The Killing of America (1982)
By: Mr Intolerance on June 9, 2009  | 
Beyond (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 91 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Sheldon Renan
Starring:Chuck Riley (Narrator), Ed Kemper, Sirhan Sirhan

Written by: Chieko Schrader, Leonard Schrader
External Links
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I'd probably totally agree if you wanted to argue that the average "mondo" film was little better than exploitative, sensationalist trash masquearding as serious documentary or social critique. But The Killing of America is a film that might, if only for a second, give me pause to counter that statement. This isn't full of the staged atrocities of the overblown and over-rated Faces of Death series, nor is it full of the cultural insensitivity of the various films of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi (Africa Addio, Addio Zio Tom), nor the celluloid excrement that tried to blend the two approaches (Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni's Addio Ultimo Uomo springs to mind). The only films that I think approach The Killing of America in terms of cinematic punch would be Nick Bougas' Death Scenes series, but given the fact they are so obviously made for their prurient value alone, their morally repugnant nature means that they will never be taken seriously or as anything other than rottenness come to the screen, even by the most jaded exploitation fan. The Killing of America could, and maybe this is through the rosiest coloured glasses in the world, almost be seen as a serious attempt at addressing the exponential rise in violence in the US, with an implicit (at times explicit) call for greater gun control.

The film, written by Leonard Schrader, brother of Hollywood screenwriter and director Paul (Taxi Driver) Schrader – family get-togethers must be fun-filled affairs – promises authenticity and it certainly delivers. Not a single frame of the film is staged, and therein lies its impact. Much of the footage is either documentary, serendipitous (if that's the right word in this case) home movie footage, CCTV images, news footage and the like, and as such the images of violence are presented with no other soundtrack than whatever diagetic sound was there at the time. The lack of high quality sound and vision works in the film's favour. It's an unblinking camera, let me tell you. It's the lack of drama to the violence that makes it uneasy viewing. I'll give you an example, and it's footage you've seen before from the Vietnam war. A suspected Vietcong soldier, bound, has been captured – General Loan of the Vietnamese army strides up to him, pulls a pistol and shoots the man in the side of the head, killing him instantly. The man falls to the ground, blood and brain matter pooling around his head. The whole thing is maybe 5 seconds in duration, but the impact is felt, let me tell you.

When you place the disc in your player, your option to begin the film is "Start Shockumentary", which I think is letting the team down a little, and making the whole thing seem like some Faces of Death rip-off. Exploitative, certainly – and while the film is that, it's not as exploitative as all that "Shockumentary" entails. A bit of trivia for you: this film has never been made available for the US market. Considering what is available in the States, you'd have to question why this is – it can't be the violence, as despite the reality of what we're watching, it's not terribly high impact; its political anti-gun message is the only reason I can figure.

"All of the film that you are about to see is real. Nothing has been staged."

I'm not about to give you a blow-by-blow description of what you'll see when you watch this film – and I do recommend that you watch it – but the opening image sets the tone pretty effectively: a suspect is gunned down by police immediately, and with no hoopla surrounding it. It's a shocking opening, and given what you're about to watch, a highly effective one – although interspersing the images of violence with images of the US flag was probably a little redundant. In the opening montage of street violence and other assorted sordid activities, I was quite distracted by a cinema marquee offering a double bill of Shogun Assassin and Humanoids From The Deep – I love both movies dearly, and I couldn't help but wonder if that particular image was used to illustrate how violent entertainment had become by that stage of US history – let's face it, both films are soaked in blood and gore, absolutely revelling in their excesses – the former a blood-drenched samurai tale compiled specifically for the US market from two Japanese films from the Lone Wolf and Cub series, the latter a tale of mutant fish-men which producer extraordinaire Roger Corman re-cut after the film had been completed to make it more bloody and gruesome. Even if it was just a happenstance shot, it kind of works in terms of what The Killing of America is trying to say: the more violence we watch, the more we commit – but then after having watched this film...

