In 1962, Mondo Cane started a documentary trend that explored the bizarre and sensational, including tabboo subjects and actual violence on screen. Some of these exploