Combat Shock (1984)

Combat Shock first published by

Coming at the beginning of a film, the words “Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz Present a Troma Team Release” usually promise a trawl to the very bottom of B-movie bad taste, but Buddy Giovinazzo’s feature debut Combat Shock, which he wrote, directed, produced and edited, is something else entirely. Perhaps that is in part because it was released by Troma in the very same year as the film that set the template for their house style for decades to come, The Toxic Avenger, and so timing prevented it from falling under Toxie’s dumb-assed influence – but suffice it to say, where most Troma titles invite, nay challenge, the viewer to giggle with, or maybe just at, their jaw-dropping wrongness and out-and-out inanity, Giovinazzi’s film is a bleaker than bleak trudge through the traumatised mind of a Vietnam veteran, and offers few if any laughs.

It opens with a flashback. “I go back there every night, without fail – and the events happen all over again,” Frankie Dunlan (played by the director’s brother Ricky, who is also the film’s composer) can be heard intoning in blank voiceover, as we see stock footage of aerial strafings and bombings in Vietnam, and sequences of Frankie himself walking nervously through the jungle foliage. For budgetary reasons (as in, there barely was any budget), these Vietnam scenes were shot in marshland across from the Staten Island mall, but that hardly matters, because the whole point of the film (and reason for the flashback) is to forge a direct continuity in Frankie’s mind between the past horrors of his military service in Danang, and his present tribulations in New York. “It all looks the same, I can’t tell one place from another,” Frankie says of his disorientation in Vietnam – and it is a feeling that does not go away even when he returns to New York, which he also expressly refers to as “the jungle.”

Of course, in the mid-Eighties, all Giovinazzi needed to do to evoke the terrifying apocalypse that Frankie sees everywhere was to point his cameras at the urban ruin and squalor of Staten Island’s Port Richmond. As Frankie traverses this environment in vain search of nourishment, rent and a job, his experiences echo the ones that he had in Vietnam. For here too he is a captive to circumstance and constantly ambushed by enemies, while once again finding himself tormented over having to kill a woman and “a kid”. We follow Frankie over the course of a single day in which he faces eviction, penury, starvation, and beatings (or worse) from local loan shark Paco (Mitch Maglio) and his goons. Meanwhile, Frankie struggles to put food on the table for his pregnant wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) and their one-year-old son who is hideously deformed, in all probability as a result of Frankie’s exposure to chemicals in Vietnam. The unnamed son is closely modelled on the grotesque, ever-crying baby from David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) – which also foreshadows his fate at his father’s hands. An employment officer whom Frankie visits has a poster for George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) on his wall – and sure enough, the film’s demimonde of junkies, gangsters and prostitutes also resemble predatory zombies, as increasingly does the shellshocked Frankie himself. Yet the biggest influence here is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), with Frankie serving as an even lower rent Travis Bickle – a war vet primed eventually to explode into violence.

“You know, today’s one of those days when anything that can go wrong, does,” Frankie observes. Sure enough, Combat Shock is a downbeat, depressing film, dripping with a persistent pessimism that runs counter to the prevailing Reaganite ideology of the day. For here, instead of conspicuous affluence and yuppieism, we get an alternative view of street-level life on the destitute, desperate margins of Eighties America, comparable to the hell of war itself.

Summary: Giovinazzo’s sleazy slice of gonzo filmmaking is a gritty riposte to Reagan’s yuppified American Dream. 

© Anton Bitel