From The Parallax Review Vaults: Combat Shock (1986)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Combat Shock was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Starz and Encore On Demand

Combat Shock is the type of film that makes the viewer feel the need to take a shower. The fact that that reaction is probably what writer/editor/producer/director Buddy Giovinazzo intended makes it a successful film. But just because the film succeeds at what the filmmaker is attempting doesn’t mean that I can necessarily recommend it.

Frankie (Ricky Giovinazzo) is a Vietnam War veteran living in abject poverty in the poorest area of Staten Island. His wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) is six months pregnant. This fact only causes them misery considering their first child is a mutant baby, hideously deformed by Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange during the war. Unemployed, unable to afford food, and facing eviction, Frankie would be at the end of his rope even if he wasn’t having torturous dreams about his time in the war.

What, exactly, did happen to Frankie in the war? That question hangs over the film, as he has flashbacks to stumbling upon the grisly aftermath of a massacre of civilians, getting captured by Viet Cong soldiers, and being imprisoned in a tiny box for over two years. How these experiences left him a shaken shell of a man forms the backbone of a mean, depressing film that never pulls any punches.

Combat Shock is an exploitation film in the purest sense. Giovinazzo takes a hot-button topic (the inability of psychologically damaged Vietnam veterans to reenter normal life) explored in big-budget films (The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, Coming Home), adds some graphic violence, grotesque special effects (despite the crudeness of its design — or maybe because of it — the mutant baby is incredibly unnerving), and the occasional nod to audience expectations with some bizarre attempts at humor.

But there’s no getting around the fact that even as he exploits the sad circumstances that inspired the story, Giovinazzo is trying to make a serious film. That’s where the nausea level becomes uncomfortably high. As a viewer, I found myself sympathizing with Frankie. Even when it’s revealed that he should probably no longer be sympathized with and has become something to be feared, I desperately wanted him to have a happy ending. But I knew that that was not the type of film I was watching, and it made me feel sick as the narrative rolled forward to an inescapably tragic ending.

As much as the film owes a debt to the Vietnam veteran genre, it takes just as much from more disparate sources: Mean Streets, Street Trash, and Eraserhead are all echoed in the look, feel, and tone of inescapable tragedy and lunacy that permeates the proceedings from the first frame.

From the first glimpse of Frankie’s baby, that tone of muted horror and desperation is suffocating. Giovinazzo doesn’t shy away from focusing his camera on the more ugly and repulsive moments in the film (I will never be able to forget the image of a junkie without a syringe using a wire hanger to gouge a hole in his arm to get a fix). It’s this refusal to compromise on his vision that gives the film its power. Even the shaky performances and cheap recreations of the Vietnam War can’t undermine the impact of the film.

So why can’t I recommend Combat Shock? This is not a film you watch for enjoyment or to mock for the cheap production values. As a sickly compelling tragedy with a nihilistic tone, it’s a film you survive. I came out okay, but it ruined the rest of my day and night. Proceed with caution.

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