Nihilism as a theme is a fairly uncommon animal in film, especially in mainstream productions where the crowd-pleasing ethos makes it difficult to explore the meaningless of life. Even TAXI DRIVER, one of the most celebrated examinations of nihilism, has a redemptive arc. (And begs the question, how successful would Scorsese’s film be without it?)
Horror films of course get a free pass to delve into bleakness and despair, though they too can encounter resistence by going “too dark” (case in point: the reaction to Frank Darabont’s epilogue for THE MIST). Yet even with the recent spate of torture porn and such offerings as THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE and A SERBIAN FILM it’s hard to find a study of human suffering as unrelentingly and unapologetically downbeat as Buddy Giovinazzo’s COMBAT SHOCK.
Originally filmed as AMERICAN NIGHTMARES, the film was picked up by Troma in 1986, who retitled it, trimmed it, and slapped it with an ad campaign that implied it was a RAMBO clone. (Troma did go on to release a nice two-disc special edition in 2009 that includes both cuts, and is well worth picking up.) But even the tinkering for an R rating and palatable reception couldn’t blunt the edge of Giovinazzo’s shocking melodrama.
COMBAT SHOCK chronicles the final, miserable hours of Frankie (played by Giovinazzo’s brother Ricky, in a raw wound of a performance), an unemployed, impoverished Vietnam veteran living with his wife and Agent Orange-mutated baby in a Staten Island hellhole. When he’s not dealing with flashbacks to his stint in a Vietnamese POW camp, Frankie struggles to find a job while trying to keep his family from falling prey to the mafia goons to whom he owes money. If that wasn’t enough–and in Giovinazzo’s world, it never is–they’re about to get tossed from their squallid apartment. Frankie’s feeble, vain attempts to right the sinking ship of his life triggers a series of events that culminates in one of the harshest, most staggering climaxes the genre has seen.
There’s little in the way of traditional action, but what keeps COMBAT SHOCK from being a depressing slog is Giovinazzo’s strong narrative skills and keen eye for detail. (He also makes effective use out of a largely non-professional cast, giving the derelict setting a dingy cinema verite feel.) He never flinches in depicting this hell, be it the heroin addict who, lacking the works to inject his fix, gouges a hole in his arm to sprinkle in his junk or the cheerfully oblivious child prostitutes Frankie encounters. The approach peels back the characters’ grimy facades, making them instantly real and relatable, and which only serves to make its ending all the more brutal. (Though Giovinazzo also finds moments in which to inject slivers of pitch-black humor.)
But the film’s signature centerpiece is Frankie’s baby. Symbolic of the traumas he suffered in (and brought home from) the war, it’s the most unnerving cinematic infant since the one in ERASERHEAD. It’s such a disturbing visual that even its technical crudity can’t diminish its impact.
I’m tempted to write more in depth about the film’s climax, in which Frankie finally takes care of his family, but I’ll hold off. If you’ve seen the film you know what a shocking, tragic scene it is (made more so by its sheer inevitability), and if you haven’t–well, you’re in for a nasty little revelation. I will, however, say that Giovinazzo handles the moment just right, unafraid to follow events to their grim conclusion while keeping it from going unneccessarily over the top. And once the horrible moment has passed, Giovinazzo proves once again that things can always get worse, adding a brief metaphorical coda that suggests Frankie’s torments will continue in the afterlife.
Rivaling CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST for the title of Most Grueling Horror Film, COMBAT SHOCK is a grim and unpleasant picture, but too powerful and well-crafted to be missed. It’s a statement of anger and helplessness; one that, in this era of economic downturns and soldiers readjusting to civilian life, remains as relevant (and resonant) today, a quarter-century later.