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Saturday, July 21, 2018

COMBAT SHOCK, aka "American Nightmares" -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

Sometimes you discover a film by an indie first-timer that's so earnestly conceived and fiercely original that it transcends its rock-bottom budget to become something fascinating. The PTSD nightmare COMBAT SHOCK, aka "American Nightmares" (Severin Films, 1984), is one of those movies, capable of keeping us transfixed whether we like it or not.

Not that this story of a Viet Nam vet named Frankie (Rick Giovinazzo), still haunted by the jungles of Southeast Asia while trying to fit back into the urban jungle of New York, isn't derivative, because even the writer director Buddy Giovinazzo (Rick's brother) admits he was heavily influenced by both "Taxi Driver" and "Eraserhead."

The "Taxi Driver" influence is most pronounced in the depiction of the city's most rancid, sordid underside, a hideous ruin filled with drooling junkies, cruel pushers and loan sharks, violent pimps, and other lowlifes.

This is the world through which Frankie trudges in his neverending search for a job or some other means of paying off his crushing debts to keep from being evicted or having his legs broken, or both.
His home life is no better, with a claustrophobic's nightmare of a filthy apartment that should be in the dictionary under "squalor."  His wife Cathy (Veronica Stork) nags incessantly, but I don't blame her because her life is a living hell as well.

This is especially true since she's stuck taking care of their mutant year-old baby, an Agent Orange casualty that looks like an infant Cropsy from "The Burning" only worse and is constantly screeching in an otherworldly voice.  (The puppetry used to create this eye-curdling monstrosity is a marvel.)  Taken as a whole, Frankie's home life makes "Eraserhead" look like a musical comedy.

Frankie's also haunted by war flashbacks involving some horrific massacre of villagers which he was powerless to stop, as well as being hunted until captured and then subjected to agonizing prolonged torture.

In his state of mind, the past and present keep overlapping until he sometimes doesn't know where he is, or when. Coupled with his incredible bad luck, this takes a toll on his sanity that eventually has him acting in dangerously irrational ways.

The film is impressively directed for someone who was pretty much a neophyte, always capably transcending its extremely meager budget and often showing flashes of brilliance.  Yet the overwhelming squalor is unrelenting, almost soul-crushing, not just for Frankie but also the desperate junkies and other hard luck cases we see begging for dope, begging for food or a second chance to repay a debt, or dying like starving rats on the street.

Buddy G. pulls no punches here, and the film is graphically gory and violent as well as brimming with disturbing images (people eating from garbage cans, little girls being sold as prostitutes, staggering inhumanity and despair, and, always, that utterly repellant baby).  As he states himself, he made the film with no regard for its commercial appeal, instead simply following his artistic instincts wherever they might lead.

They lead, finally, to a shocking (an understatement, to be sure) conclusion in which Frankie's burgeoning psychosis inevitably reaches full fruition. The last segment of the film enters a realm of dementia that's rendered in such twisted visual terms that it might have you questioning the sanity of the filmmakers themselves.

Filmed in dribs and drabs over a long period of time with uncertain finances and mostly amateur talent, COMBAT SHOCK is almost better than it has a right to be.  The cast is mostly unpolished but intense and filled with conviction.

The chintzy sets and sometimes unconvincing exteriors (Staten Island fills in for Viet Nam) create a world of their own which is augmented by several great authentic locations.  Rick Giovinazzo contributes a terrific original musical score.

The 2-disc Blu-ray edition from Severin Films contains this score on a CD as well as the uncensored, fully remastered director's cut on another disc which is also brimming with special features (listed below) including an engaging commentary from the Giovinazzo brothers and special makeup FX artist Ed Varuolo.

The version I reviewed is a special limited edition of 2000 that's autographed by Buddy Giovinazzo and comes with a fully illustrated book containing the daily shooting diary, shooting script with notations, and publicity materials, plus a piece of film from the movie itself.  

I once thought "Taxi Driver" was a downer, but compared to COMBAT SHOCK it's a Miyazaki film.  It's as though some celebrated auteur suddenly went insane and made a movie using whatever cash he had in his pockets at the time, and watching it is an experience which is both stunningly nightmarish and utterly freaky-deaky.

Buy It From Severin Films


Special Features:
American Nightmares Director’s Cut (new 4k scan from 35mm Inter-negative with 2k inserts from the Director’s personal 16mm answer print. Mono audio remaster from original mag tracks. New color correction supervised by Director Buddy Giovinazzo)
Audio Commentary with Writer/Producer/Director Buddy Giovinazzo, Actor/Composer Rick Giovinazzo and Special Makeup Effects Artist Ed Varuolo
The Brothers G: Interview with Buddy & Rick Giovinazzo
Nightmare Effects: Interview with Special Makeup Effects Artist Ed Varuolo
Combat Shots: Interview with Director of Photography Stella Varveris
Playing Paco: Interview with Actor Mitch Maglio
Mike the Junkie Memories: Interview with Actor Michael Tierno
American Deep Red: Interview with Artist/Critic Stephen Bissette
Shock Xpression: Interview with International Film Journalist Alan Jones
Outtakes and Tests
Post Traumatic: An American Nightmare Featurette
Hellscapes: Locations Then and Now
Buddy Giovinazzo and Jörg Buttgereit at 2009 Berlin Film Festival
Combat Shock Trailer
16mm Short Films:
Mr. Robbie: Maniac II Promo (New 2k scan from Answer Print)
Audio Commentary with Director Buddy Giovinazzo and Composer Rick Giovinazzo
Jonathan of the Night Promo (New 2k Scan from Workprint)
The Lobotomy (16mm Version)
A Christmas Album
Leave This World (Music Video) [New 2k scan from Workprint)
8mm Short Films:
The Lobotomy (8mm Version)
More Than a Mouthful
Maniac Drummer
The Combat Shock Limited Edition Blu-ray Package also includes:
FIRST EVER CD Soundtrack of the film
American Nightmares Scrapbook:  96-page booklet with Director’s Diary, Shooting Script, Rare Photos, Storyboards, & More
Individual Actual Frames of the Director’s Workprint
Limited Edition Numbered Slipcover Autographed by Director Buddy Giovinazzo


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