* American distributors considered the film too bleak and refused to release it in the USA despite huge popularity on the Japanese market, where death film was a popular genre:
* it has never been shown on TV, cinema or cable, nor a VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray release in the USA though released uncut for home entertainment markets worldwide;
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THE KILLING OF AMERICA (1981)
d. Sheldon Renan; pr. Yamaichiro Matamoto, Leonard Schrader; scr. Leonard Schrader, Cheiko Schrader; ed. Lee Percy; ph. Robert Charlton, Tom Hurwitz, Willy Kurant, Peter Smokler; m. Mark Lindsay W. Michael Lewis; cast. Chuck Riley (narrator), Ted Bundy, Lawrence Bittaker, Ed Kemper, Sirhan Sirhan, Elmer Wayne Henley (as themselves) (90 mins)
Killing for Culture: Snuff Movies and the Death Film Genre
The Killing of America perfects a generic trend in exploitation cinema set in motion in the mid to late 1960s when Italian directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi released Mondo Cane.
This shocking and manipulative documentary was so popular worldwide that it spawned a flood of imitations, now known collectively as “mondo movies”. Increasingly, these films abandoned all pretence to genuine documentary objectivity and turned the form into a sensationalist wallow in human decadence. As these films became increasingly graphic, they split off into two directions, sex and violence. Thus, extremely gory so-called documentaries emerged, manipulating real footage and even staging mock footage to pass of as documentary realism. The most notorious of these films was The Original Faces of Death: 30th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray], a film banned in many countries where, despite being faked, it was considered a catalogue of genuine human carnage. The appeal of seeing the reality of death led to such extreme spin-offs as Death Faces, which used morgue table photography and actual crime scene photos as an assembled montage. It was amidst this documentary emphasis on the reality of violence, death and murder that Leonard Schrader (brother of director Paul Schrader, the screenwriter on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver [Blu-ray] and then media celebrity for American Gigolo) pitched his idea of a documentary exploring violence in modern America.
While America has always tried to downplay the seriousness of its violent culture in an endless stream of mindless Hollywood action dross, the Japanese were fascinated by the actuality of the rampant violence of their then major trading partner.
Thus, it was originally for the sensation-hungry Japanese that The Killing of America was produced. Indeed, the film proved too confronting for American distributors and the film was never released theatrically, televised or distributed in the USA. That is ironic, for The Killing of America is a powerful indictment of the then contemporary epidemic of political and random stranger violence that was consuming American society by the beginning of the 1980s.
Mythologies of Violence in Contemporary US Socio-cultural Identity
Assassins John Hinckley, James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan are introduced to locate the moments when American society dove headlong into the culture of violence as the deaths of firstly John F. Kennedy and secondly Martin Luther King Jr.
America the beautiful and America the violent: the duality of the USA and a national enigma that The Killing of America considers an indictment of the American Dream of freedom as perverse, pathological folly. For these filmmakers, the JFK assassination set loose a downward spiral of random violence consuming American society. Assassin after assassin, sniper after sniper, serial killer after serial killer – the parade of violent psycho-pathology in this film is relentless, a snuff ethos of a documentary whose tone set by the inclusion of the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination (long before its ritual mythologizing by Oliver Stone in JFK: Director's Cut (Blu-ray Book Packaging)).
Dazzling editing of archival footage transforms The Killing of America from simple documentary into impassioned plea for humanist reason in the assessment of America’s rampant gun culture and (as exemplified by Vietnam) its foreign policy.
Indeed, America in the 1970s is a nation where violent Presidential assassins determined history, the legacy of its cowboy heritage. The film considers it inevitable that a country which protects all gun ownership as a Constitutional freedom should be consumed by gun violence: this is the nation that America is but does not want the world to recognize – the highest per capita murder rate, the highest incidence of serial killers and more guns than people. The Killing of America is a film about the destruction of the nation from within and it profiles those individuals – mostly killers – who are destroying it, whether out of political rage, ennui or “kicks”.
