Combat Shock

Combat Shock

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

Originally titled American Nightmares but released in a more commercial form by infamous Z-movie studio Troma with its better known title (as well as some contradictory trimmed nastiness, unnecessary stock footage of war atrocity and ridiculously misleading promotional art), Combat Shock is like an early John Waters version of such Vietnam vet revenge opuses as Taxi Driver and The Exterminator.

Praised in some quarters for young writer/director Buddy Giovinazzo's virulent veracity, it's the sort of unapologetic scuzz-fest whose ultra-low budget becomes a serendipitous badge of honour. Most modern viewers will balk at the am-dram acting, threadbare production values and cheesy synth score, but underneath the grimy exterior there's a worthwhile story being told with real conviction and no small amount of downbeat poetry.

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Afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and struggling to look after his makeshift family, Frankie is at an all-time low. Taking to the streets in a vain search for work and money as well as some respite from his permanently wailing mutant baby and starving, frazzled wife, Frankie encounters a series of low-life junkies, hoods and prostitutes as he wanders the urban wasteland of Staten Island. After a hopeless social services interview, Frankie's desperation sees him resorting to criminal activity, leading to a violent confrontation that could tip him over the edge into homicidal insanity.

A relentlessly grim and oppressive experience, Combat Shock's technical poverty actually reinforces the sincere if naive commentary it is trying to make. A more polished picture could never hope to get so completely under its protagonist's skin; in many ways this is a precursor to Abel Ferrera's more accomplished but similarly bruising Bad Lieutenant.

Little details mount to take on crushing dimensions - the debris littering the streets and weeds cracking through the sidewalk highlight humanity and nature's attempts to suffocate and usurp one another, while the crumbling apartment's empty fridge (complete with a scene-stealing carton of spoiled milk) is returned to periodically as if it might magically contain something new, a pathetic situation repeated in the comparably nihilistic [film]Requiem For A Dream[/film].

The 'Nam flashbacks may be hopelessly unconvincing but they predate Full Metal Jacket's detailing of such horrors as the VC's deployment of women, and carry a bizarre integrity that's literally reflected on Frankie's face at points. His narration of these scenes showcases how adept Buddy G is at writing haunting recollections (as well as the more naturalistic dialogue elsewhere); Frankie's somnambulistic tones emphasise how numb he's become and how far he's slipping from the reality of the present partially due to a past that still torments him. Buddy's real-life brother Rick anchors the film with a world-weary commitment that belies his inexperience, even if he can't always meet the heavy demands of the script and is often let down by his co-stars' embarrassing efforts.

While the film drags - perhaps deliberately - at several points, Buddy has a real eye for his scorched terrain, and throws in some artier flourishes than might be expected. The shabby special effects - especially the Eraserhead-cribbed deformed baby that looks like a lump of plasticine - could easily be criticized, but even they have a DIY charm, evoking Sam Raimi's go-for-broke mentality on [film]The Evil Dead[/film].

The grinding soundtrack and crunchy theme music (supplied by lead actor Rick) keep the tone suitably somber, and the build-up towards the still shocking climax is dragged out in intentionally excruciating fashion. The final few scenes are staged to provoke outright disgust; if Frankie's violent outbursts don't upset you, his almost transcendent subsequent behavior surely will. It's a finale you won't forget in a hurry, capping off a film that's more admirable in retrospect than enjoyable while it's rolling.

It's never going to be hailed as a classic, but Combat Shock earns itself a rightful place in the shock cinema pantheon, and its influence on a slew of Buddy's contemporary film-makers shouldn't be under-estimated (as testified by Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer legend John McNaughton). It's about as far from the tone of your typical Troma movie as you can get, but it does share the label's combination of grit, heart and penny-pinching ingenuity.

Martin Scorsese's similarly themed but notably more romantic Taxi Driver may garner all the plaudits, while the likes of William Lustig's equally down'n'dirty Maniac will appeal more to pure horror fans, but Combat Shock is a pretty unique little picture that deserves to be seen by those who won't judge it merely on a surface level.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2012
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A Vietnam veteran struggles to cope with post-traumatic stress.
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