By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Last week, Severin Films made the surprise announcement that it was releasing Buddy Giovinazzo’s notorious COMBAT SHOCK in a remastered Blu-ray package. With the disc out, we got some exclusive words with Giovinazzo about the restoration and COMBAT SHOCK’s legacy.
Severin’s limited (2,000 units) edition, available here, features a new 4K scan of Giovinazzo’s director’s cut, plus audio commentary, interviews, outtakes, short films (including the MR. ROBBIE: MANIAC 2 promo with Joe Spinell) and much more, along with a CD soundtrack and a 96-page book containing the original script, storyboards and more. Shot on Giovinazzo’s native Staten Island (under the title AMERICAN NIGHTMARES) and originally released by Troma in cut form in 1986, COMBAT SHOCK is the bleak, harrowing story of Frankie (played by Ricky Giovinazzo, Buddy’s brother) and his horrific, sordid experiences after coming home from Vietnam. The movie now looks better than ever—which makes Frankie’s hellish life feel even worse…
Does COMBAT SHOCK finally look the way you intended after all these years?
Yeah, because back when we made COMBAT SHOCK, you really couldn’t color-correct film. What you could do was make it lighter or darker, or you could change the tone of the color, but you couldn’t do what you can do now. This Blu-ray remastering has brought out everything. It’s an amazing process, and the film actually looks better now than when I made it. Back when it first came out, Troma did the transfers they could, and to be fair, at the time, they had no idea if the movie would even be around after the initial run. That’s one reason I think Lloyd Kaufman made the deal with David [Gregory of Severin]; David had been asking them, and I wrote them a letter and asked them as a favor. I said, “No insult to Troma or anything, but I just want to get the best transfer I can at least once for this film.” So they made a deal, and I was so happy. Severin is just first-class across the board, in every way.
When COMBAT SHOCK first came out, were you happy with the release Troma gave it, and the attention it received?
I was ecstatic, because I had made it, more or less, as a calling card. I made it the way John Waters made PINK FLAMINGOS, or John Sayles made RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN; it wasn’t supposed to be a film that would play anywhere, other than going to an office and showing them, “Here, I made this movie.” Back then, if you hadn’t made a feature, it was almost impossible to get a feature. That was an issue for a lot of young, independent filmmakers, where the companies you were dealing with always wanted to know if you had done a feature before. What’s really funny is that the proof of that was, when I did NO WAY HOME with Tim Roth and Deborah Unger, the company that produced it, Goldcrest, didn’t even see COMBAT SHOCK—never saw it once. They just knew I had done a feature, so they felt comfortable with me doing a second one.
You know, I love Troma, I love Lloyd; he has become a good friend, and I understand them completely. They took a little piece-of-crap film that cost $40,000 to make and turned it into something that we’re still talking about all these years later. So I have nothing but respect for Troma, and they did what they did. I knew it wasn’t going to the art houses, and I knew Troma would market the hell out of it, so I’m really happy with them, because if it wasn’t for that Troma release, there wouldn’t be this edition.
How long did you spend getting the new transfer into shape?
We spent about 10 days color-correcting scene by scene. There are certain shots where the grain is really present, but I think that adds to the texture of the movie. We didn’t have high-speed film or a tremendous lighting package, so as we were doing the color correction, I could see the difference between the different film stocks over the years. We shot on 16mm, but we did the remastering from the 35mm internegative that Troma had made from the 16mm negative. After that, the negative basically fell apart. 16mm really wasn’t made to last; the prints do—I still have answer prints from 35 years ago—but the negative sort of self-destructed.
I can honestly say that nobody’s really seen COMBAT SHOCK the way it should have been seen, because the color-correction brings out so much. We did so much with color, especially in the jungle with the greens, and we tried to bring those tones into the apartment, when Frankie comes home. A lot of that just got lost in the Troma version, because the transfers weren’t strong enough.
As you went through the color-correction process, were you tempted to make any changes or fixes after all these years?
No, though we went back to the absolute original version. We cut out every frame of everything Troma added, like the stock footage, and restored things they took out. There was a guy at Troma who decided he was going to improve the film, and he didn’t cut any of the violence or the blood or anything, he removed lines of dialogue, like the sour milk scene; he cut out the part where she first sets it up and tells him to drink the sour milk.
When I look at COMBAT SHOCK now, I do think that maybe if I had taken out 10 minutes, it would be a better film. But you know what? The film’s been around for over 30 years, am I gonna shorten it? I’m not going to try to improve it, it is what it is. And that’s who I was at the time, so I didn’t want to try to alter that.
Did you consider changing the title back to AMERICAN NIGHTMARES for this edition?
No, because COMBAT SHOCK has become the name for me now. I didn’t like it when I first heard it, and I tried to tell Troma, “Listen, you’re setting this up like it’s RAMBO, and people are going to be furious, because it’s not RAMBO.” I remember Lloyd saying, “Yeah, but you know what? We just want to get people into the theater, and once they get in the theater and see the film, they’re gonna like it.” Which, to a young filmmaker, made sense. And that didn’t happen; it took about three or four years before anybody started to notice it.
Why do you think COMBAT SHOCK has endured for all these years?
You know, that’s a good question. In some ways, I’m sort of sad that it’s still around, because I was thinking that at this point in our lives, we would all be in a better place in the world. I didn’t think we’d have the problems we do, that are actually in some ways worse today than they were back then. I think it just hit a nerve with people, because it wasn’t made for commercial reasons, it was made from the heart. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I was working completely on instinct and guts and feeling, and I believe it just reeks of that, and that people feel it.