Monday, May 21, 2012

Combat Shock (1986, Buddy Giovinazzo)

Combat Shock is an unrelenting and repugnant low budget picture that would be unwatchable if it weren't so disturbingly relevant. This film, unfortunately, hasn't dated and is still relevant to today's issues, and because of this I am saddened to say that it needs to be seen. Director Buddy Giovinazzo is only interested in telling stories about people who are completely on the fringes of societal standards. This film depicts a world that transcends even the ones found in the scummiest of kitchen sink dramas. The story involves a day in the life of a deeply deranged Vietnam war veteran named Franky. Franky is a victim of various war atrocities including toxic contamination, torture, and several near-death experiences. He now lives in a dank apartment with his miserable wife and his mutated baby boy. In the span of a day, Franky is verbally assaulted by his wife, is threatened with eviction, is denied by the welfare office, witnesses a former soldier and friend enter the most desperate depths of heroin addiction, and eventually is beaten to within an inch of his life by the mafia who threatens his family. His opportunity for revenge does come around eventually when he gets a hold of a gun, but that ends up making things only worse than they already are.
Good god, is this film nasty. Good luck trying to stomach this one if you haven't seen a whole lot of exploitation horror pictures. This, to me, is one of the scummiest looking films ever. Some folks may point to the Nekromantik films, and to be honest those definitely give Combat Shock a run for it's money. However, what both of those films lack is the utterly hopeless atmosphere that Combat Shock takes place in. I mean, there isn't a hint of happiness in sight, not even in the form of a little girl who is selling her body. Director Giovinazzo has layered his film with so many depths of desperation that it becomes difficult to even try and find something to hold onto. It's established fairly early on that Franky's case is completely hopeless and a lost cause, but unfortunately we, as the audience, naturally want to cling to whatever hope may possibly remain in our minds. We are forced to retreat to our minds, because there isn't an ounce of optimism on display here. Because of this oppressive atmosphere, tone, and story, and because of the graphic and disturbing imagery offered almost endlessly, I definitely cannot recommend this film to people who are depressed in any way or who may be pregnant or with a weak stomach or constitution. Even as a war trauma picture Combat Shock features unrelentingly heavy material, all of which completely collapses into something far worse in the very climax of this film. A lot of times, the hype a film is given about it's content can be exaggerated to the extreme. This wasn't the case for me with Combat Shock. This film, to me, was every bit as ugly and hideous as I had heard. Let's just get one thing straight. The moral tone of a film like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Maniac can make horror films into something that can't really be described by mainstream standards as entertaining. Films like those don't intend to entertain you. They don't even tend to teach you anything that you don't already know. They exist just to disturb you, scare you, and stick ugly and inescapably horrible images into your head forever. Combat Shock is one of those films, one that I cannot comfortably recommend to those who actually want to see something mentally challenging.
The heaviest material comes in the ending, which, similarly to the ending of, I Stand Alone, is like an endurance test. To describe what happens wouldn't be fair, but it's easy to say that it's one that left me feeling quite exhausted. It's an unusual ending for the type of film this is. It's a strangely touching ending that truly was written and directed with a lot of heart and soul and passion for these characters. Certain images and ideas presented in the climax may seem excessive, needlessly grotesque, and extremely over-the-top even for this material. I guess I can understand where those complaints are coming from, although I think that's part of the reason why Lloyd Kaufman picked up Combat Shock as part of his Troma pictures company. Giovinazzo even let Troma edit his original film, which to me was very brave. Troma did re-release the film on DVD, however, with the original cut that I highly recommend folks check out if they are fans of the film. One of the things I loved about the ending, however, is that it was a humongous payoff for a film that didn't even need a whole lot of build-up to begin with. The film's structure is rather reminiscent of Taxi Driver, with Frankie traveling to one disgusting, scummy, sleazy location after another in his quest to try and get even some sort of basic income. His wife may have a rotten attitude, but how can she not? She clearly is very malnourished and hungrier than sin. Of course all of these aspects of the film, all these senses, are heightened by the picture's maniacal energy. Giovinazzo really has pulled off something special here with his cinematic approach. While it would, indeed, be perfected by his later films No Way Home and Life is Hot in Cracktown, both of which are deeply disturbing as well, it's exciting to see this approach put forth in such a bizarre little film that isn't afraid to shove our faces into the gory images.
Combat Shock is a truly gut-wrenching experience that offers us a no-holds-barred portrait of masculinity gone wrong. Internally, this is an assault on the senses, but on the surface you still get a lot of unique developments in the fearless approach to the material. Not a whole lot has really changed since this film has been made, and it's painfully obvious that more needs to be done to keep society from rejecting people like Frank who fight for our country in world situations that nobody knows enough about to truly justify. That's ultimately the greatest tragedy of this picture. Many of the locations featured in this picture have not changed a whole lot, and some of the ones that have haven't changed for the better. One could easily view the film as pessimistic. I do think that perhaps certain elements of the film are, but it also features a rare kind of truth to it. The apocalyptic tone of the film can be seen as a genuine reaction to what's been going on in this country, and really can anyone blame the director and the cast and crew for feeling so angry? Honestly, I'm okay with this kind of approach because there's a distinct certainty to it that I can't find myself entirely doubting. Mankind is capable of abject stupidity, and there's no greater kind of stupidity than homicide. However, if you put a gun in a man's hand and tell him to either kill or go to jail, does that still make his stupid? Picture an entire country being told to do that, and you'll begin to see what I mean.


  1. I always have trouble believing that this film was distributed by Troma simply because of the social significance it offers. The ending to this is still one of the most nightmarishly shocking things I've seen.

  2. This movie disgusted me and disturbed me more than any film ever has, and I've seen A Siberian Film. I hated Combat Shocks and I dont recommend anyone watch it unless you wanna kill yourself afterward out of depression and selfhatered. It's seriously the grossest movie ever. Tell me, does watching a junkir slit his own swollen wrist vain open with a coat hanger just to pour heroin into it sound like an entertaining move to you? No, its just plain disgusting and you should be ashmaed for recommending it.

    1. Yeah the imagery in 'Combat Shock' is a bit brutal and disgusting, but unlike other disturbing things like 'A Serbian Film,' the imagery here serves the purpose of furthering the story its telling - 'Combat Shock' is really more than just shock value for the sake of being edgy. So you don't agree with how this filmmaker chose to tell their story - that's fine. There are plenty of other movies that have told a similar story or expressed a similar theme with 'safer' visual styles.