But Lewnes shot his first (and, until 2007’s highly experimental distributed-via-online-download effort Loop, only, apart from working as an FX man on a couple of Troma’s Toxic Avenger sequels) movie on video, and all those other guys shot on film. Furthermore, Lewnes had a very specific goal in mind for his picture — he wanted it to be the first-ever (so he thought, in truth BoardingHouse beat him to the punch by a few years) SOV feature to be blown up onto film and distributed for theatrical release (a pretty lofty ambition for a guy with no cinematic experience whatsoever — and damned if he didn’t get his wish, since Troma picked this flick up and it got some east coast movie-house play before enjoying a long and semi-prosperous run in the home video rental market). So there’s our first key difference between Lewnes and his Maryland-based cinematic progenitors.

Next up is the budget — Lewnes hustled up $10,000, which is frankly  a bit more than more than probably Dohler and certainly Malanowski had to work with on their earliest forays into moviemaking (albeit not by much, and any flick produced in the, say, $5,000-$25,000 range is gonna look pretty cheap regardless), and unbelievable as it sounds this actually proved to be more than enough to give him and his cohorts the ability to produce some pretty damn solid (for the homemade variety, mind you) gore effects (as with most SOV horror or horror/comedy hybrid efforts, it’s pretty clear that this is where more or less all the money went — certainly the uniformly (in this case self-aware) atrocious acting “talent” probably didn’t cost a dime, not should it have, but at least in this movie they’re clearly having a good time across the board hamming it up).

"---and now I'm hungry!"

Following on from the budgetary differences, minscule as they may be, we have the issue of actual technical competence, and for that we need to get a bit hypothetical for a moment here. Certainly if you gave Don Dohler a couple million bucks, he could at least deliver some solidly cool special effects, but you would probably still get straight-forward “point-and-shoot” style camerawork and a script about a killer alien or three on the loose in the woods being hunted down by townsfolk (in this case played by, I dunno, Brad Pitt and Sylvester Stallone or something), with no self-aware humor whatsoever. In short, instead of a backyard evil-alien runaround pretending to be something more, you’d have a medium-budget evil-alien runaround pretending to be something more (and I mean no disrespect by this — Dohler’s absolutely serious efforts to deliver a product of at-least-near- passable quality with no reference at all to its own obvious budgetary limitations is one of the things I love about his work — he was more about showing off what he could do with limited means while keeping more or less something of a straight face about what he couldn’t do and still giving even that a go regardless), and if you gave Tony Malanowski a Hollywood-sized budget you’d probably get a semi-respectable middling-quality “supernatural thriller” of some sort.  In short, both these guys took their jobs seriously. Lewnes, quite obviously from the get-go, doesn’t. But that doesn’t automatically mean that he’s a bad filmmaker — he’s just a guy who has no illusions that he’s making anything other than a bad film (or video, as the case may be).  Redneck Zombies knows it’s a piece of crap right out of the gate and never tries to “rise above” (whatever that even means) its blatantly less-than-humble origins. Lewnes, opearting without the budget to actually scare you, is more than willing to settle for grossing you out and making you laugh instead.

Any mother who lets her baby play in a washing machine and drink green hooch ---

Beyond all the obvious and stupid laughs, though (look! a baby drinking moonshine! and a gay hillbilly (played by the director himself, no less)! and lots of dick jokes!) there is, dare I say it, some intelligence at work here — the “tabaccky man” scene, with a backwoods tobacco farmer hustling his produce (is tobacco actually considered a form of produce? oh well, too late to wonder about it now) from out of the back of his truck while dressed as the Elephant Man and talking like, I dunno, the angel of fucking death or something, is both hilarious and genuinely unsettling (if you’re in the right mood) and shows that Lewnes has probably at least watched, if not understood, a Bergman flick or two, and the lame-brained spoof of the infamous hitchhiker scene in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre shows that he’s counting on most of his audience to at least have enough smarts to get an admittedly blatant in-joke (which may not sound like much but I’ll take brainless entertainment that assumes its audience has a brain over pseudo-brainy mainstream Hollywood product that actually insults your intelligence and plays to the lowest common denominator at every turn). So who knows? To return to our “if you gave these guys a budget —” hypothesis, maybe with a couple million on hand Lewnes could have produced a seriously sardonic black comedy of some sort.

---shouldn't be too surprised when this happens.

So for all that digital “ink” spilled, I think we’re back at the beginning — quite clearly Pericles Lewnes has a lot in common with the Maryland homemade moviemakers who came before him, but there are key differences, as well. He’s got the “I’m making shit here and I know it” attitude of John Waters mixed with the “I can make these effects look decent” gumption of Don Dohler combined with the “maybe I can try to at least be creepy here for a second” ambition of Tony Malanowski, yet stands on his own as perhaps the most at-the-end-of-the-day- unclassifiable of the whole bunch. Certainly Redneck Zombies never for one instant displays any pretenses of being anything apart from the brainless gore-fest-mixed-with-overtly-stupid-humor romp in the woods that it is, yet it at least tries to, as weird as this may sound, show the audience for that kind of crap some level of, inherently blasphemous as this may sound, respect. Even if said audience isn’t much in the habit of looking for any, much less caring whether or not they actually get it. There’s an attitude of “hey, turn your brain off and have a good time here, because we did, too”  in Redneck Zombies  that’s missing from a lot of other blatantly lame shit of this ilk that just seems satisfied with topping itself on the outrageous gore front as the movie progresses and has no other ambitions apart from that. It’s this reviewer’s steadfast belief that if more “dumb movies” were as smart as this one, then more of them would be genuinely entertainigly stupid, rather than just stupidly stupid for the sake of nothing other than — well, being stupid. Anyone can do that kind of stupid. The kind on display here at least takes some forethought and planning.As mentioned earlier (and speaking of stupidly stupid instead of smartly stupid — some notable exceptions like Combat Shock and Screamplay aside), Troma picked up Redneck Zombies for theatrical as well as home video distribution, and a couple years back released the definitive, 90-minute “director’s cut” of the movie as part of their “Tromasterpiece Collection” DVD series (it’s billed as the “20th Anniversary Special Edition”). Picture (full-frame) and sound (mono) have both been remastered and are of respectable-enough quality, and extas include a pretty good commentary track from Lewnes, a selection of outtakes and deleted scenes, a plethora of interviews with, it seems, damn near everybody inovlved with the making of this thing, trailers for some other Troma prodcut, and the usual annyoingly unfunny Lloyd Kaufman ego-boosting crap. It’s literally a packed -to -the- gills release and even includes the complete original soudtrack score on a second “bonus disc” CD. Good stuff, Maynard.

