An absolutely stunning release from Severin films, the new Blu-ray edition of Buddy Giovinazzo's grueling 1984 masterpiece Combat Shock is perhaps the great archival release of 2018 amidst very stiff competition. Limited to just 2000 signed copies, that are already out of stock at Severin, this new version of Combat Shock restores Giovinazzo's mesmerizing vision to his original American Nightmares director's cut in a package filled with hours of essential extras that put recent releases by the likes of Criterion to shame.
The release 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, the film was picked up by Troma and retitled the more commonly known Combat Shock. While Troma should be applauded for picking up such an uncompromising DIY feature, they did cut many of Giovinazzo's most extreme moments and added in stock Vietnam footage in an attempt 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 managed to resonate. Audience members tricked by Troma's poster promising a Missing In Action/Rambo style picture were shocked into submission by the most harrowing vision of the horrors of post war trauma seen since the The Deer Hunter. Combat Shock was dismissed by most 'respectable' critics while being championed by the likes of the great Stephen Bissette and other underground writers who recognized its importance. 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 I was completely shocked by the film and absolutely floored in every way. While the film's scenes of horrific violence were what originally stuck with me, as I have aged and matured it is the film's heartbreaking heart and humanity that keep 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), 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 off 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. This film isn't just a prophetic time capsule. It is instead a nightmarish depiction of NOW and I must admit that viewing Severin's recent collection reduced me to tears. I saw Frankie every day during my recent sad stint in Denver where 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 to 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 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.
Severin's release is the kind of true deluxe edition that great films deserve but rarely get anymore. Powered by a 4k scan of the fully uncut American Nightmares, an essential commentary by the Giovinazzo brothers (along with make up 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 it is an absolute triumph for Severin and Giovinazzo.
Although it came out just over a month ago Severin's release is already becoming near impossible to find so the curious and established fans are advised to seek it out now. Earlier this year I thought Criterion's way past due Dietrich and Von Sternberg collection would be the release of the year but that frustrating dropped ball pales in comparison to Severin's Combat Shock. I keep hearing physical media is dead but you sure as hell wouldn't know it watching Severin's grand slam new releases.
-Jeremy Ross Richey, 2018-