COMBAT SHOCK (1984) Limited Edition Blu-ray
Director: Bubby Giovinazzo
Severin Films

Troma's "American nightmare" COMBAT SHOCK comes Blu-ray in a loaded, limited special edition from Severin Films.

War vet Frankie Dunlan (composer Rick Giovinazzo) lives in squalor with his girlfriend Cathy (Veronica Stork) and their infant son deformed due to Frankie's exposure to Agent Orange. His girlfriend blames his laziness and he blames the economy for his inability to get a job, and he spends his days wandering the streets and waiting in line at the Department of Labor for jobs for which he is unqualified. He owes money to smalltime gangster Paco (Mitch Maglio) and his thugs (PHANTOM BROTHER's Asaph Livni and Nick Nasta) are threatening to take it out in trade from his girlfriend and sell his son to a freak show. Fellow vet Mike (Michael Tierno) mugs people on the street to feed his expensive heroin habit. Frankie is not ready to resort to criminality, but he also knows he cannot go home empty-handed to Cathy who is on the edge due to a combination of hunger and a lack of sleep as their son keeps crying. Over the course of a day, he observes the ugliness of humanity around him, from gangsters and junkies to pimps and child prostitutes. A prisoner of war for two years followed by a three year stay in the hospital, Frankie remembers little of the Vietnam massacre that left an entire village and all of his own unit slaughtered; however, the past is starting to come back with a vengeance, and he Frankie is about to snap.

An infamous Troma pick-up from the eighties produced under the title AMERICAN NIGHTMARE – and possible changed either due to the earlier release of the Canadian film by Paul Lynch (PROM NIGHT) or as part of Troma's campaign – it is difficult to tell if COMBAT SHOCK is "well-meaning" or as wildly exploitative as befits a Troma title. It does present a gritty depiction of the inability of shell-shocked soldiers to fit back into civilian life, and the rampant unemployment and drug use that further marginalizes them in already economically-depressed conditions; however, all of this feels less like a cohesive portrait than a mélange of derivations of everything TAXI DRIVER to REPULSION (along with ERASERHEAD and possibly even Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION). The squalid settings are well-utilized, but performances range from flat to shrill (sometimes from the same actor), while Giovinazzo's bassy electronic score underlines much of the film with dread apart from its constant reuse of a disco track whenever Frankie is seen walking the streets. Giovinazzo's editing is innovative in conveying Frankie's triggered mind, but the intercutting between Frankie's travails in the city and Cathy alone with the baby lack finesse. The deformed baby puppet is impossible to take seriously, which undercuts the dramatic impact; which may be a good thing for more sensitive viewers by the end of the film. Giovinazzo subsequently tried to get a sequel to Bill Lustig's MANIAC off the ground with Joe Spinell as a children's TV host who goes mad, but only a promo trailer was shot before the actor's death. Giovinazzo subsequently lectured at NYU for a few years before going to Germany where he resumed his directing career with a few features and television with a few US and UK credits as well. His most recent genre credit was a short in the anthology THEATRE BIZARRE.

Released theatrically and on VHS by Prism as COMBAT SHOCK in an R-rated version running 92 minutes, the same master was used for Troma's 1999 DVD which featured a commentary by Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit (NEKROMANTIK). That edition was mislabeled as the director's cut but Troma subsequently issued a two-disc edition in 2009 with the theatrical and director's cuts on one disc and several extras on the second, but the transfers left a lot to be desired. Arrow in the UK duplicated the two-disc package but with NTSC-PAL conversions of the US transfers. Severin's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer is derived from a 4K scan of the 35mm blow-up theatrical cut internegative with 2K inserts from Giovinazzo's 16mm answer print (the blow-up element itself was cut to attain the R-rating necessitating the inserts). The image is crisper and more colorful than before, but this is still a grungy-looking film that looks its best in close-ups and the apartment interiors while the exteriors may be slightly overexposed. The onscreen title is AMERICAN NIGHTMARES (although references lists it as singular). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track fares better, sounding cleaner overall with the scoring coming effectively layered in with the distortion of sound effects during Frankie's more delirious passages. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.