If you’re up for a swim on the absolute bottom of the SOV barrel, Redneck Zombies is a fun way to while away an hour and a half of your existence. It knows what it is, knows that you know it too, and never thinks you’re an asshole for digging this kind of —- uhhhmmm — “entertainment.” It’s reasonably well-executed, refreshingly self-aware, and completely devoid of even the basic ability to sets its sights any higher. That’s never going to make it a “respectable” piece of moviemaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it never figured to be  and frankly has an attitude about it that seems to state that it honestly could care less. As somebody somewhere else once said (about something else entirely, and I can’t remember what) “it sucks — but it sucks with integrity.”  Who can’t go for a little bit of that every once in awhile?

Next up in on our Don Dohler radar screen is 1982’s Nightbeast, considered by many aficionados of his work to be the pinnacle of his cinematic career, and not entirely without good reason. From the flashier (relatively speaking, mind you) opening credits to the downright acceptable prosthetic work on the titular beast itself to the numerous laser-beam “special” effects to the generous helpings of gore and inconsequential (and completely untitillating, unless you’ve got a thing for bog-standard average-looking women — honestly even ugly would’ve been more interesting) nudity, it’s obvious that this is our guy Don going for the commercial gusto to whatever extent that he’s even physically capable of doing so. Dohler came into a little money for this one — the total budget was $42,00, a king’s ransom by his standards — and the result is the nearest thing to a genuinely polished cinematic effort he ever came up with. Which, admittedly, isn’t saying a whole lot, because this is still very much a DIY effort — and that’s a good thing, because the DIY nature of these films is the best thing about them, by far.

Apparently Dohler was going for a straight-up reworking of his first film, The Alien Factor, with Nightbeast, albeit with a bit more money to play with this time, and smartly deciding to simplify the intergalactic menace from three creatures down to one. Apart from that, the story remains exactly the same, with many of the same actors even playing the same parts (and yes, since he’s the only Dohler “star” with anything like a fan base, I’ll drop a mention at this point that George Stover turns up in this one, as well). So anyway at this point you know the drill —space monster crash-lands in the suburban Maryland woods, goes on a killing spree, the local sheriff rounds up a posse to try to bring the creature in, and the closest thing Dohler could approximate to “chaos” given his limited financial resources ensues.

There are a few subplots of absolutely no consequence going on here, such as the aforementioned sheriff bedding down every female in sight and some interpersonal conflict(ish) dynamics within a biker gang, but if you want to truly enjoy this flick, it’s best to just push all that aside since little things like dialogue between characters aren’t exactly a Dohler strong suit. Just focus your attention on the main story, which shouldn’t be too difficult since it’s a straight line from A to Z, and you’ll be fine.

Yup, this is more standard, turn-off-the-brain-and-enjoy-the-dime-store-ride stuff. To be sure, the fact that a lot of it was shot at night — hence the name — sometimes makes the “action,” as it were, a bit difficult to follow given the grainy, half-assed 16mm film stock Dohler used, but as I’ve mentioned in previous Dohler reviews, if you’re on the guy’s wavelength, technical imperfections like that just add to the charm.

Anyway, the main twist spice added into the Dohler stew here is the gore and the nudity, and when the monster from the stars starts tearing shit up, it actually looks pretty good. I mean, these ain’t Tom Savini effects or anything, but they’re not an embarrassment by any means. Our guy Don, as always, delivers more than by any rights he should be able to, and the difference between a $10,000 Dohler production and a $42,000 Dohler production is pretty amazingly apparent — not in terms of plot, dialogue, or acting, mind you, but in every other respect, particularly on the technical side, it’s stark and obvious.

Nightbeast is available on DVD from Troma, which is appropriate enough, either as a stand-alone release or in a two-disc set that finds it paired up with the fine documentary on Dohler’s life and work,  Blood, Boobs And Beast. It’s presented full-frame, the picture has been remastered a bit (although the quality is still iffy in numerous spots), the sound is remastered mono, and the extras are the usual Lloyd Kaufman ego-fest crap. It’s not my personal favorite Dohler film by any stretch, I like ’em a bit more raw and unpolished (again, relatively speaking) myself, but it’s still a perfectly enjoyable diversion and a terrific example of how a guy can achieve an awful lot on willpower, “Junkyard Wars”-style technical ingenuity, and a little bit of money. Definitely worth the measly 80 minutes of your life that it takes to watch.

"Killer Nerd/Bride Of Killer Nerd" Double Feature DVD from Troma

Hey, Troma, where’s my kickbacks?

I mean, seriously — this is my third review of a Troma DVD in less than a month. Considering that this blog gets, according to the WordPress stats count, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 views per day, that kind of free pub has to be worth at least a freebie DVD or some other  swag, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t it?

Okay, I didn’t think so, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

So let’s talk about “Killer Nerd.” Like the other Troma DVD releases I’ve covered recently, namely “Pigs” and “Story of a Junkie,” this isn’t actually a product of the Troma “studio.” It was shot in 1991 by Ohio filmmakers Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne A. Harold on video for the princely sum of about five or six hundred bucks and picked up by Troma for VHS and, later, DVD release. The movie’s main selling point — hell, it’s only selling point — is that it stars Toby Radloff of “American Splendor” fame. Toby is a friend and co-worker of AS’s Harvey Pekar, and essentially serves as his sidekick in the AS film (Toby both appears as himself and is portrayed by Judah Friedlander — if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about). And folks, Toby’s the real deal.

Thick glasses taped in the middle? Check.

Bow tie? Check.

Bizarre speech patterns? Check.

Pocket protector full of pens? Check.

Yes, friends, Toby’s a nerd and darn proud of it. His self-appointed moniker is that of the “genuine nerd” (co-director Harold has even made a documentary about Toby that bears this title). There’s no slack in his act. It’s not a con or a put-on. He’s as legit as it gets.

And damnit, in “Killer Nerd” he’s mad. Toby portrays hapless loser Harold Kunkle, and  he’s got the hots for a girl at work named Jenny (Lori Scarlett), but while she’s friendly enough toward him on a superficial level, she’s really got the hots for another officemate, a slick yuppie douchebag named Jeff (Richard Zaynor) who delights in tormenting poor Harold.

