Sunday, 3 October 2010

Combat Shock (1984)

"Soldier of Misfortune"

The American dream has turned into a living nightmare for Vietnam veteran Frankie Dunlan. Living in a dilapidated apartment with his overbearing, pregnant wife Cathy and mutant baby (deformed as a result of chemicals Frankie was exposed to in the `Nam) things can’t really get much worse for Frankie. But they do. Receiving an eviction notice in the post after discovering that the toilet is broke and with his wife’s nagging that he is a failure ringing in his ears, Frankie leaves home one morning determined to change his dire circumstances.

Unfortunately for Frankie sympathy and assistance is most definitely not at hand. He is beaten by loan shark Paco and his thugs for falling behind with his payments, hassled for money by junkie friend Mike and disregarded by the desk jockey at the labour exchange (in an office resplendent with Dawn of the Dead and Frank Zappa posters for added professionalism!)

Reluctantly contacting his estranged father Frankie comes up against another dead end. Not only does his father not initially believe that the caller is his son having been previously been advised that his son died in Siagon three years ago, his father is no longer the rich, successful businessman that Frankie remembered. After telling Frankie that he is now “waiting to die” and that there is “too much time and too much pain” between them his father hangs up.

Frankie decides that his only prospect of a swift improvement in his circumstances is by turning to crime although Frankie’s hapless day continues as he is caught in the midst of a bag snatch by Paco and his cronies and is given his second beating of the day. Dispatching his assailants courtesy of a handgun that has fallen from the snatched bag, Frankie comes to his own skewed conclusion that his war is not over, it’s just the battlefield that has changed and he returns home to save his family in the only way that he knows how…

Shot completely on Staten Island, inspired by the displacement and disillusionment of returning war veterans and originally released as American Nightmares, first time director Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock is as downbeat and bleak a movie as can be imagined. Forget the likes of Seven and Taxi Driver as examples of grim cinema, Combat Shock is the real deal as unimaginable misery drips from virtually every frame. And despite the abject misery, no one could have been prepared for the sheer nihilistic brutality of the final moments.

After failing to garner any initial interest Combat Shock was picked up for distribution by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz’s Troma Productions and “sexed up” to coin a phrase of our times! Following approximately ten minutes being trimmed from the running time and the insertion of some stock Vietnam War footage Combat Shock was unleashed on the public with a completely misleading trailer that promised thrills and spills in the vein of Rambo, Commando and The Terminator! Needless to say punters found that the sum did not match the anticipated parts and the theatrical run was brief and returns disappointing.

Fortunately redemption for Combat Shock wasn’t far behind courtesy of enthusiastic word of mouth, festival appearances, bootleg VHS tapes and rave reviews in virtually every cut-and-paste fanzine at the time! Here in the UK it was one of those `must see` movies and was a resounding success at the Splatterfest fest in 1990. For this viewer Combat Shock, along with Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn and John McNaughton’s Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (which also played the aforementioned Splatterfest), stand tall as giants of 1980’s US independent cinema.

Combat Shock has now received what is surely its’ definitive presentation as an extras packed two disc extravaganza as part of the Tromasterpiece Collection. Not only are there interviews with director Giovinazzo, brother Rick (whose role as Frankie was his only acting job as well as providing the music for the movie) but also a bunch of short films, music videos and an all new 30 minute documentary including contributions from McNaughton, Van Bebber, Scott Spiegel, Richard Stanley and Roy Frumkes. Best of all however is the inclusion of Giovinazzo’s original cut sporting the American Nightmares title. Absolutely indispensable.

Rob Bewick

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