Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Combat Shock (1986): or, The Past is Never Gone

Frankie Dunlan (Rick Giovinazzo) is having one of the worst days in the history of bad days. Out of work for over four months and having just received a notice of eviction from his dilapidated rat trap of an apartment, the psychologically disabled Vietnam vet also has to contend with his nagging, ex-prostitute wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) and their 1-year-old baby boy, a squawling mutant whose Edward Munsch looks are the result of Frankie's exposure to Agent Orange. As if that's not enough, on his progress through the squalid streets of mid-80s Staten Island Frankie runs into friend and junkie Mike (Michael Tierno), so desperate for a fix he's willing to use a stolen police-issue pistol to commit armed robbery, and local crime-lord Paco (Mitch Maglio), to whom Frankie owes money and who threatens to turn Frankie's wife out again and sell his kid to pervs on the black market in order to work off the debt. Suffering depression, feelings of helplessness, and a wicked case of PTSD, Frankie feels his grip on reality loosen with every step he takes.

Oh well, it could be worse. At least it's not raining.

Working on a shoestring budget with equipment and actors he'd borrowed from the film school where he taught, director Buddy Giovinazzo caught lightning in a bottle with Combat Shock (1986, originally titled American Nightmares), crafting an bleak, artful study of nihilism and the devastating personal cost of war. Add some surprisingly effective in-camera effects, a smattering of well-shot gore, a dash of surrealist nightmare and an incredible performance from the director's brother in the lead role, and you've got a movie that is both a fascinating document of its time and strangely timeless.

It does a body good.

It's not very useful to talk about the "plot" of Combat Shock--basically all that happens is, Frankie has a nightmare, wakes up, heads out the door and walks the streets all day, meeting many of the city's similarly hopeless denizens and coming face-to-face with his demons before returning home for an expected but nonetheless devastating conclusion.

Over the course of several flashbacks to Frankie's time as a soldier in Vietnam, we learn that he deserted after his platoon was involved in the massacre and mutilation of an entire civilian village. Separated from his men and captured by the Viet Cong, Frankie was a POW for two years, beaten and tortured daily, even suffering maggots in his open wounds. Mentally destroyed by his experiences, he is discharged from the service. Back home, Frankie has a falling out with his father because of his love for Cathy, and as a result no longer speaks to the old man.

However, the strain of poverty and hopelessness has wreaked havoc with Frankie's happy marriage. Starving and scared, Cathy takes out her considerable rage on Frankie, presenting everything from their child's deformity to the broken toilet as further proof of her husband's worthlessness. She wants Frankie to call his father for help, but Frankie is too proud to swallow his years of bad feeling. After a shouting match underscored by the mutant baby's weird, otherworldly wails, Frankie storms out of the house and into the streets.


What follows is a kind of Progress Through Hell, as every encounter Frankie has leaves him feeling more helpless and seeing fewer options. Paco and his goon squad beat Frankie up and threaten his family; Mike the Junkie accuses him of betrayal for not giving him money for drugs, then heads off on his own desperate and badly-ending odyssey; an odd encounter with a case worker at the unemployment office (a young Sam Raimi lookalike with Frank Zappa and Dawn of the Dead posters in his office) provides no comfort; and a meeting with the young children of a streetwalker shows how little hope there is for the future. As repressed memories from Viet Nam come bubbling to the surface, Frankie snaps and carves a bloody path of vengeance that leads him back to his apartment, where he must "save his family" in what is still a shocking and gruesome scene.

Making a virtue of necessity, director Buddy Giovinazzo shows himself very inventive with the limited resources at his disposal. The movie is very episodic in its structure, with Frankie's encounters interspersed between long sequences showing him walking across the blighted urban landscape that he calls home. Giovinazzo cops to stretching the walking scenes out to pad the run-time, since "the script was light," but the scenes of desolation have a cumulative effect over the course of the movie's hour-and-a-half runtime. They establish so completely Frankie's world and point of view, by the end you can understand Frankie's assessment that there's no way out that doesn't involve blood and lots of it--and maybe not even then.

Giovinazzo also manages to make the Viet Nam scenes (filmed in a sewage drainage ditch near a Staten Island mall and in the director's mother's back yard), if not exactly believable, at least passable. The subjectiveness of the protagonist's point of view helps out here too, since the flashback and hospital scenes have a faked staginess that can pass for the unreality of a nightmare if you let yourself get pulled in. Quick edits and creative in-camera effects (such as projecting scenes of the VC massacre onto Frankie's face in a darkened room to illustrate his descent into final madness) also heighten the intensity and effectiveness of the flick. A sometimes funky, sometimes droning synth soundtrack by the director is also notable.

