Early in its runtime The Killing of America shows a man with a pickaxe embedded in his face. Surprisingly, this gore is only for fun, part of a Halloween costume seen on 42nd Street. The camera pays special attention to the costumes that feature evisceration of some kind, the wearer laughing as they pass marquees featuring Shogun Assassin (also edited by Lee Percy). 42nd Street will always elicit a good response from me, built on the fantasy alone. Having grown up in the eighties, I spent my years in the Midwest dreaming about big cities. Any glimpse of New York’s seedy nightlife is a what-could-have-been. Halloween costumes aside, this film is anything but as the movie opens with archival footage of a man being shot to death outside a department store. He moves to relax one leg and the two cops facing him open fire as his body reacts in kind. Later, Director Sheldon Renan includes a scene of two fake cowboys reenacting a shootout to illustrate a point: when human beings are shot, they don’t do acrobatics. Their bodies collapse, and it’s anything but graceful. Death is awkward.
In many ways, Killing is a history lesson. The assassination footage of JFK is meant to signify the tipping point of hope into chaos. Renan and company actually rented the Zapruder film, which was a huge get for the time, so its inclusion works as both lesson and freak show; slowed and zoomed in, the footage ensures that the audience cannot separate themselves from the horror. On the commentary track, Renan says the film was meant to eliminate distance, and it succeeds.
Inevitably the film showcases the men that became synonymous with killing—Manson, Bundy, Gacy, and their lesser-known contemporaries. The questionable fashion sense of the Manson Girls is on full display here as they dance down the halls of justice like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. Jim Jones and his Kool-Aid infamy are lumped in with these men. Arguably, Jones’s case of religious mass murder is something else altogether, but it goes without saying that the victims all died senseless deaths.
Then the film switches gears with a series of deaths featuring no backstory. There’s a harrowing video of an apparent suicide jumper, from two angles. A montage of death photos are shown, seemingly all suicides. This is one of the more problematic moments in the film. Yes, the film has clearly featured death thus far, but there’s something more exploitative about still photos, a tactic that some of the lesser shockumentaries—such as Traces of Death—relied on. Not enough footage? Here’s a man in his underwear, shotgun between his legs, head split. I would argue that the archival footage deserves to be seen and has merit as proof that the “good old days” never existed. These are public moments, and above all, historical film documents. A photo of a naked and nameless, hung-by-the-neck woman without any context? What’s the lesson here?
When discussing The Killing of America it’s important to keep in mind that most of this footage was unavailable to the general public. While created for the Japanese market under the guise of educational purposes, films like Faces of Death were holy grails for gore hounds and thrill seekers alike. In high school I’d heard legendary stories about tapes that contained death by alligator, execution, and other means of perishing. While I didn’t have access to mail order, I did manage to find a few at my local video store. Looking while simultaneously looking away was part of the fun. It never occurred to me just how strange it was to actively seek this kind of film. Then again, I didn’t discuss them outside of my circle of friends, so clearly there was a reality there I didn’t want to fully engage with. These films weren’t forbidden, but they certainly weren’t part of the norm either. Shockumentaries were fuel for the nihilism and despair of the eighties, much like ISIS videos and fear in the 2000s.
How does Killing, unreleased in the states for several years, compare to other shockumentaries? While possible to dissect the film and dismiss it as trash due to its exploitation roots, for me it’s the presentation that sets it apart from the more gnarly films in the genre. The years have added a respectability to the film, which is a rare thing, due in some part to modern culture’s desensitization. This film was not haphazardly thrown together and is technically sound. The narration lacks the ghoulish tone so heavily featured in previously mentioned films. Instead it is somber, mournful. And the time capsule aspect is undeniable. When I think about watching the news with my parents, I remember how grim everything seemed. Producer Mata Yamamoto created this film as a reaction to American news reports because he couldn’t believe the violence he was seeing which, according to Pinkerton, was not the norm for Japanese television. In 2016 the news reports are just as grim and exploitative, although less graphically violent, perhaps due to this kind of content being easily accessible online. It’s bombardment over Blood & Guts.
Killing has a point. There’s a scene featuring a man named James A. Hoskins that for me makes this film a must see. Here, Lee Percy’s editing skills are on display, with a reveal for the ages. Without going into detail (you need to experience it for yourself), this is a fascinating moment in time—that features no onscreen bloodshed—encapsulating the out-of-work frustrations and violence of Reagan’s America.
Renan’s film isn’t just about death. Ending on the vigil for John Lennon, grief is very much present, the aftermath that’s so hard to fathom until it happens to you. This film isn’t for everyone—clearly—and its message is one that no one likes to hear. But as Mondo Movie historian Nick Pinkerton says, this film is “Not the movie we want, but it’s the movie we have.”
The disc features both the English and Japanese version (Yamamoto’s version is a bit more uplifting, featuring an upbeat musical montage), with 2k scans from the original negatives. Extras include an interview and audio commentary with Director Renan, an interview with editor Lee Percy, and another with Nick Pinkerton.
The Killing of America is available now on Blu-ray from Severin Films.