The Killing of America makes some use of expert figures – ex-policemen, for example, and county coroners – in order to give the film that bit more gravitas, that extra sense of verisimilitude (I mean, for all we know, the guys playing the cops could be actors – we leave ourselves at the mercy of the film-makers). But by and large the film relies on its images to work its magic/evil on its audience. The shots of gore are totally unflinching, which is odd when you consider that the film has on its local Australian release the consumer warning "Medium Level Violence", and is rated R18+. So real people killing each other is only medium level violence, but fake "High Level Violence" as in Dario Argento's craptastic re-telling of The Phantom of the Opera is rated MA15+. That's a bit of a sad look-out for the OFLC and their rating system (let alone standards of morality and the sanctity of human life), isn't it? Rather a skewed, if not actually double standard there, methinks. Real people and situations obviously don't matter as much as the fictional ones – seeing JFK's face being shorn off by a rifle shot isn't high impact? How does that work? It's absofuckinglutely horrible to watch, as well as being emblematic of the death of the American Dream and a new era of American optimism. They're a part of your government, people, and they don't value you as human beings.

*gets off soap-box, ends rant*

The point of view immediacy and hand-held camerawork of much of the footage gives this film a punch that the staged violence of many "mondo" films can't even aspire to. Statistics and Chuck Riley's sombre, gravel-voiced narration paint an ever-more depressing and downbeat picture of the future of American society, and its hell-bent nose-dive into ever-increasing circles of murder and mayhem. Not even high-profile figures like the President are safe – we see the aforementioned footage of Kennedy's assassination, Reagan's attempted assassination at the hands of John Hinckley (and there's some weird life-imitating-art shit happening right there – have a look at the writer of this film, and then his brother's most iconic work of film; bizarre), Sirhan Sirhan's murder of Robert Kennedy, and then the assassinations of the assassins, and bizarrely enough, in some instances, the assassins of the assassins. The downward spiral of the cycle of murder seems to have no logical end. There'll always be some lunatic with a gun who'll fuck everything up for everyone, and when he's gone, there'll be another one to take his place, regardless of race, colour or creed. The un-asked question appears to be, "who's behind it all?" To which there is no answer, outside the realms of the most paranoid of conspiracy theorists.

November 22, 1963: this is the date that he film addresses as being the turning point in US history, in terms of violent crime. Sure, tragically enough the US had had presidents assassinated before (the abolisher of slavery Abraham Lincoln, most notably – but the footage of Kennedy's death outweighs that cultural significance – when you can show something, it's a hell of a lot more powerful than when you can only tell it, and the moving picture gives a lot more of a wallop than the written word), but the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy had a lasting impact on the country's psyche that nothing else since has really been equalled, until the events of 9/11. And again, both events have brought the conspiracy theorists out in droves.

From a non-US background, a lot of what we see in The Killing of America, in terms of social and political stuff, seems oddly removed from our experience, and therefore more shocking – the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King, for example, a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and whose death unleashed racial hatred and violence to the extent where the National Guard had to be called out to help suppress riots – the US never seemed to be such a volatile powder keg. Personally (with the exception of the LA riots following the beating of Rodney King), in my own life-time my experience of the US has always been one of complacency. Boy, was I wrong, and frighteningly so. I'm a reasonably well-informed chap, well-read and all, but seeing some of this horror from the inside was a nasty revelation indeed. And despite the fact that I'd seen the same film over twenty years ago, when you view these things with a few more years under the belt it tends to gather a lot more weight. This film is, to put not too fine a point on it, a hell of a lot more frightening now. You generally tend to view the past as "the good old days", but these aren't those. Police brutality, the Vietnam War, shooting of students by the National Guard at Kent State University – it all adds up to real life horror.

To me, the most disturbing footage in the film is not the blood, the guts and the visceral horror, it's the interviews with those responsible for it. Sirhan Sirhan's almost incoherent apology/confession to Robert Kennedy's murder is a good example; the senselessness of the whole thing – and his apparent remorse make the whole tragic scenario seem that bit more pathetic and meaningless, and thus more tragic and inexplicable; are people born bad? It would almost seem so – which leads us inevitably into discussion of serial killers and mass murderers.