The Troma DVDs featured an audio commentary by Giovinazzo and filmmaker Jorg Buttgereit (NEKROMANTIK) but it was created for the theatrical cut of the film. Severin's disc includes a new audio commentary by writer/producer/director Giovinazzo, his actor/composer brother Rick, and special make-up effects artist Ed Varuolo. Giovinazzo discusses the protracted shooting schedule divided into the "Vietnam" shoot in Staten Island – in which dancer Ginny Cattano was the only Asian extra while the others were Rick's music students – the apartment location which was freshly painted to they applied latex over the walls to dirty them up only for the ink and paint to soak through, and the city sequences. The hospital scenes were shot in a studio at the College of Staten Island where Giovinazzo had been a student, Rick's registered nurse wife advised on the verisimilitude of the blood in various sequences, and Buddy recalls using the eight thousand dollars given by relatives at his own wedding to finish the film. They also recall that the baby was not meant to be seen but effects artist Ralph Cordero – who was their contact with Troma since he worked on THE TOXIC AVENGER and SPLATTER UNIVERSITY – offered to create and operate a puppet for $140 dollars that they characterize as "E.T. on crack." Buddy also explains that the sound design more so than the baby is indebted to ERASERHEAD and the work of Alan Splet on that film.

"The Brothers G" (27:10) is a brand new interview with Buddy & Rick Giovinazzo in which they recall their musical upbringing – their father had a music school on the first floor of their home – and they playing in a band while majoring in music at College of Staten Island. Buddy took a film appreciation class and was hooked, eventually shooting short clips to be projected behind their music performances. He discusses his early shorts and the decision to do COMBAT SHOCK (or AMERICAN NIGHTMARES as it was known then) after seeing John Waters' PINK FLAMINGOS which he saw as "a film with all your friends." Rick discusses the scoring of the film and how Buddy guided the shaping of the score from rejected cues to reworking them in post-production, and how the film's first exposure came through a screening of his answer print at Rick Sullivan's Gore Gazzette screening along with Stephen R. Bissette's write-up in Chas Ballun's Deep Red fanzine. He also recalls approaching Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing (DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D.) before Troma, and then Fox before going back to Troma. He recalls being less bothered by the necessity of cutting the film for an R-rating than the ad campaign.

"Nightmare Effects" (17:18) is a new interview with special make-up effects artist Varuolo who went to film school with Giovinazzo but left when he started getting regular work. He talks little about the effects – other than the makeshift squibs – although he does mention Codero's Troma credits, his work on the baby puppet, and Brian Powell's other effects credit on FLESH-EATING MOTHERS. He spend more time on his reactions to the film and shooting down reaching interpretations of choices made on the production out of necessity. In "Combat Shots" (5:12), the interview with director of photography Stella Varveris similarly remarks on how the Giovinazzo had a strong vision but that he was open to compromises when necessary or when suggested by others on the film. She also notes that the CP-16 newsgathering camera made handheld shots easier; while with actor Maglio in his interview "Playing Paco" (8:15) reveals that it was indeed Varveris keeping up with them during the many running scenes shot handheld. He describes Giovinazzo as an actor's director while also praising the director's choices of locations throughout Staten Island to give it the feel of another battlefield.