Our guy Harold eventually learns firsthand that the two of them are sleeping together, so he goes out to drown his sorrows at a local Cleveland-area watering hole ,whereupon he gets lured by a couple of ladies into a trap where some punk dudes who harassed him earlier at the bus stop rob him and beat him up.

That’s when Toby — excuse me, Harold — finally snaps and decides to get violent revenge on the society that has treated him like an outcast.

I don’t mean to give away too much of the plot here, but — oh, what the hell, I do, it’s not like it really matters anyway, the title gives it all away from the get-go. Toby/Harold goes back and gets payment for his humiliation in blood from the girls who set him up, the punks who beat him up, the woman who rejected his clumsy advances, and the smooth-talking slickster she’s fucking. He even kills his mom (while dressed in a diaper — an image you’ll never be able to get out of your mind) for good measure. Nobody that’s ever said or done anything mean to him is safe.

The kills are actually pretty creative for the most part, so I won’t give away any of the details )apart from the aforementioned diaper bit).  The ultra-cheap blood and gore effects are good, cheesy fun. The movie looks every bit as cheap as it is, and that’s satisfying for fans of trashy shit like myself.

The real joy of “Killer Nerd,” though, is just watching Toby essentially play himself. There’s no real “acting” required. He just has to read his lines and go through the motions while being who he is. Filmmaking doesn’t get any mor naturalistic than this, folks.

Toby on the loose!

Even the script essentially follows what you’d expect Toby to do in real life (up to the point where he becomes a mass-murdering maniac, of course). When he tries to get a date with Jenny, he invites her out to a church picnic he’s taking his mother to. He likes going to comic shows. He displays no social skills or any concern about what the fuck anyone else thinks of him. He talks the exact same way he does in real life. In short, Harold is Toby and Toby is Harold.

“Killer Nerd” is like watching the nerd Elvis or nerd Michael Jordan in his prime — at the top of his game and in full possession of all his nerdly powers. He is who he is, couldn’t be anything else if he tried, and isn’t interested in trying anyway. Take him as he is or get the fuck out of his way.

Or, you know, get killed. The choice is yours.

Oh, and it’s got one of the greatest lines in movie history — “Roses are red, violets are placid, you screwed me over — have a face full of acid!”

Whoops, I said I wouldn’t give away any of the details of Toby/Harold’s kill-spree. Oh well.

Anyway, let’s be honest — you go into a flick like this because you know exactly what you’re in for, not because you want a story full of plot twists and dramatic surprises.

Followed a year later by a sequel, “Bride of Killer Nerd,” where Harold finally meets the girl of his dreams, an equally-picked-on and equally-revenge-minded high school girl, which might actually be the “better” (and yes, I use that term very loosely) of the two films, both are available one one swell double-feature DVD package from Troma. In addition to the films, you get commentary from Toby and Wayne A. Harold, an exclusive interview with Toby s he “really” is (again, no real difference), a tour around Akron, Ohio with Toby and Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman, and the usual Troma stuff like Kaufman intros to the films and a Kaufman-directed music video, this one for a band called Purple Pam.

In a world full of posers, fakes, phonies, and pretenders, Toby Radloff is the genuine article. He’s probably been picked on and shunned and ridiculed and made fun of his whole life. And in “Killer Nerd” he gets to play out the type of revenge fantasies he’s probably entertained in private for years. For everyone to see.

I don’t know if that makes this film a form of  accidental therapy or what, but I suppose we ought to hope so. Because there are a lot of Toby Radloffs out there, who are probably one good shove or insult away from snapping and giving the slick, smooth-talking assholes of this world what they feel they deserve.

So hell yes, laugh all you want to at “Killer Nerd.” That’s what the movie is for. But depending on how you’ve treated the nerds in your life, it might be nervous laughter.

“Killer Nerd” — harmless ultra-cheesy straight-to-video schlock or advanced psychotherapy on a budget for a tormented outcast?

I leave it for you to decide. But it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing if every picked-on, eccentric, socially inept weirdo could have the kind of outlet that Toby Radloff has here.

"Story Of A Junkie" Movie Poster

 There are words and phrases that you think you have a true understanding of, but you don’t. And I would submit that one of those phrases is “gritty urban realism.”  You might think you know all about it because you’ve read some books, or seen some films, that were gritty, urban, and realistic. But you don’t have any clue what “gritty urban realism” means unless or until you see Lech Kowalski’s “Story of a Junkie.” Then you become an expert on the subject in my book. And isn’t that what you’re absolutely dying to be?

No? Well, who asked you, anyway? Oh yeah. I  did. Time to get this circular imaginary conversation out of the way and move into the review phase of this — uhhmmmm — review, which is, I guess, sort of where I started, before I got sidetracked by — myself. “Story of a Junkie,” Christ — I sound like a junkie right about now.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the outset : “Story of a Junkie” is NOT a documentary. It’s far too realistic to be.

Shot in 1984 on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side (a.k.a. “Alphabet City”), this film follows the life of  Gringo, a desperate heroin addict, and those in his immediate orbit.  Gringo is portrayed by John Spacely, who is not an actor. He’s a real-life junkie. The stories he relates to the camera are not scripted, they’re real. The supporting cast are also real junkies, and the activities they undertake — scoring, shooting up, the whole works — are not staged, they’re real.

But I repeat, this is NOT a documentary film.

Oh, sure — the movie’s director, Lech Kowalski, is best known for punk rock documentaries like “D.O.A.,” “Born To Lose” and “Hey! Is Dee Dee Home?,” but “Story of a Junkie” is more like cinema verite, in that it combines actual interviews and footage of actual drug addicts with re-enactments of stories from Spacely’s life, not unlike what you find on all the true crime shows that litter the cable TV lineup, with the crucial difference here being that these re-enacted scenes do not feature (semi-) professional actors, but real Lower East Siders involved in the drug culture.

As such, it’s much more immediate, visceral, and powerful than any straight-ahead documentary could possibly be.

To be sure, the film has no “plot” per se, it’s entirely ad-libbed. And again, all the scenes depicted are real, as are the people and the locations. When a room full of junkies are shown injecting themselves in a shooting gallery, that’s EXACTLY what’s happening — a room full of junkies are injecting themselves in a shooting gallery. But when a dealer is gunned down in the streets, it’s obviously not a real murder that’s being filmed — but the raw and unvarnished nature of the film’s surroundings certainly gives it the air of absolute authenticity.