Charles Whitman, 25, was an ex-Marine sharpshooter. One day he climbed a clock-tower and simply started shooting people in Austin, Texas, with an extraordinarily large collection of guns. 50 targets, at least 16 actual deaths. The reason? Your guess is as good as mine, and that in itself is a frightening idea. Almost as frightening as the fact that by the time this film was made, there were two guns to every American household, statistically speaking. The fear of violence breeds simply more violence – and that's the idea the film is trying to raise, however histrionically, and it's trying to get us to stop reacting in such a fashion.

And the idea that the violence is senseless is the worst part of it. People are killing for the sheer sensation of it; no gain necessary – there's footage of a convenience store hold up where the clerk is killed for no better reason than one of the hold-up guys says, "Shoot him." What?! Have we become as a race so depraved that this level of extremity is all we have left in order to feel anything? Hardly Shakespeare's "the beauty of the world/ the paragon of animals" in that case. We're rubbish. Robert Smith (no, not the one one from The Cure), when asked why he killed so many people, after a beauty school massacre, answered, "To get known. I just wanted to make a name for myself." That's the level of notoriety we're willing to go to in order to establish a level of celebrity, and that's ultimately pathetic.

16 year old Brenda Spencer, when asked why she went on a kill-crazy rampage, shooting elementary school kids, said, "Mondays are always so boring." (Remember that Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays"? What the fuck did you think it was based on?) The tale of even further more horrible sniper shootings just really makes the whole film that bit more depressing. Footage of various sieges does not render this easier to watch.

And then there's the Manson Family. You and I are probably clear on the whole Manson Family vibe. He was their guru, they were the sad and unfortunately willing soldiers of his will, led by Tex Watson in a bloody and horrific killing spree that killed not only Roman Polanski's heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate (when Polanski was accused of having too much blood in his version of Macbeth he rather famously countered with, "You didn't see my house last summer. I know about bleeding"), but a whole bunch of other folks, too. So we get some footage of that as a precursor to the rise in serial killing in the US, and the likes of John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy and so forth.

But not before we deal with Jim Jones and his mass-slaughter/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. This footage is even more relentlessly depressing than that which went before it, mainly because of the fact that so many innocent people died so needlessly, and because of their need to believe in a saviour. Jones, even to the most casual eye, given the footage shown here, wasn't it. Men, women and children died because of his words – poisoned Kool-Aid their communion wine, laced with potassium cyanide. The audio footage of Jones exhorting his followers to drink and enter oblivion is unpleasant, to put it mildly – horrendous and gut-wrenching to be more accurate. The screams and cries of the duped and the gulled as they die along with their saviour are awful. That's 900+ US citizens dead in one fell swoop, cheated of what they thought was going to be their eternal reward in heaven.

The soundtrack usually doesn't work against the images, but there are one or two sequences, especially during the sequence about hostage-taking, where you do tend to look at things and wonder what the director was thinking, taking a potentially lethal situation and making light of it. While all that might be the case, the statistics, if they're to be believed, are chilling – I certainly wouldn't want to be living in the US right now. It doesn't seem like a particularly safe place to live, to put it mildly. The link between sex and violence is made all to apparent with interview footage with male and female prostitutes, intercut with images of S&M paraphernalia. The interview footage is depressing in the extreme; tales of beatings, violence and the use of 11 year old girls as sex toys adding up to a roundly horrible mixture, with the punk rock song "Homicide" playing in the background simply emphasising the nastiness.

Once we move into serial killer country, the whole thing becomes even more grim. Lawrence Bittaker, a murderer of female high school students (he would strangle them with a coat-hanger twisted with a pair of pliers), used to record his victims' agonies as they died; thankfully we're spared that. Those present at the court hearing weren't so lucky, having in some cases to run outside and vomit, given what they'd heard. And then the distasteful tales of John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy. Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono (the Hillside Stranglers) and Dean Corll (and his accomplice Wayne Henley) begin, along with documentary visual footage to supplement the re-telling of their crimes. It's unpleasant viewing.

The penultimate interview footage is with serial killer cannibal necrophile Ed Kemper. Just for your information, Kemper goes on record as having amputated his own mother's head and hands, and had thrown darts at his mother's decapitated head. His matter-of-fact delivery is unnerving, to put it mildly. He's too credible, and far too sane, considering his actions.

The whole film is let down by the mawkishly sentimental tribute to gunned-down John Lennon at the end. It robs the film of the power that the Ted Bundy sequence provides – following a powerfully horrible sequence of a cavalcade of terrors, we get a hippy la-la-la ending – how is the murder of a celebrity, and one who until that time had little commercial success, any worse than that of the various promising co-eds Bundy slaughtered? That ending pays into the whole "cult of personality" thing – people of any kind put more value on the lives of the celebrities they value. This is wrong. People of any strata of society require the same level of respect and dignity.

Watching movies like The Killing of America is an odd thing. I don't mean that to sound as belittling an experience as it probably did. I don't know why I found this film engaging. I don't like violence in real life. I love seeing make-believe violence on the big or small screen, whether it's some Raimi/Jackson inspired splatter-fest like Evil Aliens or The Machine Girl, or something more insidious like Inside or All Night Long 2: Atrocity – I can sit in my favourite armchair, eat my bag of Cheezels, guzzle my booze, smoke my cigarettes – no problem. But once it becomes real, and I mean really real like it is here, well, that's a different story. I don't mean that I let down my long girly hair and start squirting a few, I just feel kind of numb. Empty. Anxious. Depressed, maybe. Tribute to the film-making? Possibly, but I think it's more than likely that I just get bummed out watching what at times is the utter lack of human dignity on screen. I mean, I think we'd all like to think that we'd get a better exit than our ultimate end being stored on a disc on an exploitation film fan's shelf, y'know? And the final message the film has to give us:

"While you watched this movie, five more of us were murdered. One was the random killing of a stranger."

Exploitative? Sure, but multiply it to bring it in line with current murder statistics in the last 27 years and it becomes positively frightening.
Poor. I mean, given the source material it was never going to be a pristine print, but it doesn't appear to me that the image was cleaned up in the slightest from the VHS quality (and not particularly good VHS quality) print I saw in my teens a long time ago. Speckle, grain and a generally dirty and soft image does not make for a nice-looking, or even competently ported, let alone engaging, viewing experience. And it's in full frame, which doesn't help.
Muffled, to say the least. I thought at one point that either the speakers, or my head, or both had been stuffed into a thick sock. I don't think a great deal of trouble was taken in the restoration of this film. Poor quality all round. Yeah, I realise that part of the reason for this would have been from the source material, but that could have been sharpened up. No, this simply does not sound good, Dolby Digital 2.0 track or not.
Extra Features
Very little, and that's kind of pathetic, frankly, given the stature this film has and the reputation it enjoys among cult film fans. There's a kind of text post-script called "Punishment" that lets you know, albeit extremely briefly, what happened to the various criminals we see on the screen. It's hardly what I'd call comprehensive. And then there are trailers for The Evil Dead, and The Beastmaster. I find it very hard to believe that there is no documentary about this film, nor any interview footage with those responsible for making it. A pretty shabby package, and considering how awful the packaging is, this is hardly likely to entice the first-time viewer – honestly, the front cover of this is terrible; the old video cover had an eye-catching image of a bleeding and doubled over Statue of Liberty – this looks like it was designed by the work experience kid.
The Verdict
A film I recommend that all of you watch, The Killing of America is a grim, nightmarish work. Bleak doesn't even cover it. It's a life-denying piece of film, but one that has a great deal of power at the same time, and its gun-control message is one that we should all pay heed to. A fine film that has been given a shitty release.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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