War On The Streets!!!

This latest batch of BRAIN HAMMER’S PICKS FROM THE CRYPT features three of my all time favorite flicks that prominently feature the ghastly horrors of poverty and urban squalor. It’s WAR ON THE STREETS!!!

 

LET THE BRUTALITY AND BLOODSHED BEGIN!!!

 

TENEMENT (1985)

The tender tale of a rat infested slum in the South Bronx taken hostage by a crazed gang of junkie street punks. The tenement’s greasy and loathsome superintendent Hector finally gets fed up with the gang using the basement as their personal shooting gallery (in more ways than one) and calls the cops on them. The police show up and remove the gang from the tenement, and Hector and the rest of the tenants throw themselves a little party to celebrate.

The good times doesn’t last long, as the gang is released only a few hours after being arrested. The leader of the gang, Chaco, swears bloody revenge on the apartment dwellers and vows to take “his building” back. His plan of attack is simple: cut the phone lines, take over the building one floor at a time, and rape, torture, and terrorize every tenant before killing them. The hapless tenants have no choice but to band together and fight for their lives. The building becomes a battlefield of madness and the game of survival begins.

TENEMENT has the unique claim to fame of being the first film in the 80’s to repeatedly receive an X rating for excessive violence. The classic tag line “Too violent to be rated!” was more than just hype, it was a fact. The film had to be released unrated, and I honestly can’t imagine watching it any other way. This has to be considered one of the most spectacularly violent exploitation flicks of all time. The gang arm themselves with machetes, knives, and guns, and the death scenes are always excessive and gory. The most notorious moment of the film has to be the scene where a woman is raped to death with a broomstick. This scene is especially disturbing because of how much the gang beats the woman before, during, and after the rape, and because the victim’s young daughter witnesses the aftermath.

But there’s more! A seeing eye dog is gutted, a fat chick has her throat slit, a old Jewish lady runs around hitting punks with a baseball bat, a horny John gets impaled with a crowbar, a Puerto Rican woman in purple pants falls out of a window, a skank has a refrigerator dropped on her head, and the guy who plays “Cigar Face” in “The Toxic Avenger” overdoses on rat poison! WOW! It all leads to a spectacular thundershower showdown on the roof of the building between a pregnant woman and the leader of the gang, and you’d better believe someone gets struck by lightning!

This flick is a real crowd pleaser…if you can stomach the violence and endure the long stretches of the film where nothing happens. I’m a big fan of this flick, but I have to admit it’s far from perfect. The biggest problem with the film is the fact that the pacing sucks. The scenes where the building is being taken over should be riveting, but they often wind up feeling tedious. You’ll have a great death scene or two, and then a long stretch of the gang trashing an empty apartment or the tenants bickering with each other.

The tenants are the other problem with the film. It’s almost impossible to feel sorry for them or cheer them on. It doesn’t help that the tenants are an odd assortment of feeble old ladies, drunks, prostitutes and their strung out boyfriends, and a gaggle of welfare moms and their bastard offspring. They spend the majority of the film arguing with each other and begging “Mr. Washington” to help them. Mr. Washington is our angry, loner hero who plays the saxophone. He’s a big black bad ass in the classic Fred Williamson tradition. Mr. Washington saves the day, despite the fact he really doesn’t want to, and I really can’t blame him. I found myself rooting for Chaco, but only because he slightly resembles Steve Perry from Journey.

The fine fiends at Shriek Show were good enough to release TENEMENT on dvd. The special features include a very entertaining interview and director’s commentary with Roberta Findlay. Roberta is a blast to listen to as she claims the script reminded her of her childhood, and she tells an incredible story about discovering a dead bear and assorted human remains while shooting the film in the Bronx! Good gritty, gory fun!

 

COMBAT SHOCK (1986)

A nightmarish, nihilistic look at a combat-shocked Vietnam vet’s last miserable day on Earth. Frankie lives in a shithole apartment in NYC with his horribly rancid and nagging wife and his hideously deformed and shrieking baby. Little Frankie junior is a rather revolting side effect of Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange while fighting, maiming, and killing in the fields of Vietnam. Frankie had a run of bad luck in Nam that included being falsely accused of slaughtering the denizens of a sleeping village and being captured and tortured by the V.C.

