Would you trust the artistic merits of a film written and directed by a dude named Buddy Giovinazzo, or Buddy G as he appears in the credits of Combat Shock? When my credit wasn’t worth a shit, I think Buddy G was the guy that gave me a personal loan in the damp alleyway behind my favorite dump of a tavern. Sadly, I was late with the third payment and now I type with one less finger than most of the planet. This was a hard lesson learned. It taught me to always pay creditors on time. My credit score is now fairly robust and I trained myself to wipe my ass with the opposite hand. You need all your digits for the important stuff.
Combat Shock is a no-budget drama about a seriously disturbed Vietnam veteran trying to scrape out an existence in a society that no longer has any use for him. At times it is amateurish and decidedly third rate. On the other hand, it also has many scenes of disturbing power. Combat Shock has the ability to show us broken and profound thoughts that jab us in the gut like a bayonet dipped in battery acid. The film has a surreal quality that makes one think of David Lynch if he was a destitute drug addict and made home movies on skid row.
Like your average cement mixing or ice company located on Staten Island, this film is a Giovinazzo Brothers collaboration. Buddy’s brother Rick stars as Frankie, the deranged vet whose grip on reality is about as tenuous as the goodwill of an ex-con bartender dealing with a belligerent drunk who pays for his beers with nickels and dimes. Rick also composed the synth-heavy score that is quite good in parts. Keeping shit in the family not only promotes domestic harmony, it is also usually cheaper. I read that scenes were also filmed in Mama Giovinazzo’s backyard.
The film opens with a Vietnam flashback that looks like it was filmed in the swamps and sumps that must exist near the Fresh Kills Landfill. I almost expected to see a bunch of derelict children throwing rocks and heavy dirt bombs at each other. That is what we did back in the early eighties. Frankie is alone, patrolling the reeds and insect infested brush in search of the enemy. We hear his distracting narration which isn’t a great match with the bargain basement production design. When the shelling starts, the bombs are less alarming than the average firecrackers that the degenerates down the block used to blow up innocent frogs during the annual Fourth of July celebration. However, by the end of the opening sequence, the brothers Giovinazzo manage to show the audience a suitably disturbing experience.
Unfortunately, when Frankie awakes from his nightmare in a cold sweat he actually might be in a worse place than the jungles of Vietnam that were stained with the insides of his army buddies. To call the hovel Frankie shares with his suffering, scornful wife, Cathy(Victoria Stork), and severely deformed infant a shithole would be an insult to even the sloppiest Port-O-Potty used at a festival attended by 5th Century Barbarians. The baby is a no frills work of genius. Obviously a puppet, its sickly green pallor and electronic, supernatural whine take the drama and steer it into horror film territory.
Frankie and Cathy bicker about their non-existent finances and bleak prospects. Wading through their heavy New Yawk accents, we learn things about a past and present that always seemed depressing, dysfunctional and dead on arrival. The disheveled couple dance around speaking about their future in much the same way a dying person might refuse to acknowledge upcoming events that they realize they will never be around for. Buddy G weaves a tattered and gloomy tapestry, like looking at photographs of traffic fatalities.
At best, it seems the United States government treats its wounded veterans with indifference, suffocating them under a thousand pounds of paperwork and binding them with red tape. Creating red tape might actually be the only thing the government does better than the private sector. At worst, many heroes in need are discarded like used up sex slaves. After they have been pimped out, used to the point of ruin, they are rolled out to the curb and forgotten like yesterday’s dirty diapers. Rick Giovinazzo–who will never be confused with Olivier–does a great job of expressing the pain and betrayal many of these men and women suffered at the hands of those that never wanted to get their Washington DC clothes dirty. When Frankie shuffles past a stray dog chewing on an old bone, we realize that the mutt has it better than this ex military man.
Things get no brighter for Frankie when he hits the streets looking for a job. Taking a look at the crumbling landscape, it seems that Frankie might have a better chance finding a piece of burning moon rock on the battered boulevards than a business with a Help Wanted sign. Even the pimps don’t seem to be able to afford a set of wheels. I am no economist, but that seems to be a sure sign that the unemployment rate is high. Prostitution is the free market in action.
The Staten Island neighborhood that Frankie dwells in is quintessential apocalyptic urban squalor that b-movies in the eighties portrayed so well. All the degenerates that prowl the avenues wear clothes that tell the audience exactly who they are. Street thugs dress like the mannequins that adorned the front windows at those Chess King stores we never bought anything from when we hung out at the malls during Reagan’s Presidency. On the same cracked sidewalks, women wear gaudy, shiny and tight fitting threads that telegraph “twenty dollars for a suck, fifty for a fuck”. Combat Shock wants us to know exactly who each of its characters are. This film is about as subtle as the firebombing of Dresden.
While the script doesn’t break any new ground for this type of movie, director Giovinazzo shows us some nice artistic touches. The voices vibrating from the static on Frankie’s ancient television come to mind. The ending of Combat Shock is more disturbing than the final scenes of Taxi Driver, which is the famous uncle of Giovinazzo’s film. The last ten minutes are so bleak you might want to steer clear of the booze and Ambien afterwards and just binge watch the antics of Jack Tripper in Three’s Company.