“Better run through the jungle,
Whoa don’t look back to see”-Creedence Clearwater Revival
A soldier returning home from the battlefront, is a brave individual that has ultimately sacrificed mind, body, and life for OUR liberty. Long periods of separation away from loved ones while surviving among the deadly chaos, adds to the stress already taking a toll on our loyal troops. War has always returned some of our military members home with “Shell-shock,” which in recent years, has been properly diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The visions of war, explosions, and lifeless bodies (friend & foe) strewn about, have shaken some Vets to their core leaving their souls scarred. Hallucinations, nightmares, mood disorders, substance abuse, and the feeling of hopelessness, are just some of the debilitating obstacles that ravage some war torn Vets with PTSD.
The media has covered stories of soldiers serving in Iraq & Afghanistan, coming home with PTSD, at times taking their own lives or loved ones around them as they fail to cope. PTSD has been made a household word, making citizens aware of its signs and symptoms. Unfortunately, therapy, understanding, and valuable insight on PTSD was not addressed enough as an epidemic in the US when our troops returned home from Vietnam. The sins of war, mental breakdown, and the betrayal of America against its own Vietnam Vets, is examined today in horror oddity, Combat Shock (1984).
Welcome to war torn Vietnam. We are on the run through the unforgiving jungle with our battle buddy, American soldier, Frankie, Ricky “Buddy G” Giovinazzo of The Theatre Bizarre (2001), as his voice narrates. Frankie, once a POW, painstakingly reveals that he “goes back there every night” while he sleeps. His night tremors are no better than his waking reality shared with his highly critical, abrasive, pregnant wife Cathy, Veronica Stork of Class of Nuke ‘Em High Part II: Subhuman Meltdown (1991), in their depressing, rundown NYC apartment. One could cut tension with a bayonet, which is shared between Frankie and Cathy. Cathy is the Commanding Officer of the relationship, due to Frankie’s fragile nature, slowly being tortured every moment, haunted by his hellish days spent in the bush 15 years prior.
What should be a blessing, is a curse, when the ill cries of his baby are heard. The bouncing bundle of joy, is actually a miniature mutant (a special effects puppet) which makes the infant in Eraserhead (1977), look like the Gerber Baby. Arguments over Frankie’s unemployment, their dismal financial situation with another baby on the way, and the current health of their crying hell spawn due to the adverse effects of Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange are a constant battle between the spouses.
Once again, Frankie walks through a different jungle of sorts, enroute to the unemployment office through one of our plentiful American ghettos (Poughkeepsie, NY), littered with pimps, teenage prostitutes, homeless junkies, and gangs painting a portrait of urban hopelessness. Frankie has no money to spare towards an armed junkie that finally finds funds to get his fix from Paco, Mitch Maglio (only feature film credit), before dumping the dope directly into a gnarly open wound with a rusty coat hanger (hope he had his Tetanus shot). Paco controls the neighborhood with his gang of hilariously dressed henchmen, and lays the smack down on one of his working girls, as she hasn’t made enough mullah for him, –give the girl a break Paco, it’s still morning.
Frankie’s day gets even worse when there are no jobs suited for him, as he lacks what it takes to be an attractive asset to an employer due to his unmarketable job skills. Advised to attend school to better himself and to save his family from utter ruin, Frankie decides to phone his father. The story gets even more depressing, as Frankie’s dad initially dismisses the call as a cruel joke since he is convinced that his son was killed years back by Charlie deep in the jungle of Southeast Asia. This is the first time Frankie has tried to call his dad in 15 years??? When he does, it’s for money! Unfortunately, Pops is broke because he is dying from a heart condition (probably a broken heart)—thanks Frankie. If we were kin, Frankie would be filling sandbags all day at the next family reunion for being a thoughtless knucklehead. My rant is over, let’s press on.
Now with this bad news adding one more stressor for the already broken Frankie to bear, he steals a purse out of desperation from a woman that robbed the nodding junkie of his gun and ammo. The woman screams, Paco and crew arrive, and a foot chase with Frankie ensues through the decrepit, urban hell hole. Frankie’s military training and instincts are awaken after the gang beats him to a bloody pulp, and he systematically eliminates his targets like a good soldier. Frankie, realizes his real self, did indeed die back in ‘Nam, and he must rectify his situation. Frankie goes home and…it is one of the most bizarre and unforgettable endings to a film you will ever see. Guaranteed—check out the 25th anniversary, uncut version if possible.
Combat Shock is a low budget cult favorite written/directed/scored by Giovinazzo. Giovinazzo filmed Combat $40K, using family members, friends, and his film students from university where he was a professor. All of the film equipment was school property, he filmed the movie in public without permits, and secured some war stock footage to supplement his homemade Vietnam, which was actually shot in a wooded area across from a Staten Island mall and his mother’s backyard. Giovinazzo, though unknown by most, is the epitome of a guerilla/independent filmmaker, embracing the hustle and philosophy of getting a film in the can no matter what.
Produced in 1984 and screened in New York City, Combat Shock wasn’t successful till its release, after being picked up for distribution by the infamous Lloyd Kauffman of Troma Studios (The Toxic Avenger ). Combat Shock, though a bizarre entry and not for everybody, was screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1986 and recently as April 2015, at the Cinedelphia Film Festival. Combat Shock does stand out as being one of the more serious, stark laden features addressing the serious issues of returning Vets.
The hard truth that many have fought for their country, coming home to face the difficult task of landing a job, is still is prevalent today as it was after Vietnam. Though more services and government funded organizations are in place to quell this deficiency, there are still many Vets suffering with mental health, unemployment, and the terrifying uncertainty of what a new day has in store for them. Walking lost amongst the light and shadows, PTSD rattles their realities as they internally fight to make sense of their minds, their lives, and their self-worth. PTSD is on the rise and will be as long as we have brave men and women, deploying to all corners of the globe, to eliminate threats directed towards our country.
War is hell, but to some Vets, the civilian world is much more difficult to survive in.
Check out the Combat Shock Trailer:
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- Rick Baldwin is a writer, filmmaker, film/music historian, and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rick.baldwin.568 and https://www.facebook.com/ricksrhetoric/
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