Agent Orange and torture cages were the easy part. Frankie’s real struggle for survival begins when he escapes and the nightmare follows him back home. Frankie is haunted by grisly flashbacks of the many atrocities he witnessed in Vietnam. He’s also unable to find work, and his family slowly begins starving to death. To add insult to injury, Frankie spends most of what ultimately becomes his final day wasting away in an unemployment line. As he slowly makes his way to and from the unemployment office, he rubs elbows with a haggard assortment of humanity that includes jive talkin’ pimps, starving child prostitutes, motorcycle riding skanks, strung out former friends willing to do anything to feed their habits, and the neighborhood drug dealer and his murderous thugs.

The battlefield may have changed, but the war was still on. When finally pushed beyond his breaking point, Frankie decides that only death can bring salvation from the horror of reality. Frankie’s enemies and loved ones alike find that salvation at the end of a gun. Street trash are shot to pieces, a pregnant woman takes lead in her stomach, and a screeching infant is blasted and then put in an oven. After a busy and productive day spent saving lives, the soldier of misfortune settles down at his kitchen table with a tall glass of rotten milk and contemplates his future.

There are few films that are as totally hopeless as COMBAT SHOCK. This movie is absolutely vicious in its desire to shock and horrify. It’s incredibly effective because it’s totally based in grim, uncompromising reality. The events and characters of this film are all sketches of the real life victims of poverty, drug addiction, violence, and warfare. Writer, producer, and director Buddy Giovinazzo has my highest respect for making such a brutal and shocking film. It almost defies criticism in my eyes because it feels so fucking real. I consider this one to be one of the very best combat films ever made because it delves much deeper into the horrible aftermath than any other film I’ve seen. There were untold numbers of Vietnam vets that came home from the war and faced the same sort of problems adjusting back into society. It’s a problem that persists to this day. The headlines of today frequently feature stories of battle scared soldiers that return home from the Gulf or Afghanistan and wind up going on a killing spree, often slaying their own families. “Combat Shock” was, and will always be a film that speaks the truth about the brutality of warfare and poverty.

There are other genre flicks that can easily top “Combat Shock” in terms of splatter, but few can come close to matching the sheer overwhelming gut-punch that this one delivers. “Combat Shock” could accurately be called the bastard stepchild of “Eraserhead” & “Taxi Driver.” The film plays out very slowly, much like a nightmare, and the films’ alternate title “American Nightmares” is more than appropriate. Any complaints about the slack, dream-like pacing of the beginning of the film should be erased the minute a junkie attempts to shoot up with a coat hanger. The Vietnam footage is also especially gruesome and features plenty of blasted-off limbs, severed heads, and gutted corpses. The sheer amount of bone crunching action that is packed into such a low budget, homemade horror flick is amazing. The majority of the ultra-violent Vietnam footage was shot in Buddy’s backyard, which must have led to some very interesting conversations with the neighbors

Giovinazzo makes good use of rapid fire editing and cheap but interesting looking visual effects that put viewers inside the damaged mind of our hero. “Combat Shock” is highly effective as a character study, and it obviously works big time as an exploitation flick. Rick Giovinazzo (Buddy’s brother) also deserves special praise for his captivating, low-key starring performance. He carries the entire film from start to finish, and his final scenes are chilling. The ending of this flick never fails to turn my stomach, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. This isn’t exactly what you would call a “feel good” sort of film, but I consider it a must see flick for sick fucks with a taste for truly shocking sleaze.

COMBAT SHOCK has a well deserved reputation for being one of the most notorious independent films of the clas-sick VHS era. The good folks at Troma have been spreading the misery of “Combat Shock” on home video for years. Their latest urban assault was an incredible 2-disc uncut 25th anniversary edition that includes an arsenal of bonus features. The goodies include two versions of the film, a director’s commentary, an all-new documentary exploring the impact and legacy of the film, never before released short films and early music videos, and a slew of exclusive interviews. A dvd collection without a copy of this one is shit to me.

 

DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988)

Goose (Jim VanBebber) is the crank snortin’ and kung fu fightin’ leader of the notorious street gang the Ravens. Goose and the Ravens got beef with a rival gang called the Spiders and their punk ass leader Danny in particular. Goose warns the scumfucks to stay off his turf, but they refuse to listen. The gangs have a showdown in a graveyard and Goose and Danny both end up badly wounded in a knife fight and swearing bloody revenge. Goose takes shelter in the arms of his occultist girlfriend Christy, who stitches up his wounds and offers him a prophetic warning that death will be coming if he stays in the gang. Goose tries to ignore her warning, and Christy threatens to leave him if he doesn’t leave the gang.

