The Killing of America

Billed as “perhaps the most controversial documentary in history”, The Killing of America charts the brutality of American violence through the turbulent 1970s. Using the assassination of JFK as an entry point and eventually culminating in the murder of John Lennon, the filmmakers approach a decade plus of bloodshed in the most forensic and unflinching manner possible. Chuck Riley’s voiceover narration is haunting: the cold, monotone and authoritarian voice of the unforgettable evil that has transpired.

Watching the documentary, which is full of such graphic real death, it is hard to imagine anyone forgetting these images. But we remember that these are the collective memories of an entire country, and that so much of this butchery has truly faded into the past. The Killing of America feels just as vital now as ever, as a shocking reminder that America’s legacy of violence is long and complex.

Politics are on every American’s mind currently, but the cultural memory of the nation’s political past is foggy. Writer Harlan Ellison once recalled speaking at a college where he was asked, upon his usage of the word ‘Dachau’, what the name referred to. This chilling anecdote sprang to mind when on a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher a guest used the phrase ‘National Socialism’, but the usual rowdy and vocal studio audience remained silent. Of course, they know the phrase ‘Nazi’, but does ‘National Socialism’ allude them? They know Hitler, but what about Goebbels? Riefenstahl? Do they know the names of the infamous Nazi concentration camps? Do they know the name Dachau? What about Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Bergen-Belsen? In situations like this Ellison would be moved to quote Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Will the cruel and senseless violent events of The Killing of America come as a shock to those who find their way to this marvelous new Blu-Ray release from Severin Films? On the release’s new interview with director Sheldon Renan he remarks that “You have to know about it to be able to deal with it”. This is a testament to the film’s role as important documentation. It is an immortalizing reminder of the bleakest realities of recent American history. The film explores everything from the rise of the random snipers, to Jonestown, to famous assassinators like Sirhan Sirhan, to the 70s rash of serial killers, among them the Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and Ed Kemper. They come one after another, with no reprieve. The film is an exhausting and transformative experience.

When The Killing of America was first made, these events were even more recent, but now the cold reality is that most no longer recall that they ever happened. That’s why films like this are important. At times this documentary is extremely difficult to watch, but it doesn’t feel exploitative like some other mondo films do. Everything it shows is real, and it all feels worth committing to memory.

Thank God for this beautiful re-release. It contains a fantastic 2K restoration, interviews with the director, editor and a historian, a director’s commentary, and additionally features the extended Japanese cut of the film. This release is an excellent preservation of a film that should, and hopefully will, stick around. This is the kind of honest and cold documentation we need: the kind of brutal truth, like a car wreck, so gruesome and unbelievable that you can’t turn away. Don’t forget it.

WICKED RATING: 9/10

Director(s): Sheldon Renan
Writer(s): Leonard Schrader & Chieko Schrader
Release: Severin Films October 25, 2016
Studio/ Production Co: Toho-Towa / Filmlink
Language: English
Length: 95 / 115 minutes
Sub-Genre: Documentary