Buddy Giovanazzo’s 1984 low budget picture, Combat Shock, surprises with both thematic depth and incredible misanthropic attitude. Imagine if Travis Bickle was a struggling family man instead of a crackpot loner and you’re half way there.
Clearly riffing on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and even Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, this is a startling and unforgettable entry into the ‘Back from ‘Nam’ subgenre. Interestingly, the film was released in the mid 1980s when the likes of Rambo and Chuck Norris were reinvigorating the damaged national psyche with the return of the strong (male) individual and spreading the myth of ‘M.I.A’. A national spiritual cleansing is as phoney as can be when left to Hollywood and Giovanazzo’s flick feels much more honest and realistic in its depiction of a man reaching the end of his tether. In fact, there’s a timeless quality making it as relevant today as back then.
Frankie Dunlan (Rick Giovinazzo) is a damaged vet living back on Staten Island and suffering from extreme poverty, unemployment and family worries. His wife is pregnant again and they’ve got a one year old deformed by Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange. Things are not good. Frankie’s day consists of wandering the streets looking for jobs that don’t exist and having his mind and spirit crushed to breaking point. An assortment of scumbags and bureaucrats only heighten the sense of desolation and entrapment.
Giovanazzo’s film is obviously a very low budget effort but manages to transcend such limitations by force of concept and assured directorial style. The capturing of a derelict and dirty Staten Island is palpable and raw. The director admits in the excellent audio commentary that the tourist board did not like his movie one bit, but he countered with the argument they should make it nicer. (Ha!)
Combat Shock main aim, it seems, is to show up the lies sold about American idealism and the 1980s as a time of rejuvenation on a collective scale, when really the rich got richer and the poor got fucked all over again. Social progress is a myth peddled to keep everybody in their place and the film takes a character with no hope and no future and waits for him explode. The sadness here is that Frankie doesn’t feel anger towards anybody else – it’s his own feelings of worthlessness that lead to a shocking final scene.
The grungy, punk aspects of the movie come about through the capturing of a neighbourhood that looks almost post-apocalyptic in its decrepitude. Giovanazzo, again in his audio commentary, discusses how he used very tight angles and his everyday surroundings in an inventive manner to capture the story he wanted to tell. It’s a film with a downbeat and extreme message about an uncaring society and the director makes it abundantly clear Frankie could easily have been saved if only somebody – anybody – gave a fuck about him and his family’s situation.
Giovanazzo made the film whilst working as a film tutor in NYC and didn’t have any real commercial aim beyond making the film. He states in an interview contained on the extra features disc that he’s never made any money from his debut. However, the film should be seen and rediscovered for the remarkable slice of cult cinema it is. Once seen, you will not forget Combat Shock.
How’s the picture and sound?
Grungy. The transfer isn’t great but this sort of picture benefits from being as scuzzy-looking as possible. It’s ultra low budget filmmaking at its most creative.
Bags of extras here. Buddy Giovanazzo’s audio commentary with German shock merchant Jorg Buttgereit is well worth a listen. Also included is an informative half-hour documentary featuring filmmakers and fans discussing the impact of seeing the film and what it meant to them. Interview clips with the director and leading man are, again, worth a viewing and there’s even the film’s original cut – known as American Nightmare – to be found. This release comes with a reversal sleeve with artwork by the ace Graham Humphrys. There are five short films by the director included along with a ‘locations today’ featurete. A collector’s booklet by Anthony Timpone rounds off this very strong and thorough set of bonus features. Troma might not be known for quality in the strict sense of the word, but they helped the film gain its underground reptutation making it, quite possibly, the only art movie they ever released.
Combat Shock is a cult gem and just waiting to be rediscovered. Don’t let the Troma association put you off because this is a cracking little film. Imagine First Blood, Eraserhead and Taxi Driver mixed in a blender with an added spoonful of social truth. Giovanazzo’s debut feature is highly recommended viewing that captures something ageless in its angst and despair.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
Monday 6th August