The Killing of America

by Glenn Erickson Nov 12, 2016


In Japan Leonard Schrader’s docu about real-life American horrors was called Violent America. The decidedly unflattering picture couldn’t find a U.S. distributor when new but accrued a reputation as the ultimate compilation of violent historical images. It’s now filed with cannibal and zombie pictures in exploitation movie catalogs, yet it has more in common with Schrader’s Taxi Driver.

The Killing of America
Severin Films
1981 / Color / 2:35 1:85 widescreen 1:37 flat full frame / 95, 115 min. / Street Date October 25, 2016 / 29.98
Starring Chuck Riley (narrator, English version), Ed Dorris, Thomas Noguchi, Sirhan Sirhan, Wayne Henley, Ed Kemper.
Robert Charlton, Tom Hurwitz, Willy Kurant, Peter Smokler
Film Editor Lee Percy
Original Music W. Michael Lewis, Mark Lindsay
Written by Leonard Schrader, Chieko Schrader
Produced by Mataichiro Yamamoto, Leonard Schrader
Directed by Sheldon Renan

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

1980s censorship in Japan strongly limited violent images on TV. They didn’t see the steady diet of news images of casual killings, police standoffs and sudden assassination attempts that made America look like a shooting gallery inside a brothel.I don’t think I want to meet any of them personally, but there are collectors that prize the ‘Faces of Death’ video series, just for its outcast appeal. That bastard offspring of the old Mondo Cane quasi-documentary saw no problem with faking scenes of gore, blurring the line between real carnage and fantasy violence porn.

The 1981 Japanese documentary The Killing of America falls roughly into the ‘Mondo’ category, except that it has a simple, consistent point to make: violence is getting out of control. Film writer and screenwriter Leonard Schrader was able to interest Japanese producer Mataichiro Yamamoto in a feature documentary that would pull together the best raw footage available to illustrate the cultural orgy of killing that’s been going on since the early 1960s. What at first seems an excuse to throw together the most heinous footage hidden in old news film libraries, actually has a point: maybe by seeing all these things cut together, the viewer might realize that a real crisis is underway. At least, that was the plan.

Yamamoto’s director Sheldon Renan is really a film compiler extraordinaire, a film clip insider who knew how to license this footage, and get his hands on the raw material. The Killing of America reached out for the most famous, and infamous footage we all know too well – especially several historical on-camera murder-assassinations that repeat endlessly in our minds. Leonard Schrader also commissioned new interviews with an L.A. detective, the county coroner and even a serial killer. To help illustrate the film’s thesis, the crew filmed aerial footage of Los Angeles at night and, for contrast, scenic vistas of western deserts and the Grand Canyon.

What emerges between the nightmarish newsreels and the new footage is a construction not unlike dream-like scenes in Taxi Driver, written by Leonard’s brother Paul. Martin Scorsese illustrated Travis Bickle’s demented ramblings with detached passenger-view shots of the 42nd Street sidewalks jammed with thugs and prostitutes. Leonard and Sheldon Renan use their travelogue-view backgrounds of wild horses and visual splendor to contrast the American dream with the reality. The Southwestern vistas suggest that our vision of America is a fantasy from western movies, whereas the truth is that America is going insane with violence. The killings are political, personal, and fueled by race hatred. It all it seems psychotic, with assassins and serial killers losing their grip on the basic social compact that we don’t torture and slaughter our neighbors.

Elsewhere Leonard and Paul Schrader suggested that the violence they seem so drawn to is a result of sexual repression. They’re also into cultural differences — in his screenplay for The Yakuza, Leonard has a character explain that when a Japanese man goes crazy, he kills himself, but when an American goes crazy he kills others. The best footage in the film is a new interview: mass killer Wayne Henley articulates his interior struggle with his urge to torture and slaughter. He comes off as intelligent, perceptive, and engagingly candid. But he’s fascinated by, and seemingly quite pleased with, his compulsion to kill. Just a normal- type guy, Henley’s obsession hasn’t lessened in the slightest.

The Japanese version of The Killing of America attempts to explain the madness of those irrational foreigners — us.. 1980s censorship in Japan strongly limited violent images on TV (as opposed to movies), so they didn’t see the steady diet of news images of casual killings, police standoffs and sudden assassination attempts that made America look like a shooting gallery inside a brothel. The Japanese version is a full twenty minutes longer than the English language cut that couldn’t secure a release here, and there’s plenty to disturb the viewer. The toughest is the morgue footage of autopsies that take corpses completely apart, in one case in search of a bullet. It’s like looking for a bone chip in hamburger.* The Zapruder film is present in its un-restored form, but with the key moment repeated to show us that a big piece of the President’s head was blown away. Many scenes of police standoffs come from videotape or bad surveillance footage, but most of it is in fine shape. Curiously, the show begins with a scene of policemen shooting a black man who is brandishing a pistol as he leans against a storefront. We see rather rare footage of the Texas tower mass shooting in 1966, committed by an ex- Marine sharpshooter. [Editorially speaking, I am frightened and offended by our current adoration of combat snipers as infallible heroes.] Photo montages have to suffice for the actual crimes of various serial killers, but we get a good glimpse of Charlie Manson and his followers. There’s also prime coverage news film of the shootings and attempted shootings of George Wallace, Ford and Ronald Reagan. The James Jones Guyana massacre is covered in full. New interviews on the streets of Los Angeles and New York show us a street brawl and a young prostitute drinking beer as she describes finding her mother with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, still talking and arguing.

