During Film4 FrightFest 2012 I sat down with Buddy Giovinazzo, the director of such films as Combat Shock (1984) and A Night of Nightmares (2012), for a chat about his excellent debut feature (released on DVD in 2012 by Arrow Video) and his latest work (which screened as part of the Discovery programme). I heartily recommend both movies, though A Night of Nightmares is still struggling for distribution, and is frankly an insane state of affairs.
Here's the full transcript.
HF: I’d like to talk about your fabulous debut, Combat Shock, first. What are you memories of making that film and did you ever expect it to become a cult classic?
Giovinazzo: Never. I mean, let’s face it, my brother is the main actor – I had no expectations. I made the movie purely as a calling card, sort of like what John Sayles did with The Return of the Secaucus Seven. It was a film that I could show people and maybe get a job. I knew that I could do anything I wanted to and I’ve never had the type of freedom since. I was inspired by Eraserhead; it’s one of my favourite films. I worked with friends and my brother … some of it was shot in my mother’s backyard. It was originally going to be a short film but then I started to show it to people and they said, ‘We’ll work with you on this and we’ll help you out.’ So I continued to shoot. The film’s social subtext still feels relevant.
Was Combat Shock a reaction to right-wing fantasies such as Rambo and movies of that ilk?
No, it wasn’t really. I grew up on Staten Island and I was driving around in my car one day and I saw some woods and I thought, ‘If I didn’t know any better that could be Vietnam.’ Now when I watch the movie it looks Staten Island. Some of it [the movie] looks great and some of it looks like what it is: Staten Island.
It’s an area of New York City that I haven’t seen much on film. It looks like a rundown, desolate place. Was it really like that then?
It was exactly like in the film. I didn’t do anything [to make it look so grim. I didn’t have any money to dress it up. I shot the streets as they looked. That’s the neighbourhood where I grew up.
Frankie Dunlan is such a tragic character. I always felt like the tragedy of the movie is that if only somebody had listened to him then maybe he might have been saved. The one normal conversation he has in the movie is with the little girl then some people come and beat him up.
I was always conscious of a scenario about [a guy] what if everything that could go wrong on one day goes wrong. Your shoelaces break, the milk is sour, your wife is yelling at you. All this and you haven’t even left the house! But you’re right. Maybe if somebody along the way had shown Frankie some kindness then maybe Combat Shock has a different ending. It happens all the time. I’d read newspaper articles about Vietnam veterans killing their families and then themselves. The whole thing started [the film] asking … I understand jealousy, I understand hatred, people hurting each other, but why would a guy kill his family and then himself? That was the germ of Combat Shock.
You cast your own brother as the lead. Was that purely because he’d work for free?
The reason I’d cast my brother, who isn’t an actor, he’s a musician, was I didn’t have enough money to shoot the film and I wanted to ask somebody who wasn’t going to shake their head or be weird, so I asked. Once we started filming, he was perfect and I knew it was perfect casting.
Did you script it in the traditional fashion or have a more experimental approach?
It was pretty much scripted. We shot what was scripted, but we did change dialogue on set. We wanted it to sound authentic so if Rick (Frankie) said, ‘This doesn’t sound like something my character would say,’ we’d change it. I was completely free with that. It was a very unusual sort of picture for Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma outfit to release.
How did they end up distributing Combat Shock?
I tried to sell this film for a year and nobody wanted it. Nobody! Lloyd Kaufman loved the film, genuinely loved it. Then he said, ‘Do you have any cheesecake shots?’ He wanted nudity, but I said, ‘There’s no cheesecake.’ Then they wanted to market it like Rambo. They thought they’d be a market for this sort of movie so they changed the title to Combat Shock.
The original title was American Nightmare, right?
Yeah, which was a perfect title, but Troma was the only company that was interested. It was either go with them or not release the film at all. I knew about their reputation [as purveyors of trash cinema] but I liked them. The other thing, they are aggressive marketers of the films and I knew it wouldn’t be put on the shelf and forgotten about. It was a limited choice, sure, but I’m glad I had a choice.
Combat Shock could well be the only art movie they’ve ever released.
