“It was becoming clearer all the time. The war is not over. The battlefield may have changed, but the war is not over.” —Frankie Dunlan, “Combat Shock”
This is the REAL guerrilla filmmaking. Forget today’s “YouTube generation” with their hi-def home video cameras baring their excuses-for-souls in overwrought, self-important quasi-confessionals that even they won’t care about themselves a week from now. In 1984, armed with nothing but a few thousand bucks and a 16mm camera and lighting equipment borrowed from the film school he was attending (and soon to be teaching at), Buddy Giovinazzo, a guy with nothing more than a couple short films and some music videos done for his own band ( who went by the moniker 2000 A.D. Circus, in case you were wondering) on his resume hit the postapocalyptic-looking streets of Staten Island and committed to celluloid something so fearlessly and unforgivingly bleak that even today’s audiences, reared as they are on high-gloss torture porn and million-dollar grime, will find sitting though the whole thing from start to finish hard to endure. That’s because “Combat Shock” is nothing less than a cinematic brass-knuckled punch to the gut. A movie that spits in your face while you’re down on the ground and dares you to get up again, you disgusting wimp. And just as you start to get your bearings and lift your head, it delivers another body blow and dares you to try that shit with it again, worm. The world you ignore—the world you want to pretend doesn’t exist—the REALITY that squirms and slithers at the absolute bottom of the trash barrel, underneath the maggot-infested, rotted-meat discards of your SUV-driving, charge card-funded ILLUSION of a life—it’s forcing its way to the top, DEMANDING that you pay attention, no longer allowing you to turn a blind eye to the fact that its horrid dog-eat-dog squalor is the price OTHER people have to pay so that YOU can pretend everything is fine and dandy. “Combat Shock” is a movie that screams at you how much it hates your fucking guts and how richly you’ve earned that hatred—and for that, I love it.
Let’s go back in time for a moment to 1984. Ronald Reagan’s TV commercials are triumphantly declaring that it’s “morning in America,” but the reality on the ground is that all the people enjoying this glorious fiction of a “morning,” complete with its Hollywood sunrise, hoisted flags, and happy children scurrying off to greet the smiling school-bus driver left one hell of a mess the night before, but guess what? It’s morning for millions of other folks, too — the people who weren’t at the party and won’t be at tonight’s, either. They’re sifting through the broken beer bottles, soggy cigarette butts, and puked-up food the partiers left in their wake, looking for some way to survive in the hollowed-out shells of once-booming industrial towns the Wall Street fat cats and junk-bond hustlers left behind as “collateral damage” on their way to Reagan’s bright and shining new dawn.
A lot of those numberless, faceless, voiceless, hopeless “left-behinds” are veterans. Guys who put it all on the line, risking the one and only thing they truly had—their lives— in the jungles of Viet Nam while the daddy warbuckses of the world made billions standing in a pool of their blood and atop a makeshift hill of their severed limbs. Some came back so shellshocked, so physically broken and/or psychologically and spiritually tunneled-out, that from where they were standing, limping, crawling, or lying down, the guys who died, the guys who didn’t have to come back and try to eke out some kind of gutter-level existence on the table leavings of the same assholes who profited from their sacrifice and were now enjoying Ronnie’s new morning, were starting to look pretty lucky.
One such discarded veteran is Frankie Dunlan. When we join Frankie’s story, he’s already at rock bottom, and while the shiny, happy people will tell him there’s nowhere to go but up, we all know that’s bullshit. “Morning in America” for Frankie means, like every other morning for the past four months, he doesn’t have a job to go to. His overbearing wife and horribly deformed (thanks to Frankie’s exposure to agent orange) baby are starving. He can’t make the rent on his calling-it-a-shithole-would-be-a-compliment apartment in the economically bombed-out ruins of Staten Island. There’s no water. The toilet’s backed up (note for the squeamish: while some movies have backed-up toilets, and lots of movies smell they came out of backed-up toilets, “Combat Shock” points the camera lens inside the backed-up toilet). The train line runs right outside their window. His clothes are stained and torn to shreds. And just to add insult to injury, his frayed shoelaces snap on him when he’s tying them in preparation to head out to another day in the unemployment line.
That doesn’t prove to be an easy trip, though. Local “debt collectors” he had to turn to in order to make last month’s rent are looking for him and don’t much care at this point if he pays them back in cash or blood. A junkie pal of his is so strung out he doesn’t even recognize him at first and tries to hold him up for cash he doesn’t have. His mind is is riddled with waking fever-dreams of Viet Nam—both of the war atrocities he committed there and those perpetrated upon him when he was captured.