The societal violence represented is a couple of scenes of rioting in Watts (with an on-screen I.D. for TV KTLA), the widespread rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the famous war incident in which a South Vietnamese officer shoots a prisoner in the head, in as casual a manner as possible. This cut shows us more of the incident than usual. The victim is one of several captives, and the presence of other news cameras tells us that he wasn’t killed for cause, or to frighten his friends into cooperating, but as a show for the media. It looks like the murdering officer was just showing off — “Slow news day? Here, I’ll help you out.”

Before cell phone cameras, moving images of crimes being committed were rare items. The Killing of America makes us think about why a camera is present when these atrocities go down. We feel grateful to see film footage of a clash between picketing union workmen who are confronted by Klansmen in a pickup truck. We are told that the workmen are expressing unity with fired black workers. The Klan thugs then open fire with weapons, killing several unarmed men. The narration tells us that no charges were filed against the Klansmen. In that case it would seem that the cameraman might be risking his life. Either that, or he’s a Klansman recording it for later enjoyment.

Another extended sequence shows a guy who goes nuts because he’s angry at his bank. He holds a bank executive hostage, with a shotgun wired to his neck, for three days. The cops look on helplessly as the maniac screams out his complaints, and the banker takes it all in stride, like a zombie. The cameraman loves to zoom into close-up, to tease us with the fact that we might see a man’s head blown off, right on camera. In common with this perpetrator is another ‘gone postal’ guy clearly barricaded in an office. Holding his machine pistol, he seems to have been granted the ability to talk to a news camera. He mostly looks sympathetic as he assures folks in his office (hostages?) that he’s not going to hurt anybody. He politely explains that it’s all over for him, because he’s shot his wife and there’s really no exit. We like him immediately.

Not so with John Wayne Gacy, the abominable serial killer that we see giving a judge and bailiffs grief in the courtroom with his tantrums and outbursts. These killers are said to be driven by uncontrollable frustration and inner conflicts. But watching this violence makes us frustrated too — like a kid who’s rewarded for acting up, the men that commit these crimes and then get to be celebrities, with more cameras eagerly shoved in their faces.

Almost as a special optimists’ break, we also see news film from Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, where Muhammed Ali talks down a man threatening to leap to his death from a tall building. We even hear a bit of audio, something about ‘you don’t feel important but you can be important.’

Even on disc, The Killing of America is being sold as a shock doc: “Uncut. Uncensored. They Didn’t Want You To See…” But except for the worst of the autopsy footage (a subjective tic) the show is less disturbing than 1,0001 ‘educational’ reality TV shows that tease us with morbid footage of one kind or another – for profit. The thesis that America is undergoing a swing toward violence is sound, if rather obvious. The Japanese narration track keeps coming back to the subject of guns — the narrator can’t believe that Americans have to register cars but not guns, that they’re so easily purchased. The sense of injustice in the violence, of evil unpunished, erodes civic mindedness – stay unemotional about the terrible wrongdoing here, and one still wants ‘retribution that is swift and final.’

As it happened, John Lennon was shot while The Killing of America was in post-production, and the producer hired a filming crew to capture the vigil at The Dakota and the gathering the next day across the street in Strawberry Fields. After a Beatles song or two and some shots of tearful kids flashing peace signs, the show is over. The Killing of America is important as a study of the power of key images from traumatic historical occurrences, and the uses made of them for commercial purposes. Who was filming, and why? And who decides how the film can be used?

Severin Films’ Blu-ray of The Killing of America is an excellent encoding, with two versions of this Japanese-produced encyclopedia of violence in America, as recorded on film and video. As everything had to be assembled in 35mm, director-compiler Sheldon Renan took pains with the quality. Editor Lee Percy uses a ‘non-shock’ documentary approach in his cutting — no flash cuts, no blasts of music to hype the horror. Where possible, the source content is left uncut and unmodified. Some of it feels like evidence for a courtroom.

Color and other variables are of course different with each piece of film but overall the doc is fairly consistent. The new material looks fine, and Leonard Schrader uses nicely designed photo collages now and then to fill some gaps. Yet we never feel that we’re watching ‘filler.’

Severin approaches The Killing of America in a refreshingly serious manner. Both versions of the movie are here, and both have English subtitles. In his feature commentary and on-screen interview, director Sheldon Renan explains how he got the footage from film libraries and collectors, and that he basically set it all up for Leonard Schrader and editor Percy to put into dramatic shape. It sounds as if the filmmaking were a collaborative venture – Leonard Schrader’s wife Cheiko is a co-writer as well. Renan also talks at length about the talented Willy Kurant, an ex-combat cinematographer who shot for Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Editor Lee Percy also weighs in about his experience on the show. [I particularly like the direct cut from students being beaten during an antiwar rally at UCLA, and peasants cowering in a Vietnamese village. ] ‘Mondo Movie’ historian Nick Pinkerton fills in some background on Mondo Movies, not quite connecting them to this show, which simply has a lot more credibility. The Killing of America may not be ordinary upbeat entertainment, but it’s a serious documentary.

[ * I think I now understand my personal difficulties with autopsy footage, which has been faked on TV crime shows for more than a decade now. Of course the idea of being chopped up like that when I’m dead is not pleasant. Also, I’m just sensitive enough not to want to think about the fact that the people I love and care about can be reduced to a table-top of chewed-up flesh and gristle. I could have volunteered at the hospital as a teenager, like a friend did. Perhaps it would have toughend me up and put me ahead of the curve on a lot of life lessons… but I’m happy enough the way I am. ]

Note: I asked — the ‘Rob Fermanek’ in the credits of this picture is not Bob Furmanek, the film expert who restores 3-D movies. Darn, I thought I was onto an inside scoop.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Killing of America Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good (and more importantly, reasonably legitimate)
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Audio commentary with director Sheldon Renan, interviews with Renan, editor Lee Percy and film historian Nick Pinkerton.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 10, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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