Gone Gonzo

As for the gore--we get lots of nice juicy squibs, a VC massacre including a bisected body, and a cringe-inducing scene where Junky Mike, lacking a needle to deliver his drugs, instead uses a rusty coat hanger to pop a vein and pour the drugs in directly. And the conclusion includes a scene John Waters famously called "the most disgusting thing I've ever seen on film"--so there's that to look forward to.

In the commentary on the DVD, Giovinazzo admits he was greatly influenced by both Scorcese's Taxi Driver and David Lynch's Eraserhead, and both those influences can be seen here--the former in Frankie's climactic bloody rampage, and the latter in the Dunlan's mutant baby. A $140 hand puppet based loosely on the friendly alien from Spielberg's E. T., the baby's odd looks and otherworldly squeals turn Frankie's domestic life into a waking nightmare. Giovinazzo says he might not show the baby were he to make the movie today, but added to the heightened reality of other scenes, I thought it worked.

Picked up for distribution in 1986 by Troma Pictures, Combat Shock flopped on its initial release, partly due to MPAA-required cuts and the mis-marketing of the flick as a Rambo-style actioner by Troma. It gained a second life on the underground VHS tape-trading circuit, though, and its international notoriety enabled its director to move to Berlin and make movies there, sadly unseen by most of us stateside.

NOT the movie you're about to see

Making up for its initial fumbling of the material, Troma has made Combat Shock the flagship of its new TROMASTERPIECE DVD Collection, and have done a stellar job of it. The 2-disc set includes both the theatrical release version and the director's cut American Nightmares version, which of course includes more gore and weirdness. The theatrical version includes commentary by Giovinazzo and Jörg Buttgereit, director of the infamous Nekromantik. Though Buttgereit had nothing to do with Combat Shock, he and Giovinazzo are best friends, and the warmth between them comes through in the commentary. The track itself is full of interesting anecdotes, technical tidbits, and comments on the actors--all worthwhile, entertaining stuff.

Also included is a 30 minute documentary featuring independent filmmakers and fans discussing the effect of Combat Shock on the underground, which is very informative and a lot of fun. (Apart from the cool history lesson, it's neat to play "Who's Baked?" with the interviewees. Hint: Jim VanBebber.) A few interviews repeat a lot of the information included in the commentary, but it's neat to hear star Rick Giovinazzo, who never appeared in another film, talk about his powerhouse performance. We also get several of Buddy Giovinazzo's short films (some of which are interesting), a short feature on the locations used in the film as they appear today, and a few other tidbits. Troma haters will be pleased to know that while president Lloyd Kaufmann does appear in a few of the interviews, he respectfully eschews his customary "introductory skit" for this particular film.

Combat Shock is a weird, fascinating document that's been giving an applause-worthy release by Troma Team. If you love a good nihilistic post-war movie and crave something a little different, you won't go wrong with this one. 2.75 thumbs.

That kid ain't right.


Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, this film has been built up to nearly legendary status over the years, and it's beginning to feel imperative to me to see the DVD. Your recommendation puts it just about over the top for me.

wiec? said...

i had a room mate in college who used to say "Taxi Driver is for wimps" and used to watch this movie all the time. living in the same one room apartment meant i had to watch it all the time too. that was one looong year.

great review! might have to rent it for old times sake but mostly just to see that ending one more time. ugh. the bonus stuff sounds pretty good too.

Jeff Allard said...

I remember reading about Combat Shock in Chas. Balun's Deep Red magazine where he championed the movie. It sounded amazing but I never did catch up with it. Like a lot of indie horror in the late '80s, it was a bitch to find in my area - either in theaters or on home video. Eventually it just kind of went off my radar - but your write-up reminds me of the time when Combat Shock was at the top of my "To See" list.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel Wilson--I know I'm in danger of overusing your incredibly useful "folk art filmmaking" designation, but it really is like the folk art version of Taxi Driver, with Eraserhead thrown in for spice. And this is a very good thing.

@wiec?--the bonus material is really well done, and Giovanazzo's short films and music videos are worth watching too. One called "Subconscious Realities" has one of the greatest theme songs ever. ;)

@Jeff Allard--the documentary on the disc talks about Chas. Balun's contribution to the legend of COMBAT SHOCK, and also the difficulty in getting ahold of it in the intervening years. You should definitely give it a look--go in with an open mind, and I think it lives up to the hype. :)

Thanks for the comments, guys!

The Duke of DVD said...

Fantastic review, as always, Vicar! I have yet to watch this one, but have heard a lot about it, and your review makes it an imperative.

(special props go to the "METULL" screencap/caption)

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