And so begins the 1986 film "Combat Shock" (AKA "American Nightmares"), a 90 minute long kick to the nether regions directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, who also filmed the short promo for "Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie" with Joe Spinell (which you can read about here). The film stars Ricky Giovinazzo, who also composed the excellent soundtrack.
Ricky is a Vietnam vet who spent 2 years as a POW, then has came home to poverty stricken Staten Island and a life of squalor with his wife, and a child mutated by the chemicals he was exposed to during the war.
After a short flashback to the Vietnam war (which was shot in a grassy area of Staten Island), the film begins on the worst day of Ricky's life. Issued with an eviction order, no money, constantly berated by his wife to go and find a job, and to avoid listening to the constant crying of his baby, he leaves to walk the ruined, under-maintained streets.
On his travels he encounters a few of the local undesirables. First off there's a gang who want Ricky to pay back the money he owes, then there's an old friend who has a $100 a day heroin habit, also he has to contend with the prostitutes and pimps in the area. All that and the fact he spends half the day waiting in line at the unemployment office to be told that he has no chance of getting a job without skills.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm oozing out of my body, like I don't belong here, and my mind forces me somewhere else. I can't stop it because it's so real that I believe it. I hear it, I smell it, I can see it."
Add to all the pressure that Ricky is going through, the fact he is going through some really severe post traumatic stress. He has more cracks in his psyche than there are on the streets he walks. All these events are slowly building up inside him, and at some point things are going to boil over.
I first saw "Combat Shock" in a theatre 2010 at a film festival where Buddy G was a guest and introduced this film, and another similarly gritty film of his, "Life Is Hot In Cracktown" (based on a novel which he also wrote). My first impressions made me laugh as I had seen the trailer and was expecting something a lot more fun and cheesy than what I actually saw.
When the film was originally sold to Troma, who cut the film slightly to get an R rating and changed the name, as it's original name was "American Nightmares". This was so they could promote it as an action heavy film like "Rambo", "The Terminator", and "Commando". The film didn't go down well with the target audience, simply because it isn't an action film, it's a bleak insight of a man over the edge. The trailer really is a sight to behold though and hilarious!
If I could compare it to any films, it would probably be a combination of "Taxi Driver" and "Eraserhead", something a lot of other people have described it like. The similarities to "Taxi Driver" are easy to spot. A film about a man going over the edge, a voice-over of what Ricky is thinking, a scene with him talking to a child prostitute, and an equally bloody finale. There are a lot of surreal imagery reminiscent of "Eraserhead", quick multi-angle shots, and that "baby" is unsettlingly familiar.
The baby is very cheaply made and funny to look at, but with the tone of the film it feels right. Very other-worldly and truly a disgusting thing, it get's to you after a while, especially it's strange synth-altered wailing. Apparently Buddy G never actually wanted the baby to ever be shown in the film, but obviously his mind was changed at some point and I'm glad because it does add to the horror.
I can't overestimate how grubby and squalor filled this film is. It feels so filthy you want to pour bleach over your TV and in your eyes. Everything from the dirt stained walls and broken toilet of Ricky's apartment, the rubbish strewn streets, and the spray painted underpasses filled with grime and used needles, it all just adds to the nihilism of the film. And the street scenes were just shot as is, it all adds to the believability of the film. There's something about the way New York was on film in the 70's and 80's, everything was that much grittier back in the day and more realistic, everything is too clean looking now.
Okay I'll admit, the film has dated like most films made around the time, and is really quite cheap, but if you can get past all that then you'll find that it has a good enough main character and decent story. I think it convincingly throws you into another persons private hell. Pretty depressing, sure, but if you like films that challenge you then I think you'll enjoy it. That's what matters, and it's the reason I'd watch this over 1,000 "Rambo" clones..... and what an ending!
"We marched into the village after three days of intense fighting. Our casualty rate was enormous. We were expecting an ambush, but everyone was dead in front of their huts. They had killed themselves, the women and children too. Then we were ordered to pump rounds of ammo into the dead bodies, to scare the VC, and so we did. M16's, pistols, everything. A whole fucking squad just went crazy. Bodies were butchered till they looked like piles of meat. My friends became animals. They began to enjoy it. I knew I had to get out or I'd become one of them, so I started running. They called me a deserter, but what was I deserting? I'd never understood what it was, what it meant, but now it was so clear. You see, they wanted no part of us and took their own way out together. Their wives wouldn't be raped, nor their children tortured and mutilated. They cheated us, oh yes they did. They were the survivors. It was getting clearer all the time. The war is not over. The battlefield may have changed..... but the war is not over."
Thanks for reading.
Apologies. I can't get the theatrical trailer to load here. Instead, you get the serious 25th anniversary version. Sorry!