And of course, when he does finally get there (warning to those with short attention spans: “Combat Shock” is not exactly a fast -paced flick) the line goes around the block, it takes hours to get in, and there’s no work, anyway. And Frankie’s long meander home isn’t much easier—when he tries to prevent a little girl who can’t be more than 10 or 11 years old from beating up her kid sister, he’s attacked by—get your vomit-bags handy—her pimp, who says Frankie needs to fork over 50 bucks if he wants to keep talking to her, proving only that even when he tries to do the right thing, it’s absolutely hopeless. “Combat Shock” is many things, but a “feel-good” movie isn’t one of them.
Suffice to say, there’s only one way Frankie’s story can end, and of course it ain’t pretty. You see it coming five minutes into the movie, but even so, when it happens it’s still nerve-wracking. Hell, I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least and it still gets no easier to take it all in with subsequent viewings. How many movies can you say that about?
And while too many “B”-type films than you can mention are hindered by their low budgets, in “Combat Shock”‘s case—for the most part, with an exception or two I’ll detail in a minute–the fact that it was made for nothing is actually a key reason for its success. Frankie is played by Ricky Giovinazzo, writer-director Buddy’s brother. Ricky’s a musician by trade (he also provides the frenetic and bizarre, so-incongruous-it-actually works score to the film) and not at all what you’d call an Oscar-caliber actor. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like he’s actually acting at all. Combined with the film’s completely non-stylized, absolutely direct camerawork (Giovinazzo and company never had any filming permits and shot the whole thing “on the fly,” quite often having to settle for getting things in one take and moving quickly to the next scene) this gives the proceedings an absolutely naturalistic, almost documentary-type feel and eliminates much of the “comfortable distance” between viewer and subject found is most cinematic fiction. “Combat Shock” is a story that lives beneath gutter-level, and its raw, amateur, unpolished technical quality is exactly right for it. the word we’re looking for here is AUTHENTIC–completely, agonizingly, harrowingly AUTHENTIC.
So what doesn’t work? Well, as you can see above, Frankie’s baby, a puppet-type construct whipped up by effects man Ralph Cordero for $140, is a little too “Eraserhead”-influenced to really work in the context of the story (and to be honest, the influence of David Lynch’s indie surrealist masterpiece—which, in Giovinazzo’s defense, was a very popular thing to ape in the outside-of-Hollywood film world at the time and would eventually even find its way inside the movie capitol’s less-than-hallowed-halls— is glaringly obvious in a few other notable instances as well, such as the occasional close-up of the vapor-spewing humidifier in Frankie’s hovel and some truly Lynchian dialogue on the part of his case worker at the unemployment office, interrupted as it is with Buddy G himself popping his head inside the guy’s door and asking to borrow a veg-o-matic, a complete non-sequiter that would feel right at home in (the admittedly later, but it’s still Lynch so I’m straining the comparison in that direction on moral grounds alone, chronology be damned)”Twin Peaks”). The “Viet Nam” flashback scenes are, it’s painfully obvious, shot on Staten Island, with, it’s painfully obvious, non-Vietnamese actors (one of whom, a woman gunned down by Frankie, was actually Giovinazzo’s wife at the time). The woman playing the nurse at Frankie’s VA hospital-bedside (in another series of flashbacks) is Vernoica Stork, the same actress who plays his starving-and-therefore-understandably-nagging wife, in a black, curly wig. I know, I know—it’s a zero-budget flick and Giovinazzo was doing the absolute best he could given the circumstances, but these no-way-to-be-avoided shortcomings really do detract from the overall aura of (here’s that word again) authenticity that the film otherwise conveys so brilliantly (even if only by dint of complete practical necessity).
Now, “Combat Shock” had a very brief theatrical run on New York City’s grindhouse circuit in 1984 under its original title, “American Nightmares.” Buddy G had always envisioned that what he was making here was an arthouse flick, but its raw and brutal violence and uncompromisingly grim overall worldview and aesthetic scared the self-appointed film “sophisticates” away in droves at test screenings, and to the notorious streets of “The Deuce” it went. Somehow, I suppose, it’s only right that a gutter story filmed in a gutter style should play in the cinematic gutter — poetic justice indeed. I’m sure many of the people who saw this film knew the world it showed— hell, the world it lived in—as intimately as one can. Some folks know street-level genius when they see it, though, and fortunately for Giovinazzo the folks at Troma picked up his little opus for re-release in theaters and (later) on VHS in 1986. They got together with Buddy at that point and fitted it out with its new “Combat Shock” title, redid the opening and closing credits sequences, tinkered a bit with some of the sound and gore effects (another area, it must be said, where the lack of budget well and truly heightened the—word for the day, kids—authenticity of the film, as the blood n’ guts effects really work marvelously), trimmed eight minutes of some of the more relentless brutality off the runtime (mostly from the ending, although even in edited form it’s still a pretty tough slog) in order to get an “R” rating from the MPAA, and outfitted it with a completely-incongruous (though still pretty cool in its own way, it must be said) “Rambo”-style poster and ad campaign. And the end result? 25 years later, we’re still talking about it, and it’s still reducing new audiences to the same levels of shellshocked trauma that Frankie himself would understand so well.
