“Combat Shock” (1984)
Studio: Troma Entertainment
Starring: Rick Giovinazzo, Veronica Stork, Michael Tierno, Leo Lunney, Mitch Maglio
Directed by: Buddy Giovinazzo
Running Time: 96 min.
Synopsis: A Vietnam vet deals with the horrors of society after the war.
Bizarre, is one word you can describe this movie. After you see it you need to take a shower because the whole film is set in this weird and fifthly atmosphere. It also has great realism because of the gritty setting of the ghettos of New York City and the social commentary it provides about post-Vietnam America and the growing poverty in the country. These views are also very relevant in today’s society, which gives the film a big impact when watching it today.
Originally titled, American Nightmares when it was going around underground film festivals in 1984 and eventually getting distribution from Troma in 1986 and changed the name to Combat Shock. The movie directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, is about a Vietnam vet who is just trying to survive each day and put food on his family’s plate. While looking for a job he dodges the bookies he owes money to and the scumbags he meets up with in the back alleys. Plus there’s the occasional flashback from the war that the poor guy has which makes this movie a very strange trip.
The film starts off in Vietnam, with the lead character, Frankie, running through the jungle, which was actually some woods outside the city, but they did a good job making it look like swampy Vietnam. He is separated from his unit and is being followed by the Viet Cong. While being chased, he shots a young Vietnam woman and then is caught by the Viet Cong. As they beat him senseless and about to kill him, Frankie wakes up and it is now the present and he has gone from one hell to another. He lives in a roach infested apartment with his wife and baby son. The place that they used is a prefect fit for the film. It’s a real run down apartment in the slums of New York. The walls, floors, doors, kitchen, everything has a dirty feel to it that you can almost smell the stench and feel the dirt coming of the screen. Even down to Frankie’s looks, his long greasy hair, his dirty face, and his clothes, which are full of holes and looked like they haven’t been washed in weeks. I also can’t forget to mention the clogged up toilet filled with urine and toilet paper and the sour milk that’s the only thing in the fridge.
Then there’s the mutant baby son. The kid looks like the thing from Basket Case. The baby is deformed due to the agent orange Frankie was exposed to in the war, that’s what the doctors claim. The three haven’t eaten for days and the baby is sick. His wife nags him about getting a job, but everyone’s out of work. Frankie sets out to find food, money, and a job to provide for his family. One thing I want to point out is the DVD has both cuts of the film. There’s some key dialogue that they leave out that’s in the director’s cut. In the beginning of the film, there’s more back story explained about Frankie’s home life that you get a better understanding for the character and you care about him more. One line that is cut from the theatrical version but is in the other cut, is that his wife mentions Frankie’s father. His dad is loaded but the two had a falling out before the war, his wife wants Frankie to call him and ask for money, but Frankie refuses. Hearing this line when watching the director’s cut gives him a confliction in the film, because you’re wondering if he’s going to give in and call him.
The middle part of the film is very slow moving, with Frankie just roaming the streets. These parts make the film boring but you still wonder what is going to happen and when you watch the end of the film it’s worth the wait. Frankie tries to play by the rules and doesn’t take any short cuts. His junkie friend Mike is desperate and hasn’t eaten for days ether and resorts to a life a crime by holding up women by gun point for some chump change. Frankie doesn’t want to sink that low and goes to the unemployment line.
The film depicts a world at an end, showing poverty, unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and posttraumatic stress. A very bleak and realistic point of view at the world and as it represented the time that it was made in the 80’s, it rings true today in the events that are happening in our current decade. There’s great narration from Frankie as he wanders around and one thing that he says sums it all up, “The war is not over. The battle field may have changed, but the war is not over.”
Some strong moments of the film I want to point out are both memorable and disturbing. The flashbacks Frankie has of the war and the scenes when he’s a P.O.W. and getting interrogated are very intense. There’s also a cool sequence when images of Frankie in Vietnam are being projected on his face when the flashback scenes are about to start. Frankie’s friend Mike uses wire from a hanger to puncture his arm because he doesn’t have a needle to inject heroin or some other drug into his veins. There’s an emotional scene where Frankie finally calls his father to ask for help where his father thought he was dead all these years. They patch things up, but to Frankie’s surprise, he finds out that his father is broke. Also wanted to mention when Frankie is in the unemployment office, the guy that works there has a Dawn of the Dead poster up on the wall.
The score is another stand out and it fits the film perfectly. The soundtrack was performed by Rick Giovinazzo, brother of the director and he also plays Frankie in his first and only acting role. Buddy and Rick were also in a punk/rock band in the early 80’s called Circus 2000 A.D. Some of their music videos are on the special edition DVD. Rick still does music and is a composer to many Hollywood movies.
SPOILER ALERT: I hate giving the ending away on any movie, but this one I have to write about. If you don’t want to be spoiled stop reading now and skip this paragraph and go to the next. After trying to play by the rules and it not getting anywhere, Frankie decides that he can’t go home empty handed and steals a purse from a woman. The bookies that he owes money to just happen to be walking by when the crime is committed and chase after him. When they catch him, Frankie finds a gun in the purse and kills the bookies. He goes back home with no money, food, or job and decides to put his family out of their misery. He ends up shooting and killing his wife then shoots his mutant son. The part when he kills his son is shocking and sad. Even though the thing is just a puppet, it’s very horrible and sad to see this happen. He doesn’t die yet though, he starts to cough up blood and Frankie takes his son and holds him. He brings him into the kitchen as blood drips on the floor from his body. In a bizarre twist, Frankie puts the baby’s body in the oven and turns it up all the way. Blood begins to ooze out from the side as the body bakes. Then probably one of the most grossest and memorable parts of the film for most and when you think about it and what has been shown throughout the film doesn’t seem that gross, but it kind of is when you think about it and see it happen. He takes the sour milk and pours it in a glass as chunks drop in, grossss! He then drinks all of it, grosser! After that he takes the gun and puts it to his head and blows his brains out. This whole scene is worth sitting through the boring parts and it makes the film have it’s edge. After watching the scene you’ll never get it out of your head, a fitting end to a very strange film.
If you like bizarre, gritty, depressing, and off the wall films, this might be the movie for you. Make sure to check out the director’s cut to get the full affect of the film. Combat Shock is definitely worth the look. A well-done job from first time director Buddy Giovinazzo that pulled off the film with an ultra low budget and that later became a cult classic