(A.k.a. VIOLENCE USA)
"All of the film you are about to see is real. Nothing has been staged". That's the brief warning proffered by opening red text on a plain black background. Then, with scant opportunity to prepare themselves further, the viewer is confronted with medium-shot handheld footage of two cops gunning down an armed black street sniper in broad daylight.
Welcome to 1981's THE KILLING OF AMERICA.
What follows over the next 95 minutes is a well-edited montage of archive, newsreel and freshly filmed footage which collectively highlights the burning issues of violent culture and out-of-control gun laws in America. Other topics include racial tensions, police brutality, serial killers ... It's all here, plus more, in this - one of the most highly regarded "shockumentaries" to have emerged following the success of MONDO CANE back in 1960.
Narrated in predictably earnest fashion by Chuck Riley, the film provides an evenly paced and largely non-sensationalistic damning of America's violent society (even though the tense electronic opening score threatens to contradict that latter statement). Along the way we get quite fascinating interviews with retired cop Ed Dorris, whose jaded approach to dealing with miscreants is frightening in its cold pragmatic manner, and Los Angeles-based coroner Thomas Noguchi. Again, the latter's frank matter-of-factness is a little jarring to begin with - but does allow for some grisly footage of his daily work for good measure.
The film, commissioned initially by Japanese producer Mataichiro Yamamoto in the wake of the phenomenal success of FACES OF DEATH in his home country, and co-produced by Leonard - brother of Paul - Schrader, settles into a fairly linear approach during its first act.
Following a perhaps-too-brief musing on where the country's concept of violence being heroic comes from (a Wild West show where kids enjoy watching actors shoot each other for fun is about as deep as this segment runs), Riley talks us through the assassination of US president John F Kennedy. All of which is shown in grisly (though somewhat blurry) detail. This is credited as being the moment the American dream became married to the American nightmare of societal violence. It's certainly one of the most shocking, defining moments of the country's history in the 20th Century, so the lengthy sequence it enjoys here is understandable.
That leads us into footage of Kennedy's killer Lee Harvey Oswald also getting shot, the fallout back home from the adverse publicity the US enjoyed during their contribution to the Vietnam War, the student riots that followed, the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, and the shocking cultural breakdown which occurred at Kent State.
As director Sheldon Renan notes in the disc's excellent commentary track, the film is very deliberately designed to gradually move closer into the crimes being committed and the psyche of those perpetrating them. From war and rioting, through a second act which wallows almost exclusively in footage of politicians getting assassinated, and eventually to direct quotes and interviews with individual killers ... THE KILLING OF AMERICA does have a definite sense of closing in on its subject matter as it progresses.
Jim Jones is given the chance to spit out his disturbing rhetoric via vintage clips, while interviews with killers such as Ed Kemper and Sirhan Sirhan are not so much enlightening as they are morbidly engaging. The discussion with Kemper is a highlight - if you can get away with calling it that.
There is a lot of disturbing footage on offer, of course. Shots to the head, public executions, savage beatings ... it's all here, all ugly and uncensored. But, with sombre narration (written by Schrader) acting as an alternative to the schlocky presence of a Dr Francis B Gross-type figure, and a focus on violence as a real social problem as opposed to a form of entertainment, THE KILLING OF AMERICA manages to walk away with its gravitas intact.
If it's undermined in any way, it's that its statistics are no doubt paltry compared to the murder rate suffered by America nowadays.
The film was released uncut onto UK VHS and DVD by Exploited Films in 2002. Fourteen years down the line, the masterminds behind the fondly remembered Exploited brand - David Gregory and Carl Daft - now run the brilliant Severin Films, and have returned to THE KILLING OF AMERICA for the sole of purpose of giving it a definitive HD special edition release. And they've succeeded.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio in a pillar-boxed 1080p HD picture which comes to this disc as a nicely sized MPEG4-AVC file. Of course, it's again uncut. While the source material is still a little dark, dull and, at times, soft, this new restoration is a noticeable improvement against previous releases. Colours are truer, blacks are deep without crushing, fine natural grain retains an agreeable filmic texture throughout. Black-and-white sequences fare the best. The print used is largely clean, save for the odd speck here and there. Do remember that a lot of this culled from varying sources, so inconsistencies are always to be expected.
English 2.0 audio is clean and clear throughout. Optional English subtitles are also hand; these are well-written and easily readable at all time (yellow with a thin black borderline).