All of which brings me (go ahead, I know you’re dying to scream out “Finally!”) to the new 25th anniversary edition 2-disc set from Troma, the fourth entry in their “Tromasterpiece” collection. What do we get here that we didn’t have in the original release? Well, for one, there’s new and vastly more appropriate-to-its-subject packaging (although I miss the original artwork, myself). There’s a great liner notes essay inside by “Shock Cinema” editor Steven Puchalski. We get both versions of the film—the 100-minute “American Nightmares” cut (available on DVD for the first time and struck from the very first 16 mm answer print, complete with original opening and closing credits sequences and sound and visual effects), and the 92-minute “Combat Shock” cut (which also features the absolutely terrific commentary track with Buddy G and “Nekromantik” director Jorg Buttgereit, recorded in Berlin, where Buddy now occasionally works directing television, that first appeared on the earlier single-disc edition). There’s a new trailer made especially for the “Tromasterpiece” DVD. We get a wide and intriguing selection of Giovinazzo’s short films, both pre-and post-“Combat Shock” (including “Mr. Robbie,” aka “Maniac 2,” starring the original “Maniac” himself, Joe Spinell, which also features on the “Tromasterpiece” DVD release of “The Last Horror Film”) in addition to a sampling of his 2000 A.D. Circus music video work. There are no less than four very good interviews with the brothers Giovinazzo, three with Buddy (one of which has, again, Buttgereit along for the proceedings) and one with Rick, which marks his first ever on-camera discussion about his role in the film ( and I must say he couldn’t be any more different, personally, to the character he portrays in the film). The original theatrical trailer is on hand for good measure. There’s a fascinating short look at the Staten Island locations as they appear today. And finally, best of all, there’s a new 30-minute documentary, “An American Nightmare,” a detailed look not only at the making of the film, but its distribution history, its rediscovery in the “cult” cinema underground, and its impact on both contemporary and subsequent independent moviemaking, including reflections from such notables as “Deadbeat at Dawn” and “The Manson Family” director Jim VanBeber” (“Combat Shock” was an obvious influence on “Deadbeat”, although admittedly it’s a whole lot grimmer and grimier) “Henry:Portrait Of Serial Killer” director John McNaughton (“Henry” probably was, and remains the closest thing around to “Combat Shock” in terms of style and tone), “Maniac” director Bill Lustig, “Evil Dead 2” screenwriter and “Intruder” director Scott Spiegel, “Hardware” and “Dust Devil” director Richard Stanley, and “Document of the Dead” director and “Street Trash” writer-producer Roy Frumkes. Definitely one of the most informative and insightful–not to mention interesting—“behind-the-scenes”-type DVD extras in some time.
So yeah—this is the total package. If you already own the original Troma release, you can throw it in the trash or try to get three bucks for it on eBay. This is the version you need to own. And that goes double if you don’t have it already. I had mentioned in a post last week that I thought this would figure to be the must-own DVD release of the year, and my prognostication was, even if I do only say so myself, exactly correct.
Is “Combat Shock” for everyone? Is the Pope a Presbyterian? If, however, you want a cinematic experience you seriously will never forget (even if you’d like to)— if Hollywood “coming-home-from- ‘Nam fare like “Born on the Fourth of July” or even Cimino’s excellent “The Deer Hunter” left you feeling like the ugliest side of the story of these vets had been glossed over—if you genuinely enjoy being challenged to keep going through something you feel like you might not want to see thorugh but know, deep down inside, that you must—and yes, if you can forgive a few necessary foibles of amateurism in service to the greater good that very same amateurism provides—then “Combat Shock” is a film that if you haven’t seen you absolutely need to see, and see very soon. But be warned—it leaves a stain inside that can’t be washed away, and there’s no Spray-n’-Wash for the human soul.