Combat Shock (1986)

AUGUST 13, 2009


See, this is how you do a “sort of horror in the last 10 minutes” movie. Unlike Audition, which was pretty goddamn boring until it actually became a horror film, Combat Shock is a compelling and depressing tale of one day in the life of a Vietnam vet who is faced with eviction, hunger, and pretty much every other shitty way of living. And then the end, which owes a bit to Taxi Driver, manages to make the previous 80 minutes look like lighthearted Disney fare.

Part Taxi Driver, part Falling Down (which came after Combat Shock, yes - just trying to paint a picture with more popular movies), with a mutant baby straight out of Eraserhead for good measure, the film is hardly traditional entertainment. Our hero spends the entire film wandering around Staten Island looking for a job (and ultimately, a quick score). It’s hardly the most picturesque film; the entire thing takes place in burnt out husks of buildings, train tracks, and an apartment that should have been condemned. What I’m saying is... this is most definitely NOT a movie you’d want to watch with a big group of friends. Unless you plan on killing each other, then it’s probably ideal.

Apart from baby mutie, the horror is more of the ‘real world’ variety... at one point, he stumbles on a pimp who is trying to trick out a 12 year old girl. There’s also a scene where he contemplates eating some maggot infested food out of a dumpster. The ending though; good lord. You think it’s going into more exploitative territory when the guy uses his oven for something that is most definitely not food, but it doesn’t go that far, and retains the depressing realism of the guy’s situation. It wouldn’t surprise me if the event actually occurred, save for the baby being a mutant.

I just wish it had a better editor. Writer/producer/director Buddy Giovinazzo also cut the film, but didn’t seem to know (at the time) that there’s no law stating that a movie has to be 90 minutes or more. While the slowness sort of helps to make the end more shocking, it still could use to shed 10-15 minutes. For example, the opening ‘Nam flashback runs a full 14 minutes, including two that consist entirely of establishing shots and cutaways to trees and such. There’s also a go-nowhere subplot about our hero’s junkie friend, who goes to see another junkie, uses a hanger to inject heroin, dies, and then gets rolled by the other junkie and some other random woman. Sure, it further demonstrates how shitty life is for these folks, but again, it could be shorter and have the same point.

Let’s talk the mutant baby. This thing’s howls will haunt your dreams for days, I can guarantee. According to the director, the sound is simply him moaning, which was then reversed and sped up on top of that. It’s almost inimitable with human vocal chords, which is probably the point, but it won’t stop me from trying to mimic it when I discuss the film with friends. And it’s a pretty impressive little thing; the movie only cost 40 grand (and it’s on film - so suck it, DV filmmakers who claim that film is too expensive for their budget) but the puppet is up there with the It’s Alive baby.

Another impressive feat is that all the ‘Nam footage was shot in Staten Island as well (a fact Lloyd Kaufman cheerfully points out in the traditional Troma intro). The stock footage, of course, doesn’t really match the new stuff in terms of film stock and quality, but I sure as hell never would have guessed that the goddamn Statue of Liberty was nearby in the original footage. A+ trickery work there.

Troma has recently released a 2 disc set, which features a longer cut of the film (mostly character stuff) as well as some interviews and a retrospective with guys like John McNaughton and Jim VanWebber. Unfortunately I got the original single disc release, which features a boatload of the usual Troma crap (including a cooking show parody with a young Joe Lynch!) and very little concerning the film. On that front, all we get is a brief interview with Giovinazzo conducted by Lloyd (so you can guess how informative it is), and a commentary where Giovinazzo is joined by Nekromantik director Jorg Buttgereit It’s not a bad track, I just wasn’t really in the mood to watch the film again, lest I turn suicidal myself. He admits a few of his mistakes (and makes a few jokes about the fact that most of the film is the guy walking around) and points out who is playing the assorted supporting characters (family members, ex-wives, etc). Worth a listen, just maybe not right after you’ve watched the movie.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go stare at a poster featuring a puppy napping with a kitty for about five hours.

What say you?

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  1. This movie totally blew my mind the first time I watched it, and I actually got choked up a bit at the end (pretty goddamn impressive, since the only other movie to really get that much out of my in my adulthood was It's A Wonderful Life - I can't help it! I man-crush on Jimmy Stewart). Even some of the more dated elements (the way the thugs are dressed, especially) can not dull this film's power to depress you.

    You also ought to check out the song Frankie Teardrop by the band Suicide. It was one of the film's inspirations and is pretty much its musical equivalent. Listening to that at night, in the dark, on headphones will pretty much guarantee a disturbing experience. I tried to write the literary equivalent of the basic story (man can't cope with life, kills his baby) but I don't think mine was quite as wrist-slittingly devastating. Apparently the people at my school did though, since I had threats, insults, and accolades thrown at me. LOL! I guess a subject like this is either love it or hate it.

    I actually got to briefly chat with the director on Facebook the other day, and he's a pretty cool guy. His new movie Life Is Hot in Cracktown is supposed to be somehow harder hitting than even this one (which I already said on twitter but, what the hell), and he said that a lot of festivals rejected it. Interestingly enough, one of the subplots concerns man trying to care for his wife and ailing baby...sound familiar? I wonder if he'll take it in a different direction this time.

  2. Although I've only seen the R-rated version, I can safely say that "Life is Hot in Cracktown" is nowhere near as bleak or graphic in terms of its content as "Combat Shock," so temper your expectations accordingly. It's still pretty damn bleak, though, and certainly worth seeing.

  3. Thanks for sharing and pulling it together.

  4. i'm watching this now, and i am sorry, but the baby in eraserhead is way better looking.

    non canon eraserhead review por favor

  5. The baby goes into the oven in the extended director's cut.


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