Unleash The Action On Black Friday With COMBAT SHOCK Novelization

Filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo reveals how he revisited his 1986 American nightmare.

By Michael Gingold · November 21, 2023, 7:12 PM EST
Combat Shock photo

Could any experience be more uncompromisingly bleak than watching Buddy Giovinazzo's Combat Shock? You can find out on Black Friday when Severin Films makes the filmmaker's own novelization available on its official website. The 138-page paperback recaptures all the movie's gritty action and squalid humanity, then digs further into the damaged psyches of its deeply troubled characters. Giovinazzo spoke exclusively with FANGORIA about returning to and expanding on the world of his dark and disturbing debut feature.

Filmed under the title American Nightmares, the movie was released by Troma in 1986 under the Combat Shock title in an attempt to tie it in with Rambo: First Blood Part II and its ilk. Yet while lead character Frankie Dunlan (played by Giovinazzo's brother Ricky in the film) is a Vietnam veteran who went through terrible wartime experiences, the main setting is the urban jungle of Staten Island, where Frankie lives with his wife Cathy and their malformed baby son. Unable to find a job and surrounded by junkies and other lowlifes, Frankie descends into a personal hell of depravity and violence. Since Combat Shock, Giovinazzo's features include No Way Home (1996), The Unscarred (a 2000 thriller also coming from Severin on Black Friday, making its U.S. disc debut as a special-edition Blu-ray with the director's commentary and actor interviews), Life Is Hot in Cracktown (2009, based on Giovinazzo's short-story collection), and a segment of the 2011 anthology The Theatre Bizarre. Fango spoke to Giovinazzo via Zoom from Germany, where he lives, and has directed episodes of numerous TV series.

Although Giovinazzo is also a prose writer, he had never considered turning one of his screen works into a book until he was contacted by Severin's David Gregory a couple of years ago about adapting Combat Shock. "I've had three experiences with Severin," Giovinazzo says, "and they've been the best experiences, bar none, in my career. But when David suggested, 'Why don't you do a Combat Shock novelization?' I first thought, it's more than thirty years ago, it's out of my system. I was so far removed from it, but that planted a seed in my brain. The thing is, as a writer, there's no budget, there are no restrictions where you can't get this location, you can't get that actor. So, it offered possibilities for me to tell parts of the story that I could never have put in the film and actually made it better. So many things just opened up in my brain once I went back to the Frankie character—which I was reluctant to do, because that was a very dark place to live for the year it took me to adapt it."


That process was less concerned with expanding the story than it was with delving into backstory, as Giovinazzo added numerous flashbacks and scenes set in the characters' pasts. "Mike the junkie has an entire history with his family, and what he did for a living," he explains. "Mike was a math teacher, and his wife was a teacher as well. They split up because of drugs, and now he's been living on the streets for four years. Shit like that doesn't exist in the film, but in the book, it makes so much more sense, especially if you've seen the movie when you read it."

He also sought to redress a specific issue involving Frankie's wife Cathy, played by Veronica Stork. "In the film, she's a horrible person; nobody likes her. I wrote her as a shrew; she's screaming, she's angry, there's no moment where you care about her. She wasn't well-written and she wasn't well-directed, because the actress was very sympathetic; she wasn't like the role at all. I just wasn't a skilled enough director to massage her performance, so she comes off as really harsh and cold. In the book, she's totally sympathetic; you see how she was a kind person who would help anybody, and how that got beaten out of her by her marriage to this guy, where she becomes what she is in the movie. The book allows me to show you that she had a tragic life in her own way."

Then there were the little details that Giovinazzo—who describes them as "young, stupid mistakes"—was able to fix, such as an early moment when Frankie awakens to his baby crying. "Cathy says, 'He needs food.' In the movie, he says, 'You take care of him,' and she replies, 'He's too old for that.' But he's a fucking infant; of course he's not too old to be breastfed! I look at things like that now and see that I was just winging it because I didn't do any research; I had no idea about breastfeeding. In the book, she says, 'He needs solid food,' which is the right answer. That was the kind of thing I could improve on, because you'd think that any mother who looks at Combat Shock—and fortunately no mothers do—would think that's completely false."

Other than softening how Cathy is presented, Giovinazzo aimed to make the novel "so much darker" than the movie. "Everybody has a much more horrible, violent history. It's more depraved." However, he didn't feel compelled to cut or alter anything from the film. "That's who I was when I made it, and I don't want to change that," he states. "I don't agree with filmmakers who go back and recut their movies. I don't think that's right. That would be like going back and changing one of your kids."

Over the years, Giovinazzo has been pitched the idea of either making a sequel to Combat Shock or remaking it with a larger budget. He's never been receptive to either possibility (and if you've seen the film, you know the former option would be rather difficult), but with the novelization, he felt he "had something new to offer. I was twenty-five when I started the movie and twenty-seven when I finished, and I didn't have the maturity or the life experience that I have now, which made a big difference. I truly believe the book is better than the film. I'm a much better writer today, and I'm very proud of how the novelization came out—and thankful that David came up with the idea, because I wouldn't have done it if he hadn't."