The disc opens to a static main menu page. From there we get a scene selection option allowing access to THE KILLING OF AMERICA via no less than 30 chapters.
Extras are unexpectedly plentiful.
These begin with an engaging, insightful commentary track from the 75-year-old Renan. He confirms right from the start that all the footage we're about to see is genuine; extols the virtues of having a good helicopter pilot when shooting a film about America's more violent projects (going so far as to make tenuous mention of Vic Morrow and Michael Findlay's unfortunate fates at the hands of helicopter blades); reveals that most of his crew wore bulletproof vests while filming in Watts; tells of how Riley actually used to know Lee Harvey Oswald's assassinator, Jack Ruby; explains how they managed to acquire the rights to Beatles music for use in the film; shares with us his initial reaction to reading Paul Schrader's script to the at-the-time unfilmed TAXI DRIVER and loving it, viewing it as an account of the diaries kept by George C Wallace's shooter, Arthur Bremer (footage of which is contained in the main feature); gives insight into how his background as a film archivist not only got him the gig of director, but also held him in good stead to know how to enhance and doctor flawed documentary footage to make it clear or more watchable; working with an emotionless Leonard Nimoy; confesses to hiring a voice actor to yell "put the gun down!" to the sniper in the aforementioned opening scene (which is covered in more depth about 59 minutes into the movie); confides of how he'd been told every policeman who shoots and kills someone retires within four years, such is the impact of taking a life. There's a lot more in here - it's all fascinating; Renan is an excellent host.
He's also present for a new 20-minute featurette entitled "The Madness is Real". "a more artistic version of FACES OF DEATH". Although much of what he covers here is repetition of what you'll hear in the commentary track, it's still good stuff: filming the morgue scenes in the style of Ozu; Renan's observation that "there's nothing beautiful, or graceful, or noble about dying"; his praise of editor Lee Percy's work ... it's all good.
Speaking of Percy, we get a great interview with the editor in the 16-minute "Cutting the Killing". He looks amazingly well for his years, and is agreeably enthusiastic as he discusses how he got into both the film industry and working on THE KILLING OF AMERICA. "I had no interest in editing whatsoever" he reports early-on while musing over his start, working on the film ROAR. This is a great piece, a most valid addition to the disc.
Nick Pinkerton is a "mondo movie historian", so why not also include a chat with him? This is precisely what Severin do, in the 15-minute "Mondo Mania". He attempts to contextualise the sub-genre, taking in the likes of MONDO CANE, FACES OF DEATH, TRACES OF DEATH and more as he speaks academically about them.
We also get the original 112-second trailer for THE KILLING OF AMERICA which pulls no punches and lets viewers know exactly what they're in for.
The biggest bonus feature by far, though, is the alternate Japanese cut of the film. Always referred to as VIOLENCE USA, it's actually graced with THE KILLING OF AMERICA as its title here. It's an interesting alternative: after the sniper shooting, it opens with footage of the Grand Canyon - something Renan reveals on the above commentary as being his idea but which was knocked back for the American version of the film. It's 20 minutes in longer than the US cut in total - the running time here is 115 minutes and 46 seconds. Along with a subtly different order of events, we also get a completely different narration (Japanese with optional yellow subtitles), and additional moments of filler such as an energetic pop song about time sung over scenes of Americans being active in all manner of ways - skydiving, Frisbee-throwing and so on. This is "cheerful America", the narrator tells us, before we cut to racial riots and Kennedy's shooting.
It's long been rumoured that the film's Japanese cut, re-edited specially for their market, contained more extreme content than its US counterpart. But this isn't really the case from what I saw - it's more that sequences are extended with additional footage. Most notably, the sports montage mentioned above and extra footage of John Lennon at the end.
The greatest difference is the narration: though the script is largely the same, plenty of subtle changes have been made, and the Japanese narrator's tone is totally condemning - he portrays America as a cesspool sent crazy by its pursuit of freedom, and everyone in it as a nutter.
The film's presentation here is on a par with the main feature. A separate scene selection option also allows access to this version via 30 chapters.
An important film gets a landmark blu-ray release. THE KILLING OF AMERICA may have aged but remains a challenging watch. Severin Films have done a great job bringing this troubling classic to blu-ray.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Severin Films|
|see main review|