Produced By: Towa Production Co., Filmlink Corporation
Produced By: Mataichiro Yamamoto, Leonard Schrader
Blu-Ray Distributed By: Severin Films
Blu-ray Release: October 25, 2016
Director: Sheldon Renan
Reviewed By James M. Dubs
I’ll watch anything…including The Killing Of America.
The Faces of Death VHS series introduced me to the world of mondo films (pseudo-documentary/shockumentary exploitation) that claimed to offer real footage of death in the comfort of your living room. As a rabid horror hound, what could be more frightening or provide more “street cred” around a school cafeteria table than telling your mates that you just rented and witnessed Faces of Death II? If you were tough enough to watch actual human deaths, by contrast Jason and Freddy were mere child’s play. Although some of the scenes depicted in the Faces of Death series are genuine (news reel footage of accidental deaths, and stock footage of slaughterhouses come into memory), most of what Faces of Death purported as real was, in fact, staged.
This is how The Killing of America begins. Unlike Faces of Death, everything you see is very much real. For this review I considered taking screenshots of the most brutal and violent images from the film in order to give the reader a sense of how truly grizzly this film is. Deciding against that, I considered using the same images but placing black censor boxes over the most offensive areas of the image. This proved to have an even worse effect than just displaying the carnage. So for the purposes of this review, I will NOT be showing graphic imagery from the film. However, please be aware that this film shows REAL violence and death, full-frontal and unedited. The filmmakers leave nothing to the imagination. But the questions remains…why would they want to do this?
Film Rating Rating:
The producers primarily responsible for propelling the film were Mataichiro Yamamoto and Leonard Schrader (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Mishima, Blue Collar). Due to the popularity of the Faces of Death series in Japan, Yamamoto saw an opportunity to bank roll a larger, theatrical version of the mondo style of “shock doc,” but unlike the Faces of Death series, wanted his film to be genuine. Schrader represented the agenda driven side of the picture and was most influential in the overall tone, cadence and operational thrust of the final product. It was Leonard who started with a belief that modern American violence was an epidemic and could be traced primarily to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the loss of our national innocence. With the assassination of JFK as the main leaping off point, the filmmakers would assemble hours of footage and focus primarily on violent crimes between 1963-1981.
Sheldon Renan is credited with the Director role. Prior to his work on The Killing of America, he worked as a film historian/archivist and was friends with Leonard’s brother Paul (Taxi Driver, Cat People). Renan met Leonard at the greenlighting celebration party for Taxi Driver and due to his experience assembling “clip shows” from stock footage, Leonard believed Renan to be the ideal person to assemble source material from varying formats (16mm, 35mm, VHS, etc) and organize it into their large format feature. It also helped that Renan shared Leonard’s view that “There’s violence in the American story and it needs to be exposed in order to deal with it and decrease it.”
Lee Percy served as editor on the film and, with the support of Renan and Leonard Schrader, was tasked with the unenviable job of piecing together the hours of brutally violent footage, primarily culled from existing sources including news outlets, security footage, personal films, and the like. Some new material was shot specifically for this feature. A handful of interviews were conducted for the film; notably a conversation with retired homicide Sergeant Ed Dorris, then Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi, and convicted murderer Ed Kemper. Other footage shot for the film included patrol footage of L.A. police calls, shots of the morgue, and the peaceful rally in New York City after the murder of John Lennon.
Percy expertly assembled all of these random events into a seamless and coherent narrative and ultimately ended up creating two distinct and very different versions of the film. For the American release Renan and Leonard wanted to make a “more artistic” version of Faces of Death “without guard rails.” They wanted Americans to see the real violence in our society and not the Hollywood stylized “dance” of death. Mataichiro Yamamoto felt the American version was too depressing and wanted to be respectful of the larger American culture. Yamamoto determined that additional b-roll footage needed to be produced of general American landmarks and culture in order to balance the “two sides” of American culture. This new footage pads the original 95 minute run-time to 115 minutes, and in my opinion, improves the film by attempting to be more objective. The Schrader/Renan version is completely subjective.
We’ve spent a good deal of time exploring how the film came together, but what is it all about? The Killing of America is a very visceral experience that can be easily summed up into five main categories.
I. “An attempted murder every 3 minutes. A murder victim every 20 minutes.”
“Bodies and more bodies. All day… Every day…”
The film begins in Los Angeles and juxtaposes images of police answering emergency calls with gut churning footage of a very busy L.A. morgue. A couple of interviews with retired homicide Sergeant Ed Dorris, and then Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi reinforce the filmmakers call to attention and their concern over escalating violence.
II. “No place seems safe. Not even the street. No person feels safe. Not even the President.”
The film segues into nearly every attempted and successful assassination of American political figures, starting with JFK all the way up to President Reagan.
III. “Guns and more guns.”
The filmmakers are eager to point the finger at guns as a primary factor to violence escalation and explore the “birth of the sniper,” chronicling a number of chilling examples of bloodshed at the hands of a single, well armed individual.
IV. “…almost as if they are dedicated to the killing of America itself. One even said he mass murdered college students because ‘I wanted to hurt society where it hurt the most’.”
The bulk of the film focuses on psychos, sociopaths, serial murders, and the generally insane. Charles Manson, Son of Sam, Jim Jones, John Wayne Gacy, The Hillside Strangler, Ted Bundy, and many others get premiere spotlight attention on their depraved and lunatic crimes.
V. “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
The film concludes with the murder of music legend John Lennon. Fans gather for a peaceful rally in New York City to honor his legacy. A colorful red, white, and blue American flag fades into shades of gray and narrator Chuck Riley concludes, “While you watched this movie…five more of us were murdered. One was the random killing of a stranger.”
There is one painfully obvious omission from both versions of the film. Why is this happening and what can we do to stop it? Sheldon Renan openly admits that they never intended to try and solve this final question or provide solutions to the questions they raise, but state they simply wanted to make Americans aware of the problem before violence consumed the nation. I find this to be painfully problematic because if you leave the film experience without tackling that question, the viewer may believe that The Killing of America was produced under the guise of public service but in truth for sensationalism, shock, and profit.
Having consumed Severin Films entire blu-ray contents, I don’t believe this film was just a cheap money grab at the expense of American lives. I believe Renan and Schrader are fighting for a social cause and, as mentioned, they simply wanted to provide an exhibition of violent crimes “without guard rails” not to make money, but to make you “wake up” to the problem. This, of course, leads to my next question. Were they successful?
The Killing of America premiered in New York City at The Public Theater on February 13, 1982. Ironically the intended general American audience never saw the film as it failed to acquire distribution stateside. Instead the film made its way over to Japan where it had a wide release and even found its way onto home video in Britain. Severin Films blu-ray release is the first time in 34 years that either version of The Killing of America has been available for wider American consumption. And in those 34 years has crime run amok because Americans were denied access to this documented call to attention?
No. America has seen violent crimes reduce while both the population and gun sales climb. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, 1981 violent crimes equaled 1.36 mil to a population of 230 mil, or 0.59%. In the year 2015, violent crimes equaled 1.197 mil to a population of 321 mil, or 0.37%. And specifically murder and manslaughter has dropped from 22,520 cases (1981) to 15,696 (2015). Now consider the average gun ownership. The film reports that the average household owned 2 guns in 1981 (their stat, not mine) and implies that this had a direct correlation with growing violence. Today the average is 8 guns per household.
Sheldon Renan still believes the film is an important piece for viewers to observe. Considering that it has forced this writer engage the issue of American violence in a very direct way, I think he’s partly correct. But let me ask a follow up question. If very few Americans have seen the film and the murder rate still drops, why bother? My answer and Renan’s would most certainly be different. Renan would probably say that we need to see this violence to truly understand it. He believes Americans censor themselves from birth, sex, and death. I don’t disagree with him on that point. But where I do disagree is in his philosophy where it is important to see violence uncensored to understand its ramifications. Do I need to watch internet ISIS videos of terrorists beheading men to know that ISIS is evil? I believe, no. But all of this back and forth speaks to the power and importance of The Killing of America.
I find The Killing of America to be an incredibly well-made, expertly crafted, and engaging piece of biased, cinema trash. The film is little more than a sledgehammer to the face of brutality, gore, and violence. And for what? To be told that America has a murder problem? That America has a violence problem? That America has a serial killer problem? Even in the year 1981, was anyone NOT aware of these things? Then what, pray tell, is the purpose of The Killing of America? I don’t like the film. I disagree with the film. However, the film makes me face and challenge a relevant topic even today. It makes me fight for my opinion and position with logic and facts. Renan and team would disagree with me. Maybe you do too, but I think his larger point is to have the conversation and the argument out in the open. That’s as American as movies and apple pie.
Video & Audio Rating:
Because most of the film is a culmination of varying archival footage, degrees of picture quality are all over the map. For instance, the above image was pulled from a very early closed-circuit television (CCTV) security system that captured low resolution black and white video at 1 frame roughly every 1-2 seconds. Contrast that against any of the other screenshots in this article. The film never looks as good as a studio Hollywood film, but it does retain a consistent newsreel quality as the filmmakers seamlessly blend new produced footage with stock footage. Severin Films Blu-ray boasts a nice AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.33:1 aspect ratio (Yes, those black bars on the side of your HDTV are normal).
There are two LPCM 2.0 mono tracks, one in English and the other Japanese for each respective version of the film. Subtitles are available for the Japanese version. I found the audio to be especially impressive with this realise in it’s simplicity and streamlined focus. Archival audio is very clear and crisp despite the age and source. Chuck Riley’s haunting narration with accompanying music sets a clear tone for the film. It’s a lean track that doesn’t waste time with audial tricks, but gets right down to business.
All of the important details in this review were taken from the disc’s extensive, and incredible supplements. These additions are integral in order to get a full understanding of the film’s intent and purpose. Without them, The Killing of America is an incomplete film.
- English Language Version – New 2K scan from original negative (95 mins)
- Japanese Language Version – New 2K scan from original negative (115 mins)
- Audio Commentary with Director Sheldon Renan
- The Madness Is Real: Interview with Director Sheldon Renan
- Cutting The Killing: Interview with Editor Lee Percy
- Interview with Mondo Movie Historian Nick Pinkerton
- Theatrical Trailer
In my personal opinion, making a “documentary” with an agenda first (without being objective enough to consider your point might be proved wrong) is the absolute worst reason to ever create a documentary. Unfortunately, that’s how most documentaries get produced and funded. They begin with a pre-bias toward proving a point. Rarely do doc films begin as something else and transform into a true documentation of events.
The Killing of America is as subjective and biased as documentaries come. Michael Moore is probably the only person worse. And yet, if you think you can stomach The Killing of America, then it comes strongly recommended. Because the question isn’t, does violence exist? Of course it does. The lingering question is whether you need to see this movie to truly understand violence? The filmmakers say yes. I say no. The truth probably lies solely with you, the individual.
I don’t like this film, but I LOVE this blu-ray. I disagree very wholeheartedly with the filmmakers and their positions, but I appreciate the film for what it is in cinema history and Severin Films has once again gone above and beyond with this release. The film will take you on an emotional ride, and will linger with you long after it concludes. What better praise is there for a film?
WARNING: Viewer Discretion is Advised.