Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Alex Davis
Dir. Buddy Giovannazzo, USA, 91 min
Now, I must confess I found it hard to picture the day I'd be turning my attention to a Troma film here at Film Gutter. While I've never been an avid follower of the cult company, it's hard not to have stumbled across at least a few of their movies over the years and while some have been fun, it's hard to deny that many are absolute and utter trash. There are a handful of b-movies I have a fondness for, but on the whole I'm not a fan of that end of horror. Just because there's a low budget doesn't mean a movie has to be low quality or low brow.
Some people might argue that the nature of Troma's movies makes them ideal for Film Gutter, but I've tended to try and veer away from flat out 'bad horror' in order to focus very much more on the extreme elements. There might be a few more Troma features that could fit the bill, but there's plenty that would come before those on my list of preferences. However Combat Shock has been on my radar for a while, with many claiming the film features one of the most disturbing finales of all time. That's a privilege that still belongs to Megan is Missing, in my opinion, but it's sure big talk to put on the table. So how does Combat Shock stack up?
Well, I have to say this one was a pretty pleasant surprise. It is low budget, and you can see that it's low budget, but it is one of those gems that uses this fact to its advantage to develop a movie that is grimy, unpleasant and uses what it has in an ingenious way. The story follows Frankie, a Vietnam war veteran whose life has well and truly hit the skids after his dark experiences. We see a little of that to kick off with in flashback, and revisit them a few times throughout the story as rather broken memories. He's got no job, no money, a marriage to Cathy that is deeply struggling and a baby that is anything but normal (which gets attributed to all the chemical warfare he was a part of in Nam) and cries constantly, a pretty harrowing background to Frankie and Cathy's misery. The main part of the story follows Frankie as he wanders the desolate streets of town, bumping into drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, crime lords (whom he happens to be in debt to) as he makes his way to the unemployment office looking for something, anything by way of a job. All the while we see splices of his experiences as a prisoner of war, and the building implications that come with his long recovery and the amnesia he suffers about the attack in one particular village...
For me, this one was pretty impressive and explored a lot of interesting ground. It's a story of urban decay, of what war can do to a person, or having no hope and no visible way out of the situation you're in. Ricky Giovinazzo does a good job in the lead role as Frankie – he's very believable and his various struggles are pretty well depicted – and the constant, hideous crying of the baby is cleverly employed as a background sound throughout a lot of the movie. Sure, some of the scenes and the acting performances around the wider city are a bit ropey, but many add to the scenes of grit and grind that everyone there is experiencing. It's a story that really embraces the underbelly of society.
And the finale? Yeah, I'm happy to concede it was pretty full on. It's not completely unexpected given what comes before it, but it does certainly pack a punch and is a suitable conclusion to what is a pretty nihilistic movie. Combat Shock has certainly built up a cult following, and remains weirdly current and prescient. There are still people struggling desperately at the bottom rung of society, and soldiers fighting in conflicts all over the world who simply don't have the support they need. I also think it's a good example of what you can do in a movie without a lot of money to do it with, so for me it's a real credit to all involved.
RATING: 9/10. Maybe enjoyable isn't quite the right word for a movie this bleak, but it certainly was compelling despite a few flaws here and there. But given what the movie is some of those more ridiculous performances from the minor characters don't feel so bad – in fact many seem to fit what is a dark but absurd scenario. I can certainly see why this one has built up a following – in fact it's no shock at all to hear. I'm happy to give this one a highly creditable 9/10.