[23 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With time comes perspective. With time comes greater understanding and wisdom. When you’re young, you don’t fully appreciate subtext and thematic resonance. When you’re building your own personal aesthetic, elements like context and creative boundaries are in their infancy, incapable of being readily comprehended and accepted. Back in the late ‘80s, a certain champion of independent cinema announced the arrival of a raw and gritty “war” film entitled Combat Shock. Best known for its hilarious horror comedy splatterfests like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, adolescent fans anticipated another raucous ripper, a genre gem made up of 60% rude attitude and 40% crude arterial spray. What they got instead was a dark and deadly serious look at a Vietnam veteran at the end of his rope. The only “shocking” for these seemingly disappointed Troma geeks was the level of unfiltered truth being hurled at the camera.
For you see, Buddy Giovinazzo’s urban grit masterwork remains a wholly unsettling experience. After the sudden massacre of an entire village, GI Frankie Dunlan (Buddy’s brother Rick) kills a Vietnamese girl. He is captured and sent to a POW camp. There, he is tortured for information. Later, he takes up residence in a VA hospital, but is still terrified of the nightmares he has surrounding the war. Now he’s an unemployed drifter, a married man with a pregnant wife and a mutant baby (the result of Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange). With street hood Paco owning his very soul, there is very little hope for the failing family. Even a phone call to his once influential dad earns Frankie nothing but bad news. With his flashbacks getting more heated and the possibility of eviction on the horizon, our hero is not sure what to do - that is, until he happens to come into possession of a handgun.
Made before Oliver Stone’s apologetic Platoon and containing an entire squadron of squalor, Combat Shock - or as it was originally conceived, American Nightmare - is a brilliant, brazen denouncement of how our nation treated its returning war “heroes”, and a prophetic statement of how little things would change over the next three decades. Delivering a ‘day in the life’ portrait of poverty and pain so devastating that it just might lead you to the same suicidal conclusions haunting its main character, this is starkness as a soiled symphony. Sure, there seems to be obvious nods to David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but Buddy Giovinazzo is not paying homage. Instead, he’s exploring the same urban and interpersonal horrors that stain both of those ‘70s classics, and doing so in a far ballsier manner than his far more famous celluloid brethren.
Combat Shock is clearly meant to be a political statement, albeit one wrapped up in the neo-realistic filth of a NYC crumbling into decay. There has never been a movie this fetid, this streaked with the stains of a million displaced and dour people. From the desolate apartment which Frankie calls home to the bombed out buildings that resemble the ruins of a defeated nation, Giovinazzo turns the Big Apple into one incredibly sour fruit. Even worse, he turns Frankie into the kind of hopeless case that no amount of government aid can help. With the constantly howling freak child in the crib and an angry, emasculating wife in his bed, our lead is less a man and more like a combination of quasi-human pieces. Held together with spit and sickness, Combat Shock ideas were always meant to be a slap in the face. Frankly, Troma fans didn’t expect it to sting so badly.
And that’s part of the film’s mythology - and misinterpretation. Back when Uncle Lloyd and the gang were seeking ways to market their films to the widest audience possible, Giovinazzo’s original 16mm American Nightmare was cut in order to conform to both ratings requirements and perceived commercial appeal. To this day, few have seen the longer version of the film and that’s a shame. Presented as part of the Tromasterpiece Collection of Combat Shock, Nightmare itself is quite amazing. It’s as disturbing and dark as the released take, but thanks to the added time (about ten more minutes overall), Giovinazzo has a chance to elaborate on all the possibilities he’s introduced. There’s more war both at home and in the battlefield, and a greater feeling of metropolitan alienation. We get more drugs, more death, more despair.
But that’s not all the new two disc DVD has to offer. Giovinazzo (now an expatriate living in Germany) is joined by controversial auteur Jörg Buttgereit for a commentary track that’s part trip back in time, part anecdotal evidence of Combat Shock‘s endearing genius. Our director has an answer and a story for everything, from the obvious allusions to one Henry Spencer to the unquestioned influence of the No Wave band Suicide (and the song “Frankie Teardrop”) on the movie. Buttgereit acts more like a fanboy, reflecting on elements of the film that he simply adores. This is carried over to the second part of the package, where many famous filmmakers (including John Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer McNaughton, William Maniac Lustig, and Roy Document of the Dead Fumkes, among many others) extrapolate on how influential - and unfairly marginalized - Giovinazzo and his movie truly are.
Perhaps The Manson Family‘s Jim Van Bebber says it best when he describes Buddy’s brother Rick as being ‘Travis Bickle without all the pretense’, and it’s a feeling expanded upon by the brand new interviews with the men behind and in front of the camera. Looking nothing like their former selves, the Giovinazzos describe their early career as musicians (we see music videos for their band, as well as several startling short films) and speculate on how well Combat Shock holds up some 25 years later. They also explain some of the reactions they’ve had both then and now. Fleshing out said retrospective is a look at some of the locations. A few stand in sharp contrast to their former filthy selves. Others, sadly, have remained exactly the same (or horrifically, much worse). With trailers and the aforementioned copy of American Nightmare in tow, this is about as definitive as the digital format gets.
And we are dealing with a movie that definitely deserves it. Combat Shock may be a bad memory for anyone coming to the Troma title hoping for the standard bile, boobs, and beasts. It’s definitely more like The Bicycle Thief than Bloodsucking Freaks. In fact, if you are looking for a film that tells the true story about what life was like for returning veterans in the ‘70s, if you want all the pain and political posturing, unresolved emotions and lingering social failings, this is the film to seek out. Somewhere in the great halls of misbegotten movies stands a pedestal waiting for Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock. It’s a true American original, a portrait painted in the scum, sweat, and the fears of both its subject and its supporters. Time does have a tendency to play tricks on you. It can alter even the most concrete of critical snubs. A quarter of century ago, few found this film exceptional. Today, it stands as one of the ‘80s independent best.