It’s funny you should say that because that’s the reason they wanted it. Lloyd once told me that it was the type of film he’d loved to have made but he couldn’t. He felt they could profit from Combat Shock but that it also worked on another level artistically.
The film’s finale is still very shocking.
I wanted it to be hard core and shocking … not like television, but realistic. When the guy shoots his wife and says it’s not supposed to be like this, the reality is if you shoot your wife, it’s a fucking mess … she’s puking blood and she’s not dying. It’s one of my favourite moments because it’s not supposed to be like this in Frankie’s mind. It’s ugly.
Arrow Video rereleased the film in the UK. It must be a nice feeling that a new generation of cult cinema enthusiasts will discover your movie.
I was here in the UK in 1990, for some horror festival, it was the only time it was shown. I’m really happy it was put out.
A Night of Nightmares is your latest movie, how did this project come to you? I think it’s a real gem, by the way.
Thank you. A producer came to me with an idea to shoot a low-budget film about a haunted house. It was found-footage. I didn’t want to do that it because it sounded cheesy. I said, ‘I can’t do what you guys want me to do.’ It was a very low-budget, five day film. I wanted to do something emotional. The original script was something like Poltergeist with things flying around, smashing plates, and I said, ‘It’s not good; it’s not scary.’ They gave me a shot and asked me to do a re-write of the script and I made it a character piece. We had nothing on this movie [in terms of budget].
So the original script was considerably tweaked?
It was much bigger but it was something we couldn’t film with the budget we had.
I assume the location was real and that there was no studio interior scenes, etc.?
It was a real house.
Did you get to change the interior of the house at all, to suit the film-making, equipment, etc.?
The house was filled with furniture and musical equipment, so we had to take all that out. It’s pretty much exactly what you see in the film but we cleared out couches. We needed space and just shot.
Why did you choose this particular house and locale? There’s a brilliant visual gag when Mark (Marc Senter) arrives and sees this shack in the desert.
That was my first impression of the house. There was this incredible mountain – which was stunning – and then this shack! The guy who owned the house was a really great guy and very film-friendly. He told me that the house was previously owned by a farmer who was a marine and years ago, in the 1960s, the Manson Family had lived on that ranch.
The farmer let them stay. He lived in the farmhouse and he let them stay on the land. Three days before Thanksgiving they killed all of his turkeys and ate them. I don’t know if they did that on purpose or what. But he threw them off the ranch … they were afraid of him, which is saying something – who’s gonna throw the Manson Family off their land. They went from this ranch, where we shot A Night of Nightmares, to the Spahn ranch. It’s a great location and it really was in the middle of nowhere.
The casting and characters is a major part of the film’s appeal and success. He’s a rationalist and she’s more open to the idea the house is haunted. It’s very funny. Did you allow for improvisation, like with Combat Shock?
It was both. We scripted a lot of that but there was room to improvise. I met Marc Senter through Fantasia Film Festival and he’d read the script. The actors made no money and they did the movie because they wanted to do it. I cast Elissa Dowling because I loved her eyes and she turned out to be great. I hadn’t really noticed her but she was a singer and all the music in the film, on the CDs, it’s her singing.
Did you have any other movies in your mind as a reference for A Night of Nightmares?
The original script was a homage to The Blair Witch Project, but I really didn’t want to do a found-footage film. My film is a character piece and for the first forty minutes nothing happens and there’s a certain courage to that.
I agree, and it allows the audience to spend time with the characters.
The original female character was this typical California chick and I didn’t want to do anything with that. Let’s go with someone who is much more exotic and who we can discover through the film. I wanted to go with somebody the audience isn’t quite sure of. It’s refreshing to see a horror film that doesn’t find it necessary to wink at the audience or acknowledge other works and it’s very playful in terms of its approach to genre. Is it a psycho-thriller, a supernatural chiller or a slasher movie? It could turn into several movies.
What kind of films do you like, in general?
I like movies that scare the shit out of people. Horror films, in general, scare the hell out of me. I like horror movies with monsters who don’t want to be monsters. Frankenstein and films like that. Maniac is another one.
I’ll never forget seeing the head explosion for the first time. It was so impressive.
It was horrifying! I love the original. Joe Spinell performance is so sympathetic and so tragic. Joe Spinell’s character didn’t want to kill.