Monday, February 18, 2013
There's a cure for that, and it's called Combat Shock.
Made in 1984 as pretty much a student film for under 25K, this is as DIY as it gets. The only sprucing up it received as a result of being picked up and distributed by Troma was some stock footage of Vietnam added to the beginning. This is as grimy, nihilistic, and doomed of a movie as you could hope to see.
Frankie is having a rough go of things. He suffers from PTSD LAMF as a result of having been imprisoned and tortured in Vietnam for 3 years. He has returned to a Staten Island neighborhood that looks like a bombed out warzone. His apartment is busted up and filthy: the toilet won't flush and is filled with piss and waste, his cupboards are bare, the sink doesn't work all the time and the only thing in his moldy looking icebox is some spoiled milk. His wife isn't happy with the fact that Frankie's been out of work for 4 months straight and lets him know about it constantly. Their 1 year old child is severely deformed from what they assume to be an Agent Orange-related birth defect. The only people Frankie comes into contact with on his travels through the neighborhood are junkies, hoodlums, criminals and bureaucrats who can't help him get back on his feet. And all the while, he's tormented by flashbacks of the war. His life is hell and he's a (greasy) hair's breadth from going down in flames and taking everyone with him.
It is true that this movie is cheap and ugly. It's a perfect match with the story it tells. The acting is uneven at best, but the characters behave consistently throughout and it doesn't harm the movie too much. Frankly, if the acting and production values were much higher the bleak nature of things might become overwhelming. Things get awful enough by the end as it is.
Combat Shock has a lot to love about it. Crazed synthesizer music, composed by Rick Giovinazzo, who also plays Frankie and whose brother Buddy wrote and directed. There's a theme that recurs when Rick walks through the 'hood that has to be heard to be believed. It's awful yet amazing and ultimately endearing. Rick ended up orchestrating a hell of a lot of Hollywood movies after this, interestingly enough. The baby is a marvel of repulsive prosthetics that, while clearly fake, still is unsettling. Its synthesizer-created cries are eerie too.
You'll see a lot of Eraserhead and Taxi Driver in Combat Shock, but after being distilled through the vision and meager resources of Buddy Giovinazzo it certainly becomes something else entirely. I can't imagine another movie where someone OD's from opening an abscess on their arm with a coathanger and then sprinkling powder directly into the wound. Then again, I've seen few endings as brutal and sad as this one, either. Overall, it's a success. Call me crazy, but I think that when cult/shock/sleaze cinema is discussed a quarter century from now, Combat Shock will be given a place of prominence.
Tomorrow: The Bunny Game