by John Harrison

“America is the only industrialized nation with the high murder rate of countries at civil war, like Cambodia and Nicaragua.”

With that opening statement, delivered in a grim, deliberate, and monotone voice by narrator Chuck Riley, begins one of the most brutal, distressing, and uncompromising true crime documentaries you are ever likely to endure.

I first sat through The Killing of America (1981), open-mouthed and muscle-tensed, at the beautiful old Capitol cinema in Melbourne when it amazingly played there in 1982 (a strange environment for such a viewing experience for sure), and again several times on videocassette when it was released locally on the infamous Palace Explosive label a couple of years later.

It was a film that was both incredibly hard to watch but almost impossible to turn away from. Even living as far away as Australia, it made me want to double-bolt my doors every time I watched it. And sadly, it is a film which is just as truthful and relevant today, if not even more so.

And thanks to a new local Blu-ray release via Melbourne-based boutique label Ex Film, The Killing of America is back to resurrect old nightmares, and to scare the pants off of a whole new generation of Australians.

Co-written by Leonard Schrader and produced primarily for the Japanese market to cash-in on the success of the notorious (but largely faked) Faces of Death shockumentary from 1978, The Killing of America documents in unflinching detail and honesty the rise in gun violence, murder, and sexual crimes in the land of the brave and the home of the free.

Concentrating mostly on the period between the assassination of US President JFK in November of 1963 and the shooting death of John Lennon in December 1980 (years which saw a marked increase in violence in the country), the film covers political shootings, killing sprees, cult murders and mass suicides (such as Charles Manson and Jonestown), serial killings (Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Ed Kemper), as well as the Vietnam War and the protests over it on home soil which often turned tragic (like Kent State).

Director Sheldon Renan and editor Lee Percy assemble the film remarkably, bludgeoning you into terrified submission with its continual parade of uncensored footage, crime scene photographs, and interviews with criminals (including Robert Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan, and a chilling interview with incarcerated serial killer Ed Kemper), as well as burnt-out ex-cops and young Sunset Strip prostitutes. Some of the more infamous clips included in The Killing of America are the 8mm Zapruder film of JFK’s killing, and Vietnam police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan casually executing a Vietcong prisoner in cold blood on the streets of Saigon on February 1, 1968.

Aurally, The Killing of America is almost as impactful and foreboding as it is visually. Apart from Chuck Riley’s downbeat and morose narration, which has a similar effect as the narration on many of those gory driver education short films from the 1960s (such as Mechanized Death and Highways of Agony),  the film makes remarkably effective use of the songs “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (played over the Vietnam War and social protest footage), and “Homicide” by English punk band 999 (played over a montage of Sunset Strip street fighting and Hollywood hookers describing confrontations with violent johns and the high prices that an underage girl is likely to fetch).

Mark Lindsay and W. Michael Lewis also contribute a soundtrack score which features some piano and synthesizer sounds that complement the onscreen mayhem perfectly, heightening the sense of fear and dread that builds inside the viewer as the movie progresses.

Suppressed in the US since audiences stumbled out sick and in shock from a screening at the Public Theatre in New York in February 1982, The Killing of America finally made its official American home video debut in 2016, thanks to Severin Films.

And now Ex Film have made the movie available once again within Australia, issuing it in a stunning new Blu-ray release that does this important documentary justice. The 2K scan preserves the original 1.33:1 Aspect Ratio, and does a magnificent job of cleaning the film to give it a clarity that it has never had before, while preserving its documentary feel with some soft grain, particularly in some of the older archive footage.

Along with the original English language version, the Ex Films Blu-ray also includes the longer Japanese cut of the film, which runs for an extra 20 minutes and was titled Violence USA (though the print still bears The Killing of America as its opening title). The Japanese version (presented here with the original Japanese narration and optional English subtitles) makes more of an attempt to examine the schizophrenic duality of American society, inserting footage of a more playful America indulging in wholesome activities like roller skating and skiing, along with some of its big technical achievements such as space travel and the Moon landing, to juxtapose all the violence. Violence USA also opens with breathtaking aerial shots exploring the country’s natural beauty before moving to its concrete urban nightmares. There are a couple of sequences on the Japanese version that are surprisingly missing from the English one, in particular news footage of Muhammad Ali talking a potential suicide victim from jumping off the top of a city building, and shots of Manson disciple Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme’s attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford in 1975.

Supplementary material on the Ex Film Blu-ray include the original trailer, and new and very interesting interviews with director Renan and editor Percy, along with an audio commentary track with Renan (on the English version) and an interview with Mondo movie fan and historian Nick Pinkerton, who weighs in on the film and its place within the Mondo genre (a type of pseudo-documentary or shockumentary which takes its name from the classic 1962 Italian film Mondo Cane). While this was all ported over from Severin’s US Blu-ray release, one exclusive feature of the Ex Film release is the outstanding 84-page booklet that is included, which contains a myriad of original press clippings, ad mats, reviews, worldwide promotional art, and new writing on the film by Dean Brandum (Melbourne film historian with a remarkable knowledge of distribution and local cinema history), and L.A. punk poet and filmmaker, Chris Desjardins. There is also a reversible sleeve for the disc, one side featuring the same art as the Severin release, the other side featuring a homage to the classic Australian Palace Explosive VHS.

Along with the Blu-ray, Ex Film has also released a very limited number of VHS tapes of the documentary, in both PAL and Beta, for those who want to relive the experience of watching it in those formats. The tapes feature an additional hour of classic mondo movie trailers, and also a reversible sleeve. You can also get a Killing of America pin, and a limited bonus zine on James Hoskins, the gunman who took over a Cincinnati TV station in 1980 before killing himself, who was featured prominently in the documentary. And if you already have the Severin release in your collection, Ex Film have also made the booklet available as a separate item, which is an essential companion piece to the movie.

A tough, challenging, and haunting, but utterly galvanizing viewing experience, one not likely to be soon forgotten by anyone who chooses to brave it.



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