So “Story of  a Junkie” isn’t just a REPRESENTATION of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s, it’s a  RECORD of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s. Even if it’s not a documentary. Which is the last I’ll say about that, I promise.

John Spacely as Gringo --- essentially, himself

Forget “Trainspotting”  — Kowalski’s film is, without question, the most jaw-dropping, gut-punching, absolutely spot-on account of the addicted life ever committed to film, because it IS the addicted life committed to film.

Some of the shit that comes from Spacely’s mouth will have you hitting the rewind button just to make sure you heard it right. He talks about how he was raised by a normal, loving family in Southern California, but lost his way in life when his steady girlfriend was hit by a truck and killed. She was pregnant once, and when she miscarried he threw the fetus in the trash because it was “nothing but a big period anyway.” He lost his eye in a fight with some drag queens. After another fight, he had to have a large slice of meat amputated from his body, When the doctors wouldn’t give it back to him, he stole it and snuck out of the hospital. He’s a nonviolent anarchist who years for another war in order to “awaken the consciousness of the youth.”

In short, he’s a mass of contradictions, but I don’t know what else you’d really expect from a guy in his condition.

There’s no comfortable distance between viewer and subject in this film. You’re plunged headfirst into Gringo’s world and there’s no “narrative” per se to follow — you’re as lost as he is. To the extent that any sort of linear “storytelling” is involved here, it comes pretty late in the game : through a set of circumstances typical, I’m sure, to junkie life, Gringo is separated from his beloved skateboard, and at the very end he gets it back. That’s about as close to a “storyline” as you’re going to find here. Mostly we just follow Gringo around, with plenty of interview asides with those he comes into contact with or even just people who happen to be around.

Given that this part of New York has now been gentrified beyond all recognition (along with, sadly, Times Square and other former shitholes), this flick is truly a historical record, not just of a time that no longer exists, but of a place that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t either.

“Story of a Junkie” took some time to cobble into shape once all the footage was shot, and played some festival screenings and the like before finally getting picked up for proper (albeit limited) release by Troma, of all people, in 1987, and along with the similarly (mostly) harrowingly realistic “Combat Shock,” it remains one of the absolute best films ever to go out under their moniker. They’ve put out a great DVD release for it featuring a digitally remastered (but still appropriately grungy) print presented in full-frame,   a terrific commentary track by Kowalski (this film is actually even more interesting with the commentary on than without), an interview with executive producer Ann Barish (wife of the founder of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain) that’s genuinely both interesting and informative, and the usual Troma-centric extras including and introduction from Lloyd Kaufman and a Kaufman-directed music video for the death metal band Entombed.

"Story of a Junkie" DVD from Troma

Plenty of films (most notably the aforementioned “Trainspotting”) show you what a junkie’s life is LIKE — this one shows you what a junkie’s life IS. Not to be missed under any circumstances.

John Spacely died of AIDS at some point in the early 90s. The times, the places, the people depicted here are all gone. But heroin’s still around, and still doing ( in concert with its evil twin, the “War on Drugs”) exactly what it did to the people in this film. The problem’s moved from the inner city shooting galleries to suburban schools and bedrooms. Everyone seems to be resting easier with it safely out of sight,  but the fact that it’s now largely out of mind, too — well, that’s something that ought to concern us all.  The locales and the people involved may have changed, but the problem remains, and whether viewed as cautionary tale, historical record, or some combination of both, “Story of a Junkie” is the most no-bullshit account of it you’re ever going to come across. Even if it’s still not a documentary.

Whoops, I said I wouldn’t bring that up again, didn’t I?

"Pigs" Movie Poster

Apparently, pigs eat anything. So says the tagline on the DVD cover for Troma’s release of 1972’s criminally underappreciated “Pigs.” I say “criminally underappreciated” because even grizzled exploitation fans seem pretty divided on this one — what few reviews there are online tend to be decidedly mixed at best, and the movie scores a whopping 2.6 out of 10 on IMDB’s review scale/popularity-meter. As usual, friends, I’m here to tell you that the rest of humanity os absolutely wrong. “Pigs” (also released under the far more apropos title of “Daddy’s Deadly Darling”, among about a dozen other titles) is actually something of a neglected little masterpiece. Sigh — if only the human swine would recognize it for what it is.

Shot in 1971/2 in rural California (standing in for what one assumes from watching is the south, in a generic sense), “Pigs” was directed, produced, and written (under the pseudonym of F.A. Foss) by longtime Hollywood veteran Marc Lawrence, who conceived of it as a starring vehicle for his daughter, Toni (Billy Bob Thornton’s first wife for you celebrity trivia buffs), who unfortunately can’t act all that well. So it’s a definite labor of love, albeit one with such a disturbing incestuous subtext to it that it makes for morbidly compelling viewing. Allow me to explain.

Toni L. stars as Lynn Hart, a seriously disturbed young woman who endured years of sexual abuse at the hands (okay, not really the hands—) of her father before finally snapping and killing the sick old bastard (though she still continues to call him on the phone). One night, she (way-too-conveniently) escapes from the asylum where she’s cooped up and hits the road, finally ending up at a dreary roadside cafe operated by an eccentric old-timer named Zambrini(played by Marc L.), a former circus performer who has a somewhat checkered, shall we say, past of his own (perhaps allegorical of Lawrence himself, who had a thoroughly respected career as an actor, mainly, until being blacklisted by the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s). Zambrini takes her in as his new waitress and allows her to live in the back of the place.

Lynn soon learns that Zambrini has a secret, though — the herd of pigs he keeps have developed a taste for human flesh! One night, evidently, and old drunk stumbled into their pen, passed out, and they ate him, and ever since nothing else seems to satisfy the hungry hogs. Rather than following a more sane course of action (like, say, selling off his herd for slaughter, or even doing it himself — he does run a cafe, after all, and he could a feature pork chop special every night), old Zambrini decides the best way to keep his hogs happy is to dig up corpses from the cemetary under cover of darkness every night and feed them to the swine. Zambrini cuts a little deal with Lynn, though — if she keeps her mouth shut about his nocturnal activities, he won’t ask any questions about her past and will do his best to make sure the local idiot sheriff , Dan Cole (played by Jesse Vint), doesn’t either. Given that an escaped insane-asylum patient isn’t likely to find a better deal than that, Lynn agrees and soon she and Zambrini develop a sort of surrogate father-daughter bond.

