Director: Sheldon Renan
Script: Leonard Schrader & Chieko Schrader
Narrator: Chuck Riley
Editor: Lee Percy
Music: Mark Lindsay & W. Michael Lewis
Running time: 95 & 116 minutes
Year: 1981
Certificate: 18

The Killing of America is a strange film, in that it doesn’t really fit with one’s normal expectations of a documentary. Primarily, there’s little in the way of presenting both sides to the issue raised since the film makers obviously have their hypothesis (that since John F. Kennedy’s assassination America has become a more violent and less caring place) and they’re going to bombard the viewer with a catalogue of horrifying images and news reports to support this claim. However, despite its overall one -sidedness it kind of works.

I first saw The Killing of America several years ago, in a slightly truncated version, so was pleased to hear that Severin were releasing a more definitive version, which not only includes the English language, American version, but also the longer, harder, Japanese cut (Violence U.S.A), which features, well, more of everything! To be honest the standard version will sate most cinematic thrill seeker’s desires to see disturbing and memorable imagery, but if you can’t get enough footage of suicide victims and corpses with bullet holes drilled into them then feel free to take the plunge and go for the far more unsettling Eastern cut.

The documentary has been described as one of the most controversial documentaries in the history of cinema and I can see why that accolade has been aimed at Renan’s and Schrader’s shock-doc. The film is a grim, graphic, and often provocative portrayal of America’s modern history, complete with more senseless violence, mass shootings and cold-bloodied murder than you can shake a stick at. But the truly disturbing thing about The Killing of America is the fact that it’s still pertinent today – people are still being gunned down in the streets, serial killers are still prolific in North America, and racial tensions are probably worse now than they’ve been for many years.

Back in the early eighties, when this film was made, gun crime was at an all-time high. Apparently back then there was an attempted murder every three minutes and an actual murder every 20 minutes somewhere in the United States. I’m guessing the stats are probably even worse today! In fact, during the Twentieth Century the US had more murders than all the fatalities it garnered during all the wars it was involved in. A sobering fact for sure…

It certainly seems true that during the post war (WWII) years America had a positive attitude about itself, about its place in the world, and that John F. Kennedy seemed to epitomise that ‘can do’ sense of optimism that many of the American public felt. After his assassination, and those of his brother and Martin Luther King, things did indeed turn bleaker in the States, not helped by the country anguishing over the Vietnam War. And, as the number of guns per household rose so did the frequency of gun violence increase exponentially, which this ‘Mondo’ documentary reveals so starkly.

Although the nature of the documentary is to show, and not tell, it certainly makes its case well, and one can’t help wondering where the ‘American Dream’ went so wrong!

Technically, the film is well edited with a suitably moody score by Mark Lindsay and W. Michael Lewis, and the film quality is very dependent on the nature of the newsreel footage the documentarians have selected to make their ‘bloody’ point. And the sound quality is the same, with some of the news footage suffering with muffled audio, which detracts a little from the overall impact. However, watching the Japanese version can be a help here as the subtitles do improve clarification as to what was said, by whom.

And talking of the Japanese version, although it does show more of the violence inherent in American society, it also takes considerably more time to demonstrate that not everything about the USA revolves around the barrel of a gun, and that most Americans are friendly and peace-loving people just trying to get on with their everyday lives.

The Killing of America was never televised, distributed, or made available for sale in the Unites States and I can certainly see why; it’s pretty ‘near the knuckle’, and the American version does seem to be very one-sided in its depiction of Americans as a people more in love with their right to bear arms than in love with each other. However, I think it is a film that should be seen on both sides of the Atlantic, not only as a fantastic time capsule of America’s bloody history, but also as a timely reminder of how easy it is to escalate violence to a murderous level when firearms are so readily available.

Severin Films are distributing The Killing of America on DVD and Blu-ray and have done a great job with this release. Special features include:

  • The alternative Japanese cut, Violence U.S.A (116 mins), which includes considerably more footage of: the autopsy sequence; Kennedy’s death (in slo-mo and on repeat!); the riots following Martin Luther King’s death; an FBI training video; Americans having fun; more images of suicides and gunshot victims; more of the serial killer interview footage; the Jonestown massacre; John Lennon, and a couple of stories that didn’t make it into the US cut at all.
  • An audio commentary with director Sheldon Renan
  • The Madness is Real (20.5 mins) – an interview with director Sheldon Renan, where he talks about the violence inherent in US history ever since the European settlers purposefully gave Red Indians blankets infected with Smallpox! He explains the origins of the project, and says he sees it as a more artistic version of Faces of Death!
  • Cutting The Killing (16 mins) – an interview with editor Lee Percy, where he talks about his career as an editor, and how they obtained some of the footage, and how he is still haunted by some of the footage, even many years later. Lee is a very eloquent speaker and explains how John Lennon was killed while they were making the film so they sent a crew to New York to shoot the film’s closing sequence.
  • An interview with Mondo movie historian Nick Pinkerton (15 mins) – Nick talks about the Faces of Death and Traces of Death series of films and also the earlier Italian Mondo films, such as Africa Addio. He reckons that The Killing of America couldn’t exist without Faces of Death having been so successful at the Japanese box-office – even out-grossing Star Wars at the cinema!
  • A trailer for The Killing of America (2 mins)
The Killing of America
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About The Author

Justin Richards is a journalist by day and a scriptwriter by night. His work has appeared in the darker recesses of the internet and in various niche publications including ITNOW, The Darkside, Is it Uncut?, Impact and Deranged. When he’s not sitting hunched over a sticky, crumb-laden keyboard he’s paying good money to have people in pyjamas try and kick him repeatedly in the face.

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