You start to notice a difference right away between this and the usual "Mondo Cane"-type shockumentary that you might be expecting when you first start watching it. THE KILLING OF AMERICA (1981) isn't just about showing us violence in order to satisfy our more prurient interests, but to help us come to grips with it and, hopefully, begin to understand it.
Not that there's really anything to understand, because violence like this is mostly as far removed from reason and rationality as it can be. The scariest thing about what we see, in fact, is the randomness, unpredictability, and total incomprehensibility of it all, particularly in the case of spree-killers, serial killers, and glazed-eyed zealots.
The documentary begins in the early 60s, when director Sheldon Renan and co-writer Leonard Schrader (whose brother Paul wrote TAXI DRIVER) believe that America's psyche was forever altered by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. From that point and into the 80s, as Renan remarks in his commentary, "the weirdness of the killing, the numbers of people killed, and the craziness of the violence just continued to escalate."
Renan's film concentrates at length on the 60s with extensive footage, photographs, and testimony concerning the subsequent assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the latter sparking bloody race riots throughout the country. The televised murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby and the attempted killing of presidential candidate George Wallace (and later President Ronald Reagan) further illustrate how drastically an armed assassin can change the course of history.
As the decade dragged on, more and more of its (extreme) violence was being filmed or videotaped for posterity. This allows us to witness much in the way of Viet Nam war protests and widespread campus unrest which led to the Kent State killings.
After that, THE KILLING OF AMERICA begins to narrow its focus to such spree killers as Texas sniper Charles Whitman, the Manson family, the infamous "I Don't Like Mondays" girl who opened fire on school children walking past her house, and other, lesser-known psychos seeking infamy via mass murder. Some are seen enjoying the spotlight while in custody as does a smirking David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, while others prefer to commit suicide or go out in a hail of cops' bullets.
We witness the senseless shooting of a store clerk via security footage and endure a tense hostage situation in which a disgruntled man rages against injustice while clutching a shotgun that's taped to a loan officer's neck. Graphic images of the infamous Jonestown massacre continue to shock, as does a montage depicting suicide's aftermath.
Most disturbing, perhaps, is the section on serial killers such as Charles Kemper, John Wayne Gacy, Dean Corll, and Ted Bundy. Actual scenes from Bundy's trial, during which he defended himself, show the deceptively normal-looking young man teetering on the brink of insanity, while Corll's then-teenaged accomplice tells the chilling story of luring several of his friends into Corll's evil clutches before he himself finally found himself an intended victim.
Kemper, meanwhile, is interviewed up-close and personal in prison by Renan, and this imposing (6'8", 280 lbs.) killer's calm accounts of multiple murders, mutilations, and beheadings (including his mother) conjure mental images as disturbing as any picture.
All along the way, the squeamish will be kept squeaming by endlessly morbid stuff including a tour of the overcrowded Los Angeles city morgue during which a number of autopsies are being performed. Again, this isn't "Faces of Death"-style exploitation for its own sake, but be warned that no punches are pulled. This is grimly matter-of-fact material and it's intended to make a visceral impact.
Narrator Chuck Riley lends the same solemn vocal authority here that he did in the haunting 1979 documentary "Whodunit? The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries" which you might've caught on HBO back in the 80s. Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders co-wrote the score.
The Blu-ray from Severin Films is widescreen (new 2k scan from original negative) with English and Japanese 2.0 audio English subtitles. In addition to the exhaustive director's commentary and the film's trailer, extras include featurettes "The Madness is Real: Interview with Director Sheldon Renan", "Cutting the Killing: Interview with Editor Lee Percy", and "Interview with Mondo Movie Historian Nick Pinkerton."
There's some editorializing, of course, but for the most part we're left to form our own conclusions from what we're shown. After a few New York showings in 1982, THE KILLING OF AMERICA disappeared from American screens (while being a big hit in such places as Japan and Australia) until now. Needless to say, it's just as relevant as ever.
Buy it at Amazon.com: