Severin Films new Blu-Ray release of the controversial and up-until-now banned documentary THE KILLING OF AMERICA couldn’t be more timely. In fact, it’s no surprise that they conveniently released the long sought after flick on Election Day. I had heard a lot about the movie, which originally was shot and put together in 1981, released briefly into theaters in February of 1982, swiftly pulled, and then re-released in Japan in a slightly longer version under the title VIOLENCE U.S.A.
When my Killer POV (now Shock Waves) podcast co-host Elric Kane had mentioned it on our show a few years back, I immediately tracked down an import DVD copy, but in all honestly, I’d been nervous to watch it. The way it was originally presented to me was that all the graphic footage showcased was real, and I was half-expecting a FACES OF DEATH-style documentary that went from horrific death scene to even more horrific death scene. After all, the reason the doc got funded was because of the sudden popularity of “mondo” films; the exploitation pseudo-docs or “shock-u-mentaries” of the time. I was surprised and thankful to discover that this is not that type of documentary at all, and is in fact, a powerful piece of filmmaking that I consider mandatory viewing for a myriad of reasons.
Directing credit goes to Sheldon Renan, although in the new interview on the disc, he claims the film really belongs to producers Mata Yamamoto and Leonard Schrader, brother of well-established writer/director Paul Schrader. It’s put together and crafted in the same manner as most documentaries, with narration, score and music, but its central theme is to showcase the increase of televised violence and analyze its influence on the people of the United States. Most of the first half focuses on world famous assassination cases, starting with President John F. Kennedy, his brother Senator Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon. The narrator provides brief context to the events surrounding each scene of violence, but then we also get to see some of the public’s reactions in the aftermath.
There’s something tremendously shocking and surreal about watching actual footage from the attempted assassination of President Reagan, or even Jack Ruby stepping out of the crowd of reporters and opening fire on Lee Harvey Oswald, the man arrested for the murder of JFK. This was a time period where things like this happening on live television were unbelievable and jarring to the American people. Video footage of Arthur Bremer’s attempted assassination of U.S. Democratic presidential nominee George Wallace is jaw-dropping. When reporter Elaine Green is talking to the calm and collected James R. Hoskins about escalating violence in the world during a live interview, it’s hard not to immediately tense up when he reveals his semi-automatic rifle in his hand. In another sequence, Anthony Kiritsis holds hostage Richard O. Hall with a sawed off shotgun wired to his neck, and trots him around town for 3 full days!
Slowly, the doc shifts it’s focus onto serial killers and cult cases. Everything from Charles Manson to Jim Jones to Ted Bundy and on. The filmmakers spend a considerable amount of time with convicted killer Ed Kemper, who provides a chilling and straight forward account of his crimes. His interview footage is exclusive to the doc. I’ve always found Ted Bundy to be the scariest of the bunch, because of how normal he appeared to everyone he came into contact with. The footage of how he presented himself in court, trying to walk out, is inconceivable. The judge in his case even seems to have a great deal of sympathy for this crazed lunatic, because of how deceiving his appearance lets him be.
One of the scenes that had the most profound effect on me is when they focus on Charles Whitman, the 25-year-old engineering student and former Marine, who one day in 1966 woke up, murdered his wife and mother, and proceeded to randomly shoot people from the top of the tower at the University of Texas in Austin until finally, he was gunned down by Austin police. During his 90-plus minute rampage, he killed 14 people and injured 32 more. In the doc, we see vintage news footage of President Lyndon Johnson addressing what had just happened, and pleading that we absolutely need to push legislation for stronger gun control in this country. This was 1966! 50 years ago. And nothing has changed at all.
A lot of times, the art created in the aftermath of such violence speaks to the time. A lot of the things touched upon here; the assassinations, Vietnam, etc., were all events that inspired some of our greatest horror filmmakers to make what would become their classic films. As a double bill with this, I’d strongly recommend also checking out Adam Simon’s 2000 documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE. Simon, now the creator and showrunner of the hit series SALEM, gets in depth with horror personalities such as George Romero, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter where they mention their recollections of a lot of the events depicted in THE KILLING OF AMERICA, and how they played into their features such as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 or DAWN OF THE DEAD.
If you’re a history buff, or just in general fascinated by “true crime” cases, then THE KILLING OF AMERICA is essential viewing. It doesn’t give us any understanding of why a lot of this violence has transpired and escalated, nor does it provide any commentary or suggestions to fight it. It merely shows it exactly for what it is. Ugly and horrifying. And a part of everyday life, then and still now.
You can hear the Shock Waves crew discuss THE KILLING OF AMERICA Blu-Ray release on the episode embedded below: