Combat Shock (1986) – By Josh Samford

One word you’re bound to read about Combat Shock when reading just about any review for it is: depressing. It simply is a bleak and depressing little film, although far from what I had read on it ages ago when I was doing my initial search for information about it. As much of an art-house type of film Combat Shock is, it certainly fits in amongst Troma’s regular list of distributed films. Especially with pretty much anything they touch from the 1980’s. It has that ‘low budget, and we’re going to show how nasty the outside world is’ type of vibe that you’ll find in a lot of the films Kauffman & co. are willing to sign their name to. Buddy Giovinazzo takes a similar over the top take on filmmaking that made Kauffman a household name (well, sorta), but instead of injecting nothing but corny jokes and comedy – Giovinazzo plays things in a completely deadpan form. This works exceptionally well, but if you’re the type to not be able to look over the painfully amateur aspects of the film – I can see it being a real mood killer; but you have to be a bit forgiving as an audience member; and if you can do that over the course of the film you might just walk away impressed as I was. Combat Shock may not make it into your top five favorite films of all time, as it didn’t mine, but if you’re looking for a gritty, dark little drama about urban life – well, you can’t really go wrong with this one.

That isn’t to say Combat Shock is going to blow your mind, not by any stretch of the imagination, but for what it is and for what it’s worth – this is an incredibly interesting little gritty urban drama. Dealing with just about all of the horrors of modern city living all rolled into one urban hell, this isn’t so much a film with any kind of cohesive narrative; but more about the simple inhumanity around just about every corner we turn. So, yes, all those dozens of reviews that speak about it using that cliche word, calling it ‘good but depressing’; well, they’re right. It is good and it is depressing, but I’d probably become more depressed watching some teen flick starring Lindsey Lohan as a lonely cheerleader or what have you. I know poverty from personal experiences, and I’ve seen the darker side of humanity from time to time (hey, nothing to brag about, but if you don’t take pride in hard times then what can you take pride in). Seeing people put up fronts and pretending to be happy-go-lucky though, that just irks me. Giovinazzo’s little original feature shows everything a film like that might deny. The purpose is to show us a genuinely horrific portrait of the underbelly of our society, not exactly a wholly original concept – but hey, it is done well so how can you complain.

So what is it all about? Kind of a simple story really. Frankie is a vet back at home from his tour in Vietnam where he was a POW for several years, beaten and tortured on a regular basis to discover information – but he kept quiet and was eventually saved – but it doesn’t change the fact that he dreams about his capture every night. His life is no more than a waking nightmare however. His only child, over a year old now, is a mutant freak from the chemicals he picked up during the war. Looking like a cross between that kid from Powder, and the alien creatures from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He soon recieves an eviction notice in the mail though, and after being pressured by his starving wife and child, he continues his daily search for a new job. This search is more like a wandering trip to the Unemployment Office, but it’s what Frankiey sees along the way that really makes this mundane trip so special. A good friend of his addicted to heroin who is holding people up with a gun to support his habit, some local hoodlums who are trying to squeeze money from Frankie and even pre-teen prostitution. Yep, it’s a messed up world alright, and Frankie is running out of ways to deal with it in his mind – and he’s well past the point of breaking down.

If Combat Shock was meant to hide it’s inspirations, it does a poor job of it – but I get the feeling Giovinazzo was proud of the films he felt liberty in borrowing from. I have read that he claims Taxi Driver and Eraserhead both as main influences for his introduction to the film world; and it shows. Combat Shock, although it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the actual script, takes a lot from Eraserhead’s wandering atmosphere – sort of ‘a day in the life of’ experience. The mutant baby that endlessly cries and is generally one of the creepiest things ever imagined – also a concept originated in David Lynch’s cult classic. Taxi Driver is an obvious influence, I think pretty much any gritty urban drama that takes place in our world since Taxi Driver was made is going to have been influenced in some way or another. Just no getting past that. I happened to think the scene dealing with the little girl forced into prostitution was just a bit too similar to Rober DeNiro and Jodie Foster’s relationship in Scorsese’s classic. If you wanted to call it ‘stealing’, I supposed you could – but on the whole, the way these things are dealt with are done in an interesting and original way so I see no reason to complain.Combat Shock will never steal any of Taxi Driver’s thunder, but at best it can offer the world a different and as interesting glance into the seedier sides of human conditioning.

At times it boasts some rather boring and cliche political musings, but when everything comes around in the end – all can be forgiven. Combat Shock concludes with one of the more shocking and horrific endings in genre film history. Not because of an outrageous amount of gore or anything, but because of how close to reality the horror of it all seems. We’re reminded that this sort of thing, although this case is amplified and definitely stagey, does happen on a daily or at least weekly basis. Once you have seen the film you will understand. I don’t know if I would consider it one of my favorite films of all time – but it most certaily is something new for me to reccomend. A great work, recieves my highest marks.