Director/Screenplay/Producer – Buddy Giovinazzo, Photography – Stella Varveris, Music – Ricky Giovinazzo, Gunshot Effects – Brian Powell, Explosives – George Rice, Baby Designed and Created by Ralph Cordero II, Makeup Effects – Ralph Cordero II, Jeff Mathes, Brian Powell & Ed Varuolo. Production Company – 2000 A.D. Productions.
Ricky Giovinazzo (Frankie Dunlan), Veronica Stork (Cathy Dunlan), Michael Tierno (Mike), Mitch Maglio (Paco), Leo Lunney (Mr Dunlan), Asaph Livini (Labo), Nick Nasta (Morbe), Ray Pinero (Welfare Worker), Arthur Saunders (Pimp)
Frankie Dunlan is a Vietnam Veteran who was captured following a Vietcong massacre. This left him in a coma for several years where he was listed as dead before making a recovery. He now lives in Staten Island with his wife Cathy. They have an infant son, which has been born mutated as a result of Frankie’s exposure to military defoliants. Frankie has had no luck trying to find work. He is badly in debt to neighbourhood thugs and he and his wife now receive an eviction notice from their apartment. Passing through the social cesspit of the neighbourhood, Frankie in desperation mugs a woman and snatches her purse. Beaten by the thugs, he finds a gun in the purse and this gives him the ability to turn the tables on them. This also causes Frankie to flashback to the horrors of Vietnam and his mind to snap.
Combat Shock was a work that announced the presence of filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo. The film gained a flurry of genre press when it was released in 1986 and seemed destined for a cult status, although its importance faded away a few years later and it is largely forgotten today. It was not widely distributed, although was picked up for video release by Troma Films even though its grim and harsh tone proved about 180 degrees removed from Troma’s usual bad taste splatter product – The Toxic Avenger (1984), Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) et al.
Though released in 1986, Combat Shock was made before the whole cinematic Vietnam excoriation trip that began with Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). The only cinematic models of Vietnam War that Buddy Giovinazzo had to draw on at the time were films like Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Exterminator (1980), First Blood (1982), Birdy (1984), and to some extent Coming Home (1978). In these, there is the recurrent theme that there was a generation of Vietnam Veterans who existed in a psychotic state, a hairsbreadth away from snapping point – that they were trained to kill, that all attempts to fit back in and lead normal lives was merely papering over something that was likely to snap with the smallest provocation.
Combat Shock follows the story arc of Taxi Driver – or perhaps even more closely Abel Ferrara’s non-Vietnam Veteran film The Driller Killer (1979) – of an ordinary man surrounded by a morally decaying and diseased society, where the petty frustrations of daily life cause him to suddenly start to kill. That and perhaps a few dashes of Eraserhead (1977) in its story of an average married man and his wife living in a tiny apartment, dealing with a mewling mutant baby.
The film places focus on the grim impoverishment of Ricky Giovinazzo’s life – his complaining wife, their pending eviction from the tiny apartment, the search for baby food, run-ins with local thugs he owes money to, the frustration of standing in long lines to search for employment and months of being told there is nothing. All around him, the neighbourhood is filled with junkies, drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps, not to mention buildings abandoned and the cracks in the streets sprouting wild foliage.
More so than a horror film, Combat Shock seems a work of grim sociological realism that is designed to show life and the realities of unemployment in the ghettos of Staten Island as bleakly as possible. (This is the same neighbourhood where director Buddy Giovinazzo and his brother, the lead actor Ricky Giovinazzo, grew up together). Perhaps one of the more horrible scenes is where a junkie (Michael Tierno) shoots up by gouging open his vein with a coat hanger and pouring the powdered heroin inside.
On the minus side, Combat Shock is frequently amateurish in terms of directorial style and production finish. Grimly horrible and all as the coat hanger shooting up scene is, it also looks very fake in terms of a makeup effect. The plot is loose, more picaresque than anything else. This does not matter so much as the bleakness of the social portrait carries much of the film.
One of the best pieces of writing is when Buddy Giovinazzo calls up the father (Leo Lunney) he has not seen for many years, who is now dying and promptly rejects his son because he thought he was dead and having to reconnect with him holds too much pain in his last few days. The film reaches an incredibly bleak ending where [PLOT SPOILERS] Ricky Giovinazzo comes home, shoots his wife, then the baby, before sitting down at the kitchen table to drink a glass of milk that is past its expiry date and blows his brains out against the wall.
Buddy Giovinazzo subsequently went onto direct the modestly acclaimed but little seen likes of No Way Home (1996), The Unscarred (2000) and Life is Hot in Cracktown (2009), although none of these are works of horror. Between the 1980s and 90s, Giovinazzo dropped out of active directing to teach filmmaking at New York University and then in the 00s went to direct German television. He made a return to the horror genre with an episode of the anthology The Theatre Bizarre (2011) and the feature-length A Night of Nightmares (2012). Also around the same time as this he shot Maniac 2: Mr Robbie (1986), a promo reel for a projected sequel to Maniac (1980) starring Joe Spinell but this never got off the ground. In a similar vein to the portrait of social dissolution we see here, Giovinazzo also wrote the book Life is Hot in Cracktown (1993), a collection of short stories focused on life among addicts and prostitutes in New York City, which he claims is taken from true life. (This also forms the basis of his film of the same name).
The lead role in Combat Shock is played by Buddy’s brother, Ricky Giovanazzo. Ricky has a tall, gaunt and emaciated look that seems entirely haunted before the grim social portrait even kicks in. This was Ricky Giovanazzo’s sole acting role and he has since abandoned acting, although in the 00s emerged as a music orchestrator on a number of surprisingly high-profile Hollywood films.