In "Mike the Junkie Memories" (5:47), actor Tierno recalls working on some of Giovinazzo's early Super 8 films along with the 16mm "A Christmas Album" – also included on the disc – as well as thinking the prosthetics for his shooting up scenes were over the top until he saw the finished film. "American Deep Red" (13:24) is an interview with artist/critic Stephen Bissette who recalls his reactions to the film upon first seeing it and seeing it a number of times more between his Deep Red write-up and his interview with Giovinazzo in a later issue. He describes how the film got under his skin as being one of a number of "Vietnam vet goes crazy" films while simultaneously being like nothing else. He also provides some context to Giovinazzo's subsequent attempts at another feature between COMBAT SHOCK and the comedy SHE'S BACK which he scripted but Tim Kinkaid directed, among them the MANIAC sequel MR. ROBBIE (which he reveals had trouble getting funded because of the release of a similarly-plotted film and JONATHAN OF THE NIGHT which was an urban vampire film before that became a trend in the nineties with films like THE ADDICTION, HABIT, and NADJA. "Shock Xpression" (11:15) is a new interview with international UK film journalist Alan Jones who recalls his reaction to the film – particularly in contrast to Troma's homegrown product – and his review for Shock Xpress (in which he described it as "PLATOON meets ERASERHEAD"), the importance of US and UK fanzines in the eighties as a guide to finding such films in this censorious period, and his ongoing friendship with Giovinazzo.

The Out-take and Tests (14:25) featurette includes various squib tests during the "jungle" and ending sequence, test shots of the baby (in which Cordero's thumb is very evident as the baby's tongue), and multiple takes of the suicide, while "Hellscapes: Locations Then and Now" (2:43) is a look at the locations as they were in the film and as they are now (the department of labor building is a now a fitness center). "Post Traumatic: An American Nightmare" (29:13) is a featurette from the Troma two-disc featuring comments by several of Giovinazzo's contemporaries including Richard Stanley (DUST DEVIL), Scott Spiegel (THE INTRUDER), Mitch Davis (producer of SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY), and "The Phantom of the Movies" Joe Kane. Jim VanBebber draws parallels between the film and his DEADBEAT AT DAWN while John McNaughton does the same with HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and William Lustig does so for MANIAC. Rick Sullivan is also on hand to discuss his Gore Gazette screening, while Justin Stanley (BENEATH LOCH NESS) recalls the 24 hour underground Splatterfest screening in London along with McNaughton and Roy Frumkes whose DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD also screened there. Buddy Giovinazzo and Jörg Buttgereit at 2009 Berlin Film Festival (7:40) is a discussion between the two who recall discovering one another's' films, the importance of bootlegs in getting them both exposure – although Giovinazzo notes that Buttgereit had to market NEKROMANTIK himself while he had distribution for COMBAT SHOCK – meeting when Buttgereit came to New York in 1999, and Giovinazzo's move to Germany.

The film's theatrical trailer (3:21) is also included along with a number of Giovinazzo's short films. The MR. ROBBIE: MANIAC II promo (7:26), in which Spinell plays a children's TV show host who gets letters from fans about the abuse of their parents and goes on a killing spree, is accompanied by an audio commentary by Giovinazzo and his brother, and a selection of outtakes (8:41). The promo for "Jonathan of the Night" (13:23), vampire Jonathan (Don Striano) and his sister (Melissa Tait) find victims at an eighties party of cocaine-snorting, big-haired yuppies. "The Lobotomy" is offered up in slightly different versions – finished 16mm (7:13) and a silent 8mm assembly (8:56) – along with the music video "Leave This World" (4:05), the 8mm shorts "Maniac Drummer" (6:17), "More Than a Mouthful" (3:17), and "Paranoiac" (3:06). Most interesting is "A Christmas Album" (7:06) featuring COMBAT SHOCK's Tierno as a man whose Christmas joy turns sinister when he gets a special record album as a gift from his girlfriend. Disc two is the film's CD soundtrack (26:43) – including a bonus track from MR. ROBBIE – which an insert card explains comes from the original tapes but differs from the film in that they could not fully recreate the changes they made to the score during the film's sound post-production. Packaged with the disc (but not in the case since it larger) is the “American Nightmares Scrapbook" featuring ninety-six pages of liner notes booklet along with the director’s diary, the forty-page shooting script, rare photos, and storyboards along with a trim of individual frames from the director’s work print. The disc case is housed in a limited edition numbered slipcover autographed by Giovinazzo. (Eric Cotenas)