“America is the only industrialized nation with a higher murder rate than countries at civil war.”
2016 might technically be in the rearview mirror, but it feels like last year left an indelible mark on the psyche of the United States. In addition to the most polarizing presidential election in a very long time, last year was marked by the deadliest shooting in U.S. history about an hour away from where I’m currently sitting, along with other highly-publicized instances of gun violence. So it feels like an appropriate time to revisit The Killing of America, a 1981 documentary that was never granted a commercial U.S. release after being deemed too exploitative.
“All of the film you are about to see is real. Nothing has been staged.”
The Killing of America opens with that disclaimer and pretty much takes it to its logical extreme. In examining the country’s history with mass shootings and murder, the movie is almost entirely made up of footage revisiting the most infamous and shocking acts of violence that have been captured on film. I imagine that last caveat (“captured on film”) is the main reason the movie effectively begins in the early 1960s and concludes with the assassination of John Lennon in December 1980.
The film posits that the assassination of President John Kennedy was a major flashpoint for violence in the U.S. In addition to the famous Zapruder film of Kennedy’s killing, the movie proceeds to show us footage related to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Killing of America also essays events like the University of Texas clock tower shooting of 1966 before transitioning in the 1970s, which brought a legion of charismatic mass killers like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and more. There are also much less famous outbursts of violence like Tony Kiritsis, an Indianapolis man who absurdly and frighteningly held his mortgage broker hostage with a sawed off shotgun for several days.
But beyond the alarmist, grave narration of Chuck Riley, The Killing of America doesn’t have much of a point of view at all about the subject it is exploring. There are a couple of very brief, talking head interviews early on with a weary prosecutor and an even wearier detective, but otherwise the film is merely content to function as a parade of horrible, detestable acts caught on film.
I’m of two minds about this approach. On one hand, many of the violent images and disturbing comments from the killers profiled here (especially a chilling, extended sequence featuring Ed Kemper) are powerful enough on their own and don’t need a filmmaker imposing their opinion or politics on the subject. On the other hand, The Killing of America does very little to tie its disparate threads together beyond a sense of “these are horrible things that happened in the U.S. during the 1960s and ‘70s.” After a while, it has the unfortunate side effect of numbing the impact of these grisly crimes.
The film was conceived by Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader) and produced by Mataichiro Yamamoto, who brought a foreigner’s point of view to the explosive violence in the U.S. during that volatile time period.
The film was a success in Japan and this Blu-ray from Severin Films includes both a 95-minute English language version and a 115-minute Japanese version, which features an alternate, Western-tinged opening. The longer version also includes an explicit autopsy sequence, a random montage of all-American sporting activities, and a look at some police training videos after the film depicts the shooting of a sidewalk gunman. The latter two sequences were clearly intended to provide context of American life and law enforcement practices for foreign audiences.
Due to its graphic images, The Killing of America was never widely available in the U.S. until this Blu-ray release. Although its images are unquestionably powerful and unforgettable, I wish the movie had a stronger point of view and much more artfulness. (The movie tackily ends with a statistic that is meant to shock viewers but will probably make you roll your eyes.) As it stands, it probably has more in common with those schlocky “World’s Wildest Police Videos” specials than it does with a cohesive feature film.
The Killing of America is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 15 mbps. The movie is almost entirely comprised of archival footage of some of the most gruesome instances of violence from the latter half of the 20th century. (The Japanese version includes random shots of the Grand Canyon at the start of the film, which looks like B-roll from a lost 1970s Western.) There’s everything from local news footage to the Zapruder film, so the quality varies from one vignette to the next. The best thing I can say is that this older, harried footage has been presented faithfully. Some will be bothered by the occasional scratches and artifacting, but I find this warts-and-all presentation preferable to something that’s been artificially scrubbed clean. The closest thing to a baseline for this visual presentation is a couple of talking head interviews very early on in the film, but even those brief sequences are dark, dull and don’t really impress.
The Linear PCM 2.0 mono track is heavy-handed with its narration, but Chuck Riley’s severe, dramatic line readings are among the most memorable parts of the documentary. His voice comes through clearly and powerfully. That stands in contrast with the majority of the sound from the film, which (just like the images) comes via a wide array of sources. The audio presentation can occasionally sound a bit hollow, but is always impressively intelligible here.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Audio Commentary with director Sheldon Renan: The director, who made his feature film debut with The Killing of America, describes himself as a great compiler and discusses his background making clip shows. (That skill set makes sense once you’ve seen the scattershot documentary.) Still, it’s interesting listening to the filmmaker discuss the process of procuring such graphic and compelling footage. This track is only available with the 95-minute/English language version of the film.
“The Madness is Real” — Interview with director Sheldon Renan: (20:22) A bit redundant if you’ve already listened to the commentary track, Renan further discusses his background as an archivist and describes the genesis of this project. He also traces the history of violence in America all the way back to the slaughter of Native Americans. (For more comments from Renan, check out Gino’s recent interview with the director.)
Cutting the Killing — Interview with editor Lee Percy (16:09) This was Percy’s first time working on a documentary, and he brings up some interesting points about the differences between working in this format and feature films. Percy also addresses the challenge of making the many varied parts of The Killing of America gel into a coherent narrative.
Interview with Mondo Movie historian Nick Pinkerton: (14:48) Mondo films refer to shock or exploitation pseudo-documentaries, and Pinkerton gives us a bit of history on the genre while relaying his personal discovery of The Killing of America in recent years. He calls it more sophisticated than cult mondo film Faces of Death, which spawned a number of sequels.
As a piece of compelling and effective filmmaking, The Killing of America comes up short. Then again, this movie was released in 1981…one year before I was born. So I would say it’s worth a look if you’ve never seen some of the most famous and shocking bursts of violence in the U.S. from the ‘60s and 70s for yourself.