‘Combat Shock’ Is a Vetsploitation Nightmare
Troma’s 1986 flick is ‘Rambo’ mixed with despair and poverty
The American soldiers who returned from the jungles of Vietnam faced discrimination and unprecedented rates of drug addiction and despair. It didn’t help that the economy of the late 1970s and early ’80s was garbage and the country was moving through what Pres. Jimmy Carter called “the great malaise.”
Pop culture reflected America’s perception of its veterans, and Hollywood churned out movies depicting unhinged young men home fresh from the war and angry at the world.
Tommy Lee Jones took over Central Park in This Park Is Mine. An unhinged vet tortured diner patrons in When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? And of course, Rambo turned a misunderstanding with local law enforcement into a stand off in First Blood.
Those films are child’s play compared to Combat Shock, one of the most gruesome, brutal, disgusting and horrifying films to ever grace the silver screen. Thanks to distributor Troma’s liberal copyright policy, the whole thing is available on YouTube in its unedited form under its original title—American Nightmares.
It is not for the faint of heart.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Combat Shock
Combat Shock is the story of Frankie, a down-on-his-luck loser back from Vietnam. He lives in squalor with his wife in a shitty one-room apartment, can’t find work and can’t afford to feed his family. It’s a simple film with a simple plot. Frankie wakes up, his wife starts in on him about not having food and he leaves the apartment to change that. Then he has a really, really bad day.
It’s a cheap film, made over a few years for just a few thousand dollars. This movie is raw and uncomfortable to watch. Not because it’s the obvious passion project of a first-time director, but because that director captures American poverty so well and doesn’t flinch away from it.
Hollywood often depicts the poor as possessing a certain nobility and scrappy spirit. Their homes and apartments are cluttered but rarely filthy. This movie is different.
These people are desperate and there is no nobility. This is about despair, not uplifting the audience. Frankie’s apartment isn’t just cluttered, it’s disgusting.
It’s not that the walls are stained, they’re coated in goo. It’s as if someone painted them with grime. Stained and soaking newspapers cover the floor. Food and strange liquids drip from every kitchen surface. There’s a shot of a clogged toilet early in the movie that the director could have only filmed one way.
Add to this Frankie’s kid—a horrifying mutant that’s surely a relative of the baby from Eraserhead. The vet’s wife tells him the kid’s a freak because he got a fine coating of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The wailing of Frankie’s child adds to the horror. It sounds like a baby with holes in its throat, the noise of crying child played through an oscillating fan.
And all that before our “hero” even walks outside.
Frankie hits the street early in the film, looking for anything to help keep his family going another day. Much of the flick is just set dressing as Frankie walks around “anywhere New York” landscapes while strange music throbs underneath him. The filmmaker shot Combat Shock around Port Richmond, Staten Island in New York. It’s an apocalyptic hellscape full of junkies, pushers and the beaten down. It looks like the ruins of a decaying civilization.
Frankie’s best friend is a junky who holds up squares for their wallets to feed his habit. Paco is the local pusher and king-pimp. Frankie owes Paco money and tries to avoid the pusher and his goons, but fails. When they catch him, Paco suggests he turn over his kid for use in sexual slavery. “It’s a delicacy to fuck retarded kids,” one of Paco’s goons says. “They pay top dollar.”
While this is going on, Frankie slowly slips deeper into his memories of the Vietnam War. They’re visceral and nasty, the stuff of nightmares. The film is set in 1984 and Frankie’s only been home from Southeast Asia for little more than a year—more than a decade after the U.S. troop withdrawal. There’s a reason.
While in-country, Frankie witnessed a massacre of Vietnamese civilians and refused to participate. Then, the Viet Cong captured him and kept him in a bamboo cage for a few years before turning him over to the United States. The Pentagon then kept Frankie in an asylum while it figured out what had happened at the massacre. All these memories haunt the poor man as he wanders the streets. “The past is never gone,” he tells his wife. “Never forget that.”
As Frankie’s day continues, it deteriorates along with his psyche. He can’t pay Paco the money he owes, almost dies when he tries to steal a purse from a not-so-innocent bystander and suffers a mental break that sends him on a grotesque rampage that serves as the flick’s climax. The end plays like Taxi Driver as a horror film.
If you’re a fan of grindhouse movies then you need to see Combat Shock. The gore is great, the plot simple and the filth authentic. It’s one of those movies that’s so disgusting and brutal it can be hard to stomach, so know that going in.
Writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo moved to Berlin a few years after the release of Combat Shock and started teaching filmmaking. He has directed other features over the years, including the Tim Roth vehicle No Way Home, and some German T.V., but he never again descended to the gritty depths of Combat Shock.