The Killing of America follows a clear chronology. Beginning with political assassins in the late 1960s and early 1970s it moves on to the parallel phenomenon of the sniper, with a detailed account of Charles Whitman and his various petty imitators. However, it finds its dominant and obsessive interest in mass killers, firstly with mad saviours like Charles Manson and Jim Jones, who crimes nicely booked the 1970s – from Tate-LaBianca to Jonestown, God apparently demands murder and slaughter from His chosen messengers. The footage soon segues from religious madmen into psychotic serial killers, like David Berkowitz (aka Son of Sam). Religious hypocrisy is considered the exemplary lesson of Jonestown, the case that typifies the cultish danger of religion but there is a direction towards pathological serial murder.
Apocalypse Culture and the Glorification of the Serial Murderer as Contemporary Archetype
After revealing the shocking crime statistics of the modern USA, the film focuses on what was in the 1970s a new criminal phenomenon – random stranger violence as typified (or exemplified?) by the serial killer.
Lawrence Bittaker, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Kemper, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, Dean Corll and Elmer Wayne Henley: the big names in 1970s serial killer lore are all profiled here in detail, from rare archive footage of Bundy’s courtroom antics when confronted by evidence of the incriminating bite mark he left on a victim’s buttocks, to; in the case of Kemper, a fascinating interview in which the killer of 6 California co-eds talks introspectively of raping and murdering his mother, throwing darts at her severed head. In this emphasis, The Killing of America is perhaps the first serial killer documentary ever made for the mainstream, and thus an important movie in the serial killer film pantheon.
The emphasis in The Killing of America is on the criminal as much as the crime and the film is fascinated by the mentality of mass murderers, assassins, serial killers and those random publicity seeking madmen who resort to violence out of a sense of being wronged into political powerlessness.
In this joint emphasis on the gritty details of actual crime scenes and interview archive footage with violent criminals The Killing of America is the progenitor of such television reality TV shows as Cops and the sensationalized journalism of such as Geraldo but has far more immediacy and impact: age has given it an archival realism which is truly harrowing to watch as a catalogue of violent crime. The Killing of America marks the beginning of apocalypse-culture fandom, the documentation and cult of nihilism: confronting the awful reality of human pathology in a world where the belief in God is madness.
Psycho-pathic Sensationalism, Exploitation & the "Shock-u-mentary"
The despairing pathos in this film is overwhelming, making The Killing of America far less the sensationalist wallow that many critics have attempted to dismiss it as than a cold realization of violent pathology and the nation which enables and even enshrines it.
Its hints of moral outrage and submerged moral relativism make it an ambivalent study of the culture of violence. Thus, the behavioural abnormalities of these mad killers are not thought of as aberrations but as the very product of the US nation, now turning violent and in on itself in hopeless desperation and extreme, perverse sexual fantasy. The obfuscation of individual and national pathology is cleverly constructed in this depiction of violence, ensuring that every killer is seen as qualitatively and behaviourally “American”.
What is presented for ironic sensation and psychological curiosity in The Killing of America is a distinctive portrait of American criminal perversity in the 1970s. But although the content is locked in an effective archival time capsule, the sheer intensity of its depiction ensures that the film’s impact remains potent when viewed today – qualifying this film as the best “shock-u-mentary” ever made. In a sterling transfer, the BSV DVD release of The Killing of America features as an extra a section called “punishment” which relates the sentences given out to the criminals whose exploits are depicted in the film. This is a clever addition for it demonstrates the battle legal authority faces in controlling and curbing the epidemic of violence depicted in the film itself and the penalties for their mad indulgences.
USA DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: The Killing of America ( Uncut ) ( Violence U.S.A ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.0 Import - Australia ]
UK DVD PURCHASE INFORMATION: The Killing of America ( Uncut ) ( Violence U.S.A (Japan: English title) ) [DVD]
AUSTRALIA DVD PURCHASE: The Killing of America
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logo & illustrations by Ed Seeman, used with permission
LAST UPDATED: May 25, 2012 20:09