Frankie put the gun to his head.
Frankie’s lying in hell.
We’re all Frankies,
We’re all lying in hell”.
-Alan Vega, Martin Rev-
One of the great films of the eighties, Buddy Giovinazzo’s ferocious and visionary Combat Shock remains one of the most visceral works of American cinema ever created. The history of Combat Shock should be fairly well-known to most fans of American independent cinema, but a quick overview goes like this. Buddy Giovinazzo was a student filmmaker from Staten Island when he began shooting his self-funded feature film debut, under his preferred title, American Nightmares, in 1984 with family, fellow students, and friends. After some early screenings, Troma picked the film up and re-titled it the more commonly known Combat Shock. While we should applaud Troma for picking up such an uncompromising DIY feature, they cut many of Giovinazzo’s most extreme moments and added stock Vietnam footage to capitalize on the namsploitation movement of the mid-eighties. The cuts and new footage neutered the film, but Giovinazzo’s haunting story of a shell-shocked veteran collapsing under the weight of the ‘American dream’, on the streets of New York, still resonated. The most harrowing vision of the horrors of post-war trauma seen since The Deer Hunter shocked into submission audience members tricked by Troma’s poster promising a Missing In Action style exploitation flick. Met with disdain by ‘respectable’ critics, the likes of the great Stephen Bissette and other underground writers who recognized its importance championed Combat Shock. Despite Giovinazzo never being granted his proper place as one of modern cinema’s most important and visionary filmmakers, Combat Shock refused to die and by the mid-nineties, the uncut American Nightmares became one of the most essential and sought-after bootlegs on the grey market VHS circuit.
It was in this grey market area that I first encountered American Nightmares in the nineties via the mail-order company Midnight Video. Like many others, the film completely shocked and absolutely floored me in every way. While the film’s scenes of horrific violence originally stuck with me, as I have aged and matured, it is the film’s heartbreaking heart and humanity that keeps me returning to it. As played by Buddy’s brother Rick Giovinazzo (who also composed the film’s remarkable soundtrack included as a bonus CD on Severin’s set), the lead character Frankie remains one of the most moving creations in all of modern American cinema. Much like Alan Vega’s devastating title character in Suicide’s 1977 jaw-dropping track from their legendary first album, Giovinazzo’s character is a good man buried by a system designed to destroy the helpless and poor. It’s every sad headline of a man pushed to the brink of madness and murder brought to life. Sadly, American Nightmares plays better than ever now in this brutal era of Trump and modern American fascism. This film isn’t just a prophetic time capsule. It is instead a nightmarish depiction of NOW. I see Frankie every day, as the streets are crowded with homeless veterans desperately in need of help they aren’t receiving. Giovinazzo knew ignoring our veterans in need was a criminal act by the American government in 1984 and it remains one today.
Of course, American Nightmares doesn’t just survive as a political and sociological statement as it stands as a glorious reminder of the power of film in the hands of a truly visionary artist who refused to back down, no matter the financial and personal hardships. The essential book that comes along with Severin’s essential package, featuring Giovinazzo’s shooting diaries from the time, should be REQUIRED reading for all young students of cinema. It’s a triumphant portrait of an artist not enslaved by the dollar and corporate sponsorship…our tragic current sell-out culture should take note…this is how it should be fucking done.
While Combat Shock is available in several home video versions, Severin’s absolutely stunning out-of-print Blu-ray edition of Buddy Giovinazzo’s grueling 1984 masterpiece Combat Shock restores Giovinazzo’s mesmerizing vision to his original American Nightmares director’s cut in a package filled with hours of essential extras. Powered by a 4k scan of the fully uncut American Nightmares, an essential commentary by the Giovinazzo brothers (along with makeup effects artist Ed Varuolo), hours of interviews with the makers of film and the critics who championed it, short films and Troma’s original terrific extras the much sought after Blu-ray is an absolute triumph for Severin and Giovinazzo. if you can find it…get it.
-Jeremy Ross Richey, Originally written for Moon in the Gutter on 08/15/2018-
“He’s just trying to survive, well let’s hear it for Frankie, Frankie, Frankie…”