With independent distributor Troma Entertainment being primarily known for its goofy exploitation fare like the Toxic Avenger series, it is likely that director Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock will come as a complete surprise and a bit of a revelation to most viewers. In fact, the serious intent of the film stands in sharp relief to the exploitative nature of Troma’s other output much in the same way that it stands in contrast to the exploitative way that Vietnam vets were being treated in mainstream film up to that time.
Frankie Dunlan (Ricky Giovinazzo) came back from service in the Vietnam War scarred. Having spent time as a POW, he now lives in a squalid apartment with a domineering, shrewish wife and a baby whose twisted features are the result of Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange during the war. Forgotten by his country, thought dead by his father, unable to hold a job and with the cupboards bare, Frankie roams the streets trying to find a way, any way, to feed his family and keep a roof over their head. Along the way he encounters former comrades-in-arms turned junkies, an uncaring bureaucracy and worse of all, no escape from the his situation or the memories of atrocities he witnessed in Vietnam.
Combat Shock makes its way to DVD from Troma today, in a two-disc special edition which sports a never-before-seen longer, director’s cut of the film as well as numerous featurettes looking back at the making of this film.
An independent production, Combat Shock does betray its low-budget roots at times. It’s obvious that director Giovinazzo recruited whomever he could into the cast, while the synth-driven soundtrack has a New Wave feel that is out of synch with the film’s gritty, punk aesthetic. But despite its rough edges, Combat Shock succeeds in taking its audience on Frankie’s harrowing journey, right up to its shocking end. Much of that success, though, can be attributed to Giovinazzo’s performance, whose wide-eyed, bedraggled-haired Frankie is our tour guide through this urban nightmare.
Make no mistake, this is an ugly film. The Stanton Island locations are strewn with garbage.Shooting on 16mm, director Giovinazzo brings almost a documentary feel that lends a gritty rawness to the proceedings. The economically-depressed urban hellscape that Frankie wanders through represents the shattering of his own dreams and psyche. It is as much a prison as the bamboo cage the Vietcong held him in.
Although it only had a limited theatrical release, Combat Shock hit screens a good six months before Oliver Stone’s Platoon, marking it as the first serious treatment of the problems that many returning vets faced. While the film did gain a cult following over the years thanks to home video, I wonder if it has ever really been given serious critical reconsideration. Perhaps this new DVD release from Troma will spur a re-examination that the film desperately deserves.