Combat Shock. 1984. Directed & Written by Buddy Giovinazzo.
Starring Rick Giovinazzo, Veronica Stork, Mitch Maglio, Asaph Livni, Nick Nasta, & Michael Tierno.
2000 A.D. Productions / Troma Entertainment
Rated R / 91 minutes
Drama / Horror / Thriller
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Troma Entertainment’s films are the love ’em or hate ’em type amongst horror fans. One always admirable quality about Troma is they do the best they can with what they have, in terms of budgetary restrictions, and that never seems to hinder any of their films’ sense of imagination; they’re the very definition of gritty indie filmmaking. Occasionally a Troma joint is not only good, it’ll have important sociopolitical messages buried beneath the amateur performances and the usual heaps of gross practical effects. Combat Shock, directed and written by Buddy Giovinazzo, is a brutal little gem about the haunting psychological terrors and physical horrors of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Frankie (Ricky Giovinazzo) was in Vietnam during the war. He did bad, bad things. He also likely got infected with Agent Orange. So when he came back to America, after being captured and held as a POW for two years, he had a whole lot of issues. He and his wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) now live in a shitty apartment. Their child is deformed, as a result of Frankie’s probable contact with Agent Orange. They have no money, no food, and things only get more desperate. Nothing will get better. When Frankie figures that out he makes one horrifying, irreparable decision for his family.
The original reactions to Combat Shock were sceptical and deeply critical of the film portraying PTSD. The film premiered in 1984, only four years after the term post-traumatic stress disorder was first used in the 3rd edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. While it wasn’t the first film to tackle PTSD, formerly known largely as shell shock for veterans, it sits in wild contrast with lots of other American films about war that were trying to comment on Vietnam but were more concerned with trying to make sure the ‘good Americans’ were getting screen time. Meanwhile, Troma’s Combat Shock went for wholesale nihilism to confront the horrors America committed during the Vietnam War.
One of the more horrifying pieces of symbolism connected to PTSD in the film is Frankie and his wife’s deformed child, taking PTSD out of merely the psychological and presenting it in bodily terms. The Agent Orange-infected baby is a corporeal vision of PTSD, birthed by the lingering trauma Frankie carried home not in his mind but his body. The baby, and Frankie’s anxiety over the child, makes Combat Shock feel like an exploitation film spiritual sequel to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Surely not an intentional choice, but Buddy Giovinazzo’s film manages to echo a couple different films in fun, albeit really disturbing ways.
“The battlefield may have changed,
but the war is over.”
Another excellent, unintentional cinematic parallel in Combat Shock is when Frankie’s wife laments how he roams the streets “like a zombie,” as if a nod to Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974) from a decade earlier—another socially conscious horror film of the era dealing with the disillusionment and horror in America connected to the Vietnam War. In another scene, Frankie wanders the street and narrates via voiceover: “This isn‘t supposed to happen here.” He clings to American exceptionalism, brainwashed by his time in the military, believing there couldn’t possibly be horrible living conditions or unemployment in the richest country on the globe. He even tells his wife the military “wouldn‘t spray their own men” with Agent Orange, in denial of what his own government’s willing to do. Combat Shock is a front row seat to witness the death of the American Dream in real time as Frankie falls apart, simultaneously watching his city and country fall apart, too.
The urban and social decay Giovinazzo depicts is reflective of the general American psyche and national morale post-Vietnam. Frankie talks about how “all the vet programs have been cut,” and at one point he talks to a child prostitute who’s being trafficked by a local drug dealer. All the social decay is mirrored in the urban decay of the physical environment: Frankie goes from his dilapidated apartment in low-income, neglected tenement housing, to trash-filled streets outside and endless nasty corners of the city. Combat Shock‘s social decay culminates in Frankie committing a murder-suicide on his family. The film tracks Frankie’s progressing nihilism in the wake of discovering the truth about American atrocities.
An important sequence, before Frankie commits horrific acts against his family, is a surreal moment during which he sees the TV speaking to him, revealing truth: he’s the one who killed a bunch of Vietnamese villagers and some of his fellow American soldiers. We also see Frankie’s face closeup with images from the TV playing, like a cross between traumatic memories and media coverage from the Vietnam War; a repeated image we see a couple times throughout the film. At this late moment in the film Frankie’s discovery, combined with the talking TV, is a significant piece of symbolism related to the media’s exposure of what American troops were doing during the war at the time, as well as the effects it had on Americans watching the news coverage. Frankie is a stand-in not only for soldiers coming home from the Vietnam War, we can likewise see him as a surrogate for the American public and the country’s collective consciousness crumbling as the truths of the war were being rooted out in the public eye by the media.
Combat Shock is far from a great film in terms of its performances, and even at times its writing. It has tons of Troma heart, bringing the raw, gritty qualities we’ve come to associate with the company’s brand. The nastiness of the practical effects and the general grunginess of the production actually serves to make everything else in the film more effective, driving home the urban and social decay rotting America to the core while the Vietnam War raged overseas and at home in the minds of those lucky enough to make it back alive.
“The past is never gone, just remember that,” says Frankie, a twisted echo of William Faulkner’s famous phrase from his book Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It‘s not even past.” This is Frankie’s recognition of his own PTSD, though he’s incapable of actively doing anything about it, only spiralling further and further into horrifying violence. Other war films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket are plenty critical of the U.S. military and its role in the Vietnam War, though they all want to cling to an ideal, believing there are good soldiers v. bad soldiers, when the fact there are soldiers in the first place is the entire issue. No other film so effectively, through sheer brutality and disgust, critiques what the American government did to their own soldiers, as well as citizens, throughout the dirty years of the Vietnam War as Combat Shock.