Let’s pause her for a minute and consider the implications here. We’ve got a movie written, produced, and directed by a father, specifically for his daughter, about a young woman who was molested by her father who then essentially ends up, by dint of circumstance, turning to another older man for help, who just so happens to be played by her real father. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to read much into the seriously twisted undertones here.

But back to our story. The aforementioned sheriff is the biggest numbskull you’ll ever meet. When a nosy little old busybody calls him to report her suspicions about Zambrini digging up the deceased, not only does he not look into it much, he tells her that even if Zambrini is doing what she thinks he is, there’s probably nothing illegal about it! Furthermore,  he takes a quick liking to Lynn even though she acts exactly like you’d expect an escaped mental patient on the run from the law would act! In short, the guy defines the term clueless.

The powers that be back at the state hospital haven’t forgotten about Lynn, though, and when they come sniffing around, and Zambrini tries to hide her as best he can, this little 80-minute epic reaches its denouement, about which I’ll remain silent.

“Pigs” is an atmospheric and involving little piece, but really gains power when you have a full understanding of its backstory as outlined above. Taken on its own merits, it’s certainly a notch or two above most exploitation fare, and twisted enough in and of itself to maintain one’s prurient interest from start to finish, but when one keeps the backstory of its production in mind, it really rises above the lvel of above-average B-movie fare and into the sphere of disturbed — and disturbing — private psychodrama writ large before the public. And it’s for that reason that this reviewer considers “Pigs” to be essential viewing for all fans of grindhouse and drive-in fare.

DVD Cover fot the Recent "Pigs" Reissue from Troma

Troma released “Pigs” on DVD back in 2005, and it subsequently sold out and went out of print. In the last few months, however, they have seen fit to reissue it as part of their “Troma Retro” line, and while it’s great to have this twisted little classic available again, I do wish they’d tried to find a decent print, because this one seriously sucks. It’s way too dark, to the point where it;s hard to even tell what the hell is going on in some scenes, and haphazardly (to put it kindly) edited, with frames occasionally repeating for no reason whatsoever a few seconds after they were just shown. Lloyd Kaufman claims, in his typically annoying introduction, that the film has been “digitally remastered” and “lovingly restored,” but please. We may be Troma customers, but we’re not that stupid.

On the extras front, the only thing of any use whatsoever are the production notes, which are interesting, albeit only presented as plain text. Apart from that, we’ve got the aforementioned Kaufman intro, some Troma previews, and a couple of PETA spots which I guess sort of tie in with the pigs theme, but really don’t have much value beyond that.

However, don’t let any of that deter you. Despite these admittedly huge flaws in terms of DVD presentation, “Pigs” is definitely worth seeing. If only to get you to swear off bacon forever.

“Pigs” is an oinker, sure — but hardly a turkey.

"Christmas Evil" Movie Poster

This time of year the question is often asked, “What is the best Christmas movie ever made?” The usual contenders always seem to emerge, of course — “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” , yadda yadda etc. etc. Horror fans may suggest either “Black Christmas” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” But no less an authority than John Waters has gleefully declared writer-director Lewis Jackson’s 0verlooked 1980 B-movie masterpiece “Christmas Evil” (a.k.a. “You Better Watch Out,” actually Jackson’s original — and preferred — title) to be the absolute best of the bunch, and I’m with him on that all the way. Not so much a straightforward horror film as a black, tragicomic morality tale, this bizarre little flick hits all the right notes and is so self-assured in its absolutely singular bizarreness that you can’t help but sit back in awe as  the bleakly absurd spectacle of it all plays out before your eyes.

If you'd seen this with your own two eyes when you were a kid, wouldn't you be scarred for life, too? Especially if the woman in question was your mother?

When little Harry Stradling was a kid, he was the sort of tyke who just couldn’t wait for Christmas. He’d stay up all night, pacing back and forth in his room, hoping to hear Santa landing on the rooftop and sliding down the chimney. Unfortunately, he learned that old Kris Kringle wasn’t real the hard way — one Christmas Eve he thought he heard something downstairs, went to investigate hoping to catch Old St. Nick in the act, and found his dad, dressed in a Santa suit, going down on his mom. He’s never been the same since.

Fast forward about 30 or 40 years and our guy Harry (played by distinguished Broadway actor Brandon Maggart, who never had much of a career in film, apparently wants nothing to do with this one anymore, and is now best known for being the father of Fiona Apple) is  a rather disturbed and introverted sort, the kind of troubled soul his New York City neighbors should probably keep an eye on — except he’s already keeping an eye on them. Or, more specifically, on their children. He’s making a list and checking it twice, cataloging who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And this Christmas, he’s finally going to do something about it.

Harry's got it all in his book, right down to the neighbor kids' hygiene habits

Harry works at a toy factory, you see, where he’s recently been promoted from the line up to some low-level management position or other. He misses being down on the factory floor “close to the toys,” as he says, and he’s unimpressed with the executive “suits” he now has to kiss up to. Amidst talk of  post-Christmas plant downsizing (quite prescient in 1980) and a nebulous new management directive  forcing the workers to give to charity while ownership does nothing of the sort (again, a disgustingly common enough practice these days but rather novel for its time) at the company holiday party, Harry starts to hatch his master plan in his mind. Harry’s trauma-inducing bout with accidental voyeurism has caused him to grow into something of a Christmas purist, if you will, and he’s out to save all that is right and true with the holiday season and to — umm — excise all that isn’t. In short order he procures a van, a bunch of toys, a Santa costume, and some weapons, and he decides to bring back the less-than-jolly St. Nick legends of old to life — the ones where he’s both jolly and vindictive, handing out toys only to those who deserve them, and vengeance to those who don’t.

Harry's getting an idea ---

Soon it’s Christmas Eve, and having blown off his brother’s family for the second holiday in a row (he took a pass on spending Thanksgiving with him, his wife, and their kids, as well), he instead springs into action in his custom (hand)-painted Christmaswagon. Kids at an orphanage get a whole load of goodies. The friendly folks at a large family holiday get-together get a visit where he displays his friendly side (as do they to him). But a yuppie scumbag emerging from a midnight mass service at a church in ritzy part of town gets skewered through the eyeball after declaring that Santa better give him something good because he has “superlative taste” (can’t say I blame Harry for that one), and the guy who suckered Harry into picking up his shift at the factory earlier that night so he could go out drinking with his buddies on Christmas Eve meets his red-suited, white-bearded maker, as well.

Santa Harry

Soon, Harry’s a hunted man, as townsfolk who think he’s acting a little bit weird around their kids take up torches and pitchforks and chase him through the New York/New Jersey streets like a modern-day version of the mob hunting down Frankenstein’s monster. But little do they know Harry has a surefire method of escape that delivers one of the most jaw-droppingly awesome endings in movie history. For some reason it’s hotly debated conclusion that some people just can’t get their heads around, but I’m here to tell you that not only is it absolutely astonishingly perverse it its obvious, albeit surreal, simplicity, it’s literally the only way this story could, or for that matter should, finish up.

DVD Cover for "Christmas Evil" from Synapse Films

Available for years only as a bare-bones release from Troma, in 2006 the good folks at Synapse Films finally issued a bona fide and thoroughly comprehensive “special edition” release of full director’s cut of this twisted gem. Not only does it feature a sparkling new widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film with remastered 2.0 stereo sound that’s an absolutely joy to watch and listen to, but there are two commentaries, one featuring director Lewis Jackson where he gives an awesomely involving account of just how low-budget exploitation films such as this came to fruition in the late 70s/early 80s and all the various pitfalls along the way as it moved from script to screen, but there’s a second commentary track featuring Jackson joined by the film’s most famous fan, the legendary John Waters himself! Needless to say, it’s a riot from start to finish. Also included are a selection of stinging lobby comment cards from a test screening of the film, deleted scenes, screen test outtakes, and a comic-style “essay” on the film from “Motion Picture Purgatory” author/illustrator Rick Trembles. Great stuff all around.

What can I say? Everything about “Christmas Evil” works, from the red-and-green-heavy color schemee utilized throughout to Maggart’s amazing, and strangely involving, performance in the lead, to the laugh-out-loud grotesquery, to the police lineup of drunken guys in Santa suits, to the often-quite-incisive sociall commentary,  to the already-mentioned supremely awesome ending. It’s an absolute one-of-a-kind piece of moviemaking. And while Lewis Jackson, sadly, has never made another film, truth be told he doesn’t need to. This stands as a singular work of genuinely madcap, unhinged genius that will never be duplicated and, frankly, in the annals of Chritmas moviemaking, never surpassed.

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

“It was becoming clearer all the time. The war is not over. The battlefield may have changed, but the war is not over.”        —Frankie Dunlan, “Combat Shock”

This is the REAL guerrilla filmmaking. Forget today’s “YouTube generation” with their hi-def home video cameras baring their excuses-for-souls in overwrought,  self-important quasi-confessionals that even they won’t care about themselves a week from now. In 1984, armed with nothing but a few thousand bucks and a 16mm camera and lighting equipment borrowed from the film school he was attending (and soon to be teaching at), Buddy Giovinazzo, a guy with nothing more than a couple short films and some music videos done for his own band ( who went by the moniker 2000 A.D. Circus, in case you were wondering) on his resume hit the postapocalyptic-looking streets of Staten Island and committed to celluloid something so fearlessly and unforgivingly bleak that even today’s audiences, reared as they are on high-gloss torture porn and million-dollar grime, will find sitting though the whole thing from start to finish hard to endure. That’s because “Combat Shock” is nothing less than a cinematic brass-knuckled punch to the gut. A movie that spits in your face while you’re down on the ground and dares you to get up again, you disgusting wimp. And just as you start to get your bearings and lift your head, it delivers another body blow and dares you to try that shit with it again, worm.  The world you ignore—the world you want to pretend doesn’t exist—the REALITY that squirms and slithers at the absolute bottom of the trash barrel, underneath the maggot-infested, rotted-meat discards of your SUV-driving, charge card-funded ILLUSION of a life—it’s forcing its way to the top, DEMANDING that you pay attention, no longer allowing you to turn a blind eye to the fact that its horrid dog-eat-dog squalor is the price OTHER people have to pay so that YOU can pretend everything is fine and dandy. “Combat Shock” is a movie that screams at you how much it hates your fucking guts and how richly you’ve earned that hatred—and for that, I love it.

Let’s go back in time for a moment to 1984. Ronald Reagan’s TV commercials are triumphantly declaring that it’s “morning in America,” but the reality on the ground is that all the people enjoying this glorious fiction of a “morning,” complete with its Hollywood sunrise, hoisted flags, and happy children scurrying off to greet the smiling school-bus driver left  one hell of a mess the night before, but guess what?  It’s morning for millions of other folks,  too — the people who weren’t at the party  and won’t be at tonight’s,  either. They’re sifting through the broken beer bottles, soggy cigarette butts, and puked-up food the partiers left in their wake, looking for some way to survive in the hollowed-out shells of once-booming industrial towns the Wall Street fat cats and junk-bond hustlers left behind as “collateral damage”  on their way to Reagan’s bright and shining new dawn.

A lot of those numberless, faceless, voiceless, hopeless “left-behinds” are veterans. Guys who put it all on the line, risking the one and only thing they truly had—their lives— in the jungles of Viet Nam while the daddy warbuckses of the world made billions standing in a pool of their blood and atop a makeshift hill of their severed limbs. Some came back so shellshocked, so physically broken and/or psychologically and spiritually tunneled-out, that from where they were standing, limping, crawling, or lying down, the guys who died, the guys who didn’t have to come back and try to eke out some kind of gutter-level existence on the table leavings of the same assholes who profited from their sacrifice and were now enjoying Ronnie’s new morning, were starting to look pretty lucky.

One such discarded veteran is Frankie Dunlan.  When we join Frankie’s story, he’s already at rock bottom, and while the shiny, happy people will tell him there’s nowhere to go but up, we all know that’s bullshit.  “Morning in America” for Frankie means, like every other morning for the past four months,  he doesn’t have a job to go to. His overbearing wife and horribly deformed (thanks to Frankie’s exposure to agent orange) baby are starving. He can’t make the rent on his calling-it-a-shithole-would-be-a-compliment apartment in the economically bombed-out ruins of Staten Island. There’s no water. The toilet’s backed up (note for the squeamish: while some movies have backed-up toilets, and lots of movies smell they came out of backed-up toilets,  “Combat Shock” points the camera lens inside the backed-up toilet). The train line runs right outside their window. His clothes are stained and torn to shreds. And just to add insult to injury,  his frayed shoelaces snap on him when he’s tying them in preparation to head out to another day in the unemployment line.

