“America is the only industrialized nation with the high murder rate of countries at civil war, like Cambodia and Nicaragua.”
With that opening statement, delivered in a grim, deliberate, and monotone voice by narrator Chuck Riley, begins one of the most brutal, distressing and uncompromising true crime documentaries you are ever likely to endure. I first sat through it, open-mouthed and muscle-tensed, at the beautiful old Capitol cinema in Melbourne when it amazingly played there in 1982 (a strange environment for such a viewing experience for sure), and again several times on videocassette when it was released locally on the infamous Palace Explosive label a couple of years later. It was a film that was both incredibly hard to watch but almost impossible to turn away from. Even living as far away as Australia, it made me wabt to double-bolt my doors every time I watched it. And sadly, it is a film which is just as truthful and relevant today, if not even more so.
Co-written by Leonard Schrader and produced primarily for the Japanese market to cash-in on the success of the notorious (but largely faked) Faces of Death shockumentary, The Killing of America documents in unflinching detail and honesty the rise in gun violence, murder and sexual crimes in the land of the brave and the home of the free. Concentrating mostly on the period between the assassination of JFK in November of 1963 and the shooting death of John Lennon in December 1980 (years which saw a marked increase in violence in the country), the film covers political shootings, killing sprees, cult murders and mass suicides (such as Charles Manson and Jonestown), serial killings (Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Ed Kemper), as well as the Vietnam War and the protests over it on home soil which often turned tragic (like Kent State). Director Sheldon Renan and editor Lee Percy assemble the film remarkably, bludgeoning you into terrified submission with its continual parade of uncensored footage, crime scene photographs and interviews with criminals (including Robert Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan and a chilling interview with incarcerated serial killer Ed Kemper), as well as burnt-out ex-cops and young Sunset Strip prostitutes. Some of the more infamous clips included in the film are the 8mm Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s killing, and Vietnam police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan casually executing a Vietcong prisoner in cold blood on the streets of Saigon on February 1, 1968.
Aurally, The Killing of America is almost as impactful as it is visually. Apart from Chuck Riley’s downbeat and morose narration, which has a similar effect as the narration on many of those gory driver education short films from the 1960s (such as Mechanized Death and Highways of Agony), the film makes remarkably effective use of the songs For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield (played over the Vietnam War and social protest footage) and Homicide by English punk band 999 (played over a montage of Sunset Strip street fighting and Hollywood hookers describing confrontations with violent johns and the high prices that an underage girl is likely to fetch). Mark Lindsay and W. Michael Lewis also contribute a soundtrack score which features some piano and synthesizer sounds that complement the onscreen mayhem perfectly, heightening the sense of fear and dread that builds inside the viewer as the movie progresses.
|Equally brutal in all its forms: Various VHS, DVD and Blu-ray releases |
of THE KILLING OF AMERICA
Suppressed in the US since audiences stumbled out sick and in shock from a screening at The Public Theatre in New York in February 1982, The Killing of America has now finally made its official American home video debut thanks to Severin Films, who have issued the film in a stunning new Blu-ray release that does this important documentary justice. The new 2K scan preserves the original 1.33:1 Aspect Ratio and does a magnificent job of cleaning the film to give it a clarity that it has never had before while preserving its documentary feel with some soft grain, particularly in some of the older archive footage. Along with the original English language version, the Severin Blu-ray also includes the longer Japanese cut of the film, which runs for an extra 20 minutes and was titled Violence USA (though the Severin print still bears The Killing of America as its opening title). The Japanese version (presented here with the original Japanese narration and optional English subtitles) makes more of an attempt to examine the schizophrenic duality of American society, inserting footage of a more playful America indulging in wholesome activities like roller skating and skiing, along with some of its big technical achievements such as space travel and the Moon landing, to juxtapose all the violence. Violence USA also opens with some breathtaking aerial shots exploring the country’s natural beauty before moving to its concrete urban nightmares. There are a couple of sequences on the Japanese version that are surprisingly missing from the English one, in particular news footage of Muhammad Ali talking a potential suicide victim from jumping off to top of a city building, and shots of Manson disciple Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme’s attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford in 1975.
Supplementary material on the Severin Blu-ray include the original trailer and new and very interesting interviews with director Renan and editor Percy, along with an audio commentary track with Renan (on the English version) and an interview with Mondo movie fan and historian Nick Pinkerton, who weighs in of the film and its place with the Mondo genre (a type of pseudo-documentary or shockumentary which takes its name from the classic 1962 Italian film Mondo Cane). A limited version signed on the cover sleeve by the director is also available from the Severin Films website while stocks last.
A tough, challenging, and haunting but utterly galvanizing viewing experience, one not likely to be soon forgotten by anyone who chooses to brave it.
Original Mexican lobby card