After 25 years in existence, most grind house era films do not stand the test of time. Fact is, they’re budgets and lack of acting ability make them out to be kind of silly and cartoonish. They become a caricature of their true intent. Combat Shock is not one of those films, however.
Director Buddy Giovionazzo’s post-war miseryfest is a snapshot of desperate time in our country’s history. The film doesn’t include any gratuitous sex or nudity. It doesn’t have any crazy monsters or supernatural activity. It’s not a jump/scream/laugh flick. Combat Shock is nasty reality. And its grounding in reality is what makes it so damn memorable.
Frankie is a former POW and Vietnam Vet who is back in the states with very little to go forward with. He and his wife have one child already, which is highly deformed (due to Frankie’s chemical weapon exposure) and another on the way. There’s no food in the house (barring some rotten milk), no money for groceries, and Frankie has to head back to the unemployment line. Along the way, he encounters the worst of the worst (pimps, prostitutes, junkies, and fuck-ups) as he watches his world deteriorate. An impoverished, hopeless situation (coupled with Vietnam flashbacks) drives Frankie beyond his thresh hold and it results in one of the most memorable third acts and climaxes in sleaze cinema history.
The movie isn’t necessarily intended to be frightening in the conventional sense. Rather, Combat Shock is an exercise in human endurance. It’s honestly, one of the most depressive and miserable films you’ll ever watch-but I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s realistic. They didn’t make Staten Island look that run down and filthy. It was a dank, unkind place on it’s own. While Giovionazzo’s budget was miniscule, it didn’t take much money to portray what kind of atrocities happen in the Vietnam War and what the reprecussions were for returning vets. You can practically wipe the grime off of Combat Shock-it almost stinks. By no means should you go into watching this flick with the idea of seeing typical grind house fodder. It definitely falls into that 80’s NY film category (along side Maniac, Street Trash, Toxic Avenger and others) but it’s distinction is it’s ability to be less of a genre film, and more of a black-hearted drama. It’s agonizing to watch Frankie carry on through his day when you know full well that this can only end in disaster. (I’d heard stories from it’s release, where audiences on the Deuce were up in arms over going to see (what they thought was) a “war movie”, but instead got their emotions assaulted by seeing a film that could’ve very well been their own life’s story.) Frankie’s too proud to take money from his wealthy father, who’s standards he could never meet. Yet, he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding a stable job that would be suitable enough to take care of his family with. Essentially, Frankie has been backed into the corner and the only way out is a nihilistic path that finalizes in bloodshed.
The ironic thing about this film being re-released when it has, is that the film is now more relevant and current than ever. Consider the shape the country was in at the time and consider where we’re at now. What Buddy Giovionazzo did,was capture the disdain of the American people and show what could happen if the disgruntled said “fuck it” and turned on their world. Really, Frankie is the perfect representation of discontent and the movie is a standout among its peers. Combat Shock has made Giovionazzo a cult figure among fans of grind house cinema and it is with good reason. To make a micro-budget film over 25 years ago, and to have it maintain it’s relevancy, is no small feat. But to make said movie and have it resonate with its viewer long after it’s finished, is a stroke of brilliance. Troma’s given Combat Shock a beautiful clean up and there are some great extras on this 2-disc including a great documentary and some interviews with Buddy and the star of the film, his brother Rick. (Sidenote: Begrudgingly, I have to applaud Troma with treating this film with such respect, considering how pathetic and stagnent that company has become over time). It’s a fitting treatment and tribute to a fantastic film.