That doesn’t prove to be an easy trip, though.  Local “debt collectors” he had to turn to in order to make last month’s rent are looking for him and don’t much care at this point if he pays them back in cash or blood. A junkie pal of his is so strung out he doesn’t even recognize him at first and tries to hold him up for cash he doesn’t have. His mind is is riddled with waking fever-dreams of Viet Nam—both of the war atrocities he committed there and those perpetrated upon him when he was captured.

And of course, when he does finally get there (warning to those with short attention spans: “Combat Shock” is not exactly a fast -paced flick) the line goes around the block, it takes hours to get in, and there’s no work, anyway. And Frankie’s long meander home isn’t much easier—when he tries to prevent a little girl who can’t be more than 10 or 11 years old from beating up her kid sister, he’s attacked by—get your vomit-bags handy—her pimp, who says Frankie needs to fork over 50 bucks if he wants to keep talking to her, proving only that even when he tries to do the right thing, it’s absolutely hopeless. “Combat Shock” is many things, but a “feel-good” movie isn’t one of them.

Suffice to say, there’s only one way Frankie’s story can end, and of course it ain’t pretty. You see it coming five minutes into the movie, but even so,  when it happens it’s still nerve-wracking. Hell, I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least and it still gets  no easier to take it all in with  subsequent viewings. How many movies can you say that about?

And while too many “B”-type films than you can mention are hindered by their low budgets, in “Combat Shock”‘s case—for the most part, with an exception or two I’ll detail in a minute–the fact that it was made for nothing is actually a key reason for its success. Frankie is played by Ricky Giovinazzo, writer-director Buddy’s brother. Ricky’s a musician by trade (he also provides the frenetic and bizarre, so-incongruous-it-actually works score to the film) and not at all what you’d call an Oscar-caliber actor. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like he’s actually acting at all. Combined with the film’s completely non-stylized, absolutely direct camerawork (Giovinazzo and company never had any filming permits and shot the whole thing “on the fly,” quite often having to settle for getting things in one take and moving quickly to the next scene) this gives the proceedings an absolutely naturalistic, almost documentary-type feel and eliminates much of the “comfortable distance” between viewer and subject found is most cinematic fiction.  “Combat Shock” is a story that lives beneath gutter-level, and its raw, amateur, unpolished technical quality is exactly right for it.  the word we’re looking for here is AUTHENTIC–completely, agonizingly, harrowingly AUTHENTIC.

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

So what doesn’t work? Well, as you can see above,  Frankie’s baby, a puppet-type construct whipped up by effects man Ralph Cordero for $140, is a little too “Eraserhead”-influenced to really work in the context of the story (and to be honest, the influence of David Lynch’s indie surrealist masterpiece—which, in Giovinazzo’s defense, was a very popular thing to ape in the outside-of-Hollywood film world at the time and would eventually even find its way inside the movie capitol’s less-than-hallowed-halls—  is glaringly obvious in a few other notable instances as well, such as the occasional close-up of the vapor-spewing humidifier in Frankie’s hovel and some truly Lynchian dialogue on the part of his case worker at the unemployment office, interrupted as it is with Buddy G himself popping his head inside the guy’s door and asking to borrow a veg-o-matic, a complete non-sequiter that would feel right at home in (the admittedly later, but  it’s still Lynch so I’m straining the comparison in that direction on moral grounds alone, chronology be damned)”Twin Peaks”). The “Viet Nam” flashback scenes are, it’s  painfully obvious,  shot on Staten Island, with, it’s painfully obvious, non-Vietnamese actors (one of whom, a woman gunned down by Frankie, was actually Giovinazzo’s wife at the time). The woman playing the nurse at Frankie’s VA hospital-bedside (in another series of flashbacks) is Vernoica Stork, the same actress who plays his starving-and-therefore-understandably-nagging wife, in a black, curly wig. I know, I know—it’s a zero-budget flick and Giovinazzo was doing the absolute best he could given the circumstances, but these no-way-to-be-avoided shortcomings really do detract from the overall aura of (here’s that word again) authenticity that the film otherwise conveys so brilliantly (even if only by dint of complete practical necessity).

Now, “Combat Shock” had a very brief theatrical run on New York City’s grindhouse circuit in 1984 under its original title, “American Nightmares.” Buddy G had always envisioned that what he was making here was an arthouse flick, but its raw and brutal violence and uncompromisingly grim overall worldview and aesthetic scared the self-appointed film “sophisticates” away in droves at test screenings, and to the notorious streets of “The Deuce” it went.  Somehow, I suppose,  it’s only right that a gutter story filmed in a gutter style should play in the cinematic gutter — poetic justice indeed. I’m sure many of the people who saw this film knew the world it showed— hell, the world it lived in—as intimately as one can. Some folks know street-level genius when they see it, though, and fortunately for Giovinazzo the folks at Troma picked up his little opus for re-release in theaters and (later) on VHS in 1986.  They got together with Buddy at that point and fitted it out with its new “Combat Shock” title,  redid the opening and closing credits sequences, tinkered a bit with some of the sound and gore effects (another area, it must be said, where the lack of budget well and truly heightened the—word for the day, kids—authenticity of the film, as the blood n’ guts effects really work marvelously), trimmed eight minutes of  some of the more relentless brutality off the  runtime (mostly from the ending, although even in edited form it’s still a pretty tough slog) in order to get an “R” rating from the MPAA, and outfitted it with a completely-incongruous (though still pretty cool in its own way, it must be said) “Rambo”-style poster and ad campaign.  And the end result? 25 years later, we’re still talking about it, and it’s still reducing new audiences to the same levels of shellshocked trauma that Frankie himself would understand so well.

