(This review refers to the 100-minute, never-before-seen director's cut of Combat Shock, originally titled American Nightmares.)
Legendary grindhouse sleaze-festival Combat Shock will do things to you. Unpleasant things. For nominal protagonist Frankie, time served in the Vietnam War brings back memories, Combat Shock brings back memories for me, too, though I've never served in the military. Maybe those memories will help us process this outlandishly bleak, tragic exercise in low-budget nihilism - so dedicated to its convictions it'll pretty much burn up your television with bile.
Memory one: high school, 1985 - I open my oral report on domestic violence by leaping from my seat in a black trench coat. Pulling a realistic cap gun, I unload the clip into a girl I think is kind of cute. Somewhat tellingly, the caps actually fail to go off. I'm sort of saddened to think that this would be national news if a kid tried to do this today, but I guess I was born too soon.
Memory two: community college - a report I write about the role of women in renaissance art merits only a B+. My point is that while women produced much great art, they didn't stand a chance. The professor claims I'm simply churning negative information over and over.
So, Combat Shock, roughly contemporaneous with my high school death wish - about which we can reflect that such savage, hopeless violence doesn't play anymore - is also similar to my report, in that the movie, while passionate and well intentioned, simply wallows in hellish pain, violence and despair for about 90 minutes, then cuts to black. I objected to my B+ but I'll give Combat Shock an A. Its modest aim - to detail how Vietnam, and crushing indifference back home in America, destroys Frankie's life - is brought home with devastating accuracy. Just don't cue this up for date night.
Ominously opening with scenes of sustained tension from the war, Combat Shock sounds the bugle: eerie tones and a soldier running scared, confusion, then a welter of shredded bodies in the mud. Frankie wakes from his never-ending nightmare in a hellhole apartment that defies description. His long suffering wife can't tolerate his inability to find work, or even keep the toilet working, and their baby is a mewling horror with Agent Orange-caused birth defects. So Frankie shambles trash-strewn streets in a trench coat, long greasy hair plastered to his face while junkie friends O.D. and employment agencies laugh at him. What's a vet on the edge of oblivion to do when the past won't let him go and the future spits in his face? For director Buddy Giovinazzo, the answer lies in a mini orgy of death-wish violence with zero chance at redemption.
Were my words half as assured, potent and lethal as Giovinazzo's movie, I'd end my review now, 'cause it's one-and-done when even God's given up on you, but I've got a few more things to say anyway. As Frankie, Buddy's brother Rick inhabits his role to an uncomfortable degree. He is lost in his mind, tortured by flashbacks and beyond hope. Being an unknown (then and now, this is his only acting role) obviously helps, but you may never see a more gritty, distressed and despairing character. Wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) shows the seams a bit more, but her shrilly outlined depression at being trapped in purgatory with a mutant child is palpable. Giovinazzo's meticulous, meditative takes of Staten Island squalor (not to mention that apartment, one that would drive most folks to a quick suicide) full of dead-languid pacing, insure you'll have a really unpleasant time with this film. Brother Rick's score (R. Giovinazzo's had an amazing career as a Hollywood orchestrator) seals the deal. Only a disco-fied motif overused at the unemployment office demonstrates strain, while everything else consists of uneasy drawn-out tones or stuttering synth sounds, propelling us headlong with the action into anguish.
Combat Shock's no budget, amateur acted one-note samba is not for everyone. Most would say it sucks. Those fools just don't understand Buddy Giovinazzo's mastery of urban despair, suicidal depression and the effects of war on battle-scarred vets. Combat Shock isn't fun - I'd love to have seen the faces of grindhouse habitués looking for cheap, schlocky thrills - but it sure is good.