The Killing of America (1981) [US]

Author: Miles Imhoff
July 5, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

Documentaries are tricky things. There are those that try their best not to editorialise and there are those that take the plunge without a second thought. The Killing of America (1981) doesn't quite seem to know where it stands. Now before we continue, I would like to point out that the version I saw was the US cut, so I'm not exactly positive how Japan's final product turned out. Even still, what we received in the States is a bit of a mess...

Some of the most alarming and viscerally sickening acts of violence in recent memory (at least at the time this movie was released) are placed on full display here. Political assassinations and assassination attempts are shown; mass killings like the Whitman massacre and Jonestown are explored; serial killers like Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, Edmund Kemper, and Dean Corll are discussed; and it's all interspersed with footage of random violence. The end result is all over the board, and the film ultimately presents itself as a catalogue of hideous events instead of a cohesive narrative that tries to explore the motives behind and lasting solutions to society's darkest ills.

One unusual aspect of the narration seems to imply that the Kennedy assassination was in some way the impetus behind much of the violence of the late 20th century. It may be a misinterpretation of the dialogue on my part, but 1963 is used as the springboard for the cavalcade of grim stories to follow. If there's one refreshing aspect of the movie, it's that the findings of the House Select Committee On Assassinations is seriously taken into consideration instead of relying on the Warren Commission. Nevertheless, the connections drawn to the rash of hyper violence in the '60s, '70s, and very early '80s is untenable at best. The rest of the film is practically a Chuck Riley-narrated newsreel of horror.

Please, if you intend to ignore all warnings and view this film, let it be known that this is not for those with sensitive constitutions. Unless your children wear brass knuckles as a fashion accessory, they should probably be diverted to lighter fare. The problem is that the extraordinary violence, bloodshed, and almost exploitative nature of The Killing of America (1981) borders on snuff film territory. Footage of serious injuries and vicious killings is far too frequent. The imagery that interviews and court proceedings manifest is so viscerally repulsive that when the end credits roll, you just feel like barricading yourself in an isolated room for a few days.

When the documentary finally does get to its point, it editorialises by claiming that unregistered firearms, "handcuffed prosecutors", and revolving door prisons are to blame. In the modern era, this is a cocktail of views from both the political left and the political right in the US, but if I may editorialise myself for a second, the conclusion is so shortsighted that it borders on the myopic. In fact, it's actually rather inconsistent, as the problem of overcrowding in correctional facilities was earlier discussed. Besides interviews that reveal the peculiar thoughts that went into some of the most perverse murders, the movie fails to really explore the causal factors behind the violence pandemic and mostly focuses on the extreme, sensationalistic cases. The societal pressures that come from economic and sociopolitical factors are barely explored. In the one case where extenuating circumstances (with which the audience can actually empathise) led to a frightening, albeit victimless crime in the case of Tony Kiritsis, Mr. Kiritsis is summarily dismissed by the movie. The documentary also seems to go to great lengths to tacitly absolve authorities from any degree of oversight in regard to police brutality, excessive force, and the like, even though the existence of such issues is implied during the protest scenes.

Now, reviewing a documentary is kind of unusual, because there is often nothing in the way of acting, characterisation, plot, or special effects to discuss, but there is one aspect of standard cinema that often finds its way into the medium, and that's music. An assortment of popular songs play during key scenes, including the requisite "For What It's Worth" during the Vietnam footage. The ever famous "Give Peace A Chance" makes its way into the Lennon portion of the film. There appears to be some original music, and it's that sort of moody, synthesised fare that screams "Pink Floyd meets MacGyver". And of course, as one would expect in a movie that includes presidential assassinations and assassination attempts, "Hail to the Chief" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" make an appearance.

If the Japanese version of this documentary is anything like the American version, I'm guessing it may have risked incited mass xenophobia. This film has done anything but age well; one case in point being the slightest sense of homophobia around the 58:21 minute mark (you might claim that the intent was anti-prostitution at face value, but the framing of the scene tells a decidedly different story). When it comes to societal ills... symptoms are highlighted, quick cures are briefly discussed, and causal factors are ignored. The Killing of America (1981) is a gruesome and almost pornographically violent documentary with very little in the way of focus. I think I would only recommend this movie to those who are curious about certain violent events like the Ted Bundy murders and the Edmund Kemper murders (but even then, make sure you have a strong constitution going in). As for members of the general audience, they'd probably be better off just reading about them... *shudders*