All of which brings me (go ahead, I know you’re dying to scream out “Finally!”) to the new 25th anniversary edition 2-disc set from Troma, the fourth entry in their “Tromasterpiece” collection. What do we get here that we didn’t have in the original release? Well, for one, there’s new and vastly more appropriate-to-its-subject packaging (although I miss the original artwork, myself). There’s a great  liner notes essay inside by “Shock Cinema” editor Steven Puchalski. We get both versions of the film—the 100-minute “American Nightmares” cut (available on DVD for the first time and  struck from the very first 16 mm answer print, complete with original opening and closing credits sequences and sound and visual effects), and the 92-minute “Combat Shock” cut (which also features the absolutely terrific commentary track with Buddy G and “Nekromantik” director Jorg Buttgereit, recorded in Berlin, where Buddy now occasionally works directing television, that first appeared on the earlier single-disc edition). There’s a new trailer made especially for the “Tromasterpiece” DVD. We get a wide and intriguing selection of Giovinazzo’s short films, both pre-and post-“Combat Shock” (including “Mr. Robbie,” aka “Maniac 2,” starring the original “Maniac” himself, Joe Spinell, which also features on the “Tromasterpiece” DVD release of “The Last Horror Film”) in addition to a sampling of his 2000 A.D. Circus music video work.  There are no less than four very good interviews with the brothers Giovinazzo, three with Buddy (one of which has, again, Buttgereit along for the proceedings) and one with Rick, which marks his first ever on-camera discussion about his role in the film ( and I must say he couldn’t be any more different, personally,  to the character he portrays in the film). The original theatrical trailer is on hand for good measure. There’s a fascinating short look at the Staten Island locations as they appear today. And finally, best of all, there’s a new 30-minute documentary, “An American Nightmare,” a detailed look not only at the making of the film, but its distribution history,  its rediscovery in the “cult” cinema underground, and its impact on both contemporary and subsequent independent moviemaking, including reflections from such notables as “Deadbeat at Dawn” and “The Manson Family” director Jim VanBeber” (“Combat Shock” was an obvious influence on “Deadbeat”, although admittedly it’s a whole lot grimmer and grimier) “Henry:Portrait Of  Serial Killer” director John McNaughton (“Henry”  probably was, and remains the closest thing around to “Combat Shock” in terms of style and tone), “Maniac” director Bill Lustig, “Evil Dead 2” screenwriter and “Intruder” director Scott Spiegel, “Hardware” and “Dust Devil” director Richard Stanley, and “Document of the Dead” director and “Street Trash” writer-producer Roy Frumkes. Definitely one of the most informative and insightful–not to mention interesting—“behind-the-scenes”-type DVD extras in some time.

So yeah—this is the total package. If you already own the original Troma release, you can throw it in the trash or try to get three bucks for it on eBay. This is the version you need to own. And that goes double if you don’t have it already. I had mentioned in a post last week that I thought this would figure to be the must-own DVD release of the year, and my prognostication was, even if I do only say so myself, exactly correct.

Is “Combat Shock” for everyone? Is the Pope a Presbyterian? If, however, you want a cinematic experience you seriously will never forget (even if you’d like to)— if Hollywood “coming-home-from- ‘Nam fare like “Born on the Fourth of July” or even Cimino’s excellent “The Deer Hunter” left you feeling like the ugliest side of the story of these vets had been glossed over—if you genuinely enjoy being challenged to keep going through something you feel like  you might not want to see thorugh but know, deep down inside, that you must—and yes, if you can forgive a few necessary foibles of amateurism in service to the greater good that very same amateurism provides—then “Combat Shock” is a film that if you haven’t seen you absolutely need to see, and see very soon. But be warned—it leaves a stain inside that can’t be washed away, and there’s no Spray-n’-Wash for the human soul.

"Combat Chock" VHS Cover
“Combat Shock” VHS Cover
DVD Cover for original Troma release of "Combat Shock"

DVD Cover for original Troma release of "Combat Shock"

For fans of cult director/author/film school professor Buddy Giovinazzo—and who in their right mind isn’t?—August promises to be one hell of a month. First off we’ve got Troma’s new double-disc edition of Giovinazzo’s first full-length feature, “Combat Shock.” Not to be confused with the earlier, 91-minute “Director’s Cut” DVD that’s just slightly longer than the VHS release, this is the full 96-minute cut that played just a few times under the film’s original “American Nightmare”  title before being picked up by Troma for distribution and undergoing a name change. The new two-disc set, which will be part of the so-far-damn-impressive “Tromasterpiece” collection will also feature all of Giovinazzo’s pre-and post-“Combat Shock” short films,  a new interview with Giovinazzo, and they’re “porting over” the absolutely awesome commentary with Giovinazzo and fellow underground cinematic auteur  Jorg Buttgereit from the original DVD release.

 If you were only going to buy one DVD  all freaking year, I have a feeling this would be it.  The story of Frankie (played by Giovinazzo’s brother Ricky, who also did the music score for the film, one of most seriously deranged soundtracks ever), a so-far-down-on-his-luck-he-can’t-even-remember-what-luck-is-anymore Viet Nam vet has been described by Giovinazzo himself as “Taxi Driver” meets “Eraserhead,” and I’d have to say you could throw a bit of  “The Deer Hunter” into the mix as well, but in truth it’s better than any of those flicks—heck, it’s better than all of them combined—and still has the power to shock the living hell out of an unsuspecting viewer over 20 years after its original release.  Hollywood pablum like “Born on the Fourth of July” has nothing on this movie in the grim-tale-of-a-returned-nam-vet sweepstakes. Giovinazzo blows megabuck epics of  Stone, Scorsese, and Cimino out of the water with the harrowing, less-than-zero-budget grittiness of this film. See it if you haven’t, see it again if you have. It’s availabe now (yup, came out on Tuesday) and mine’s on the way from Amazon as we speak. A full review will follow once I’ve has the chance to watch it a couple of times.

Troma's new "Combat Shock" double-disc release

Troma's new "Combat Shock" double-disc release

But the good news doesn’t stop there, because August 25th sees the DVD release of Giovinazzo’s latest feature, “Life Is Hot In Cracktown,” based on his book of the same name. This one got a very limited theatrical run—it certainly never made it here to Minneapolis—but it’s supposed to be pretty damn gritty and uncompromising, as well. It’s got a veritable all-star cast (just check the poster below) and a decent-sized budget, but the reviews of it I’ve read all seem to indicate that it’s still pure Giovinazzo. I can’t wait to see it.

"Life is Hot in Cracktown" movie poster

"Life is Hot in Cracktown" movie poster

So there you have it, the month of August is bookended with Buddy G.  Reason for conoisseurs to be excited indeed. In the meantime, if anybody might know where a guy could track down one of those “Combat Shock” t-shirts with Frankie holding the gun to his head saying “Fuck It!,” let me know—best movie t-shirt ever, bar none.