Goose ultimately decides to quit the Ravens and start a new life with Christy somewhere outside of the city. He plans one last drug deal before leaving that will finance their happy future. Danny and the Spiders have other plans. Danny sends along his demented henchmen Stubbs and Bonecrusher to pay Christy a special visit. When Goose returns home from his dope deal he discovers Christy’s horribly mutilated corpse waiting for him. Overcome with grief, Goose tosses Christy’s disfigured dead body into an incinerator. He then spends some downtime making an ass out of himself in a local dive, and pays an extended visit to his incredibly loud and annoying junkie father.

Goose eventually winds up back on the streets and at the mercy of his old pals in the Ravens. His old gang has a new leader named Keith, and Keith is planning on teaming up with Danny and the Spiders for a big time armored car robbery. The gangs both force Goose to participate, and he vows to rip out Danny’s throat in return. The robbery predictably turns into a double cross and then degenerates into a total bloodbath. Goose barely survives a shootout and winds up on the run from the law while seeking his final revenge on Danny. He quit the gangs. They killed his girl. He became DEADBEAT AT DAWN.

DEADBEAT AT DAWN has the sad distinction of being an almost perfect low budget drive-in film that came out at the exact moment when the drive-in era was dying. In 1988, the days of grimy, independent action and horror flicks and the type of grimy, independent theaters and drive-ins that showcased them were quickly becoming a thing of the past. It didn’t help that Hollywood had a hard on for the sort of good looking, morally upright crusaders that would bust gangs of drug dealers instead of doing crank and planning robberies with them. Jim VanBebber is the type of filmmaker who follows his own path, regardless if that path is an easy one to follow, or if it eventually leads to mass appeal and fame and fortune. Much like “The Evil Dead,” and the other clas-sick independent films that inspired it, “Deadbeat At Dawn” took a long time to be finished. It’s to Jim’s credit that he had the guts to keep the dream alive for three years while the perfect market for his film was disappearing.

DEADBEAT AT DAWN is an unbelievably tough little film. It looks like it came from the decade before it was actually released and it feels like it would be been absolutely brutal to make. Jim not only wrote, directed, and edited the film, he also served as fight choreographer, special effects coordinator, and stunt man! The stunts in this film are nothing less than insane. There are at least two or three moments along the way that clearly defy death. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite moment, but the scene where Jim throws himself (no budget for stunt doubles) off a bridge certainly deserves a mention. The numerous fight scenes are also top notch. Jim VanBebber displays some really impressive fighting skills, and the epic final showdown between Goose and Danny is a highly choreographed display of power violence.

The storyline is the definition of highly effective action flick simplicity. It’s a classic 70’s kung fu tale of revenge and redemption. He quits the gangs, they kill his girl, the film gets padded a bit with a visit to Dad, and then Goose gets his bloody revenge and is ultimately redeemed by his final selfless act. My only minor complaint about the film would be the rather pointless scenes that feature Goose and his deranged and drug addicted father, but it’s obvious why they are there. The film clearly needed a boost in running time and it’s the only part of the film that stands out and drags. The rest of the film is a blast of action packed, good gory fun. This is one of my all time favorite action flicks and I have been singing it’s praises for years. It amazes me that this flick isn’t more well known. Everyone needs to get hip to this one immediately. Independent filmmakers of today should really do themselves a favor and repeatedly watch this one while taking notes.

Dark Sky Films released an incredible box set in 2005 titled Visions Of Hell: The Films Of Jim VanBebber. This 4-disc collection includes Jim’s two feature length films “Deadbeat At Dawn” and “The Manson Family,” along with the short films “My Sweet Satan,” “Roadkill: The Last Days Of John Martin,” “Doper,” “Kata,” and “Into The Black.” I can’t recommend this collection highly enough. I think all of Jim’s films should be considered must-sees for fans of take no prisoners independent films. Take a quick look at your dvd collection. I’m willing to bet you own at least a couple mainstream flicks that are total shit and you should be ashamed of yourself for not having “Visions Of Hell” instead.

 

KEEP THE BLOOD FLOWING!!!

 

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