THE KILLING OF AMERICA **** USA / Japan 1981 Dir: Sheldon Renan (and Leonard Schrader). 90 mins
Opening with the useful disclaimer “Nothing has been staged”, this notorious documentary – never officially released in the U.S. – immerses us in the unending moral decline of a country that, at the time of the film’s making, had racked up more than a million murders since the beginning of the century.
Owing an obvious debt to the strain of so-called “shockumentaries” ushered in by MONDO CANE and emerging in the same period as the famously exploitative (and partly faked) FACES OF DEATH movies, it uses the then-recent near-assassination of President Reagan as a starting point from which to reflect on post-WWII violence in America. The still-shocking Zapruder footage of Kennedy’s televised demise represents “America’s dream of freedom becoming America’s nightmare of murder”, while lesser-known soundbites from Robert Kennedy’s killer frame a gruelling montage of civil unrest throughout the Vietnam era. Employing contemporary news coverage, security camera footage, autopsy images and crime scene documentation, the film particularly focuses on “the new breed of killer” emerging in the wake of JFK’s assassination, as often young, white, middle-class men with easy access to firearms are driven to commit random acts of violence for terrifyingly banal reasons (“I just wanted to make a name for myself…” / “Because Mondays are so boring…”). As chilling as any horror film from the period, this portrayal of a land of 100 million guns and revolving door prisons is accompanied by a suitably sombre narration from Chuck Riley and has (tragically) become even more relevant in the intervening decades. Haunting scenes from Ted Bundy’s trial and Ed Kemper’s articulate explanations for his horrendous murder spree are particularly disquieting, and even the film’s relatively triumphant closing message of hope from the open-air John Lennon memorial (dictated by the film’s Japanese financiers to offer a more positive ending) is neutered by the narration’s reminder that, while we’ve watched the movie, five more people have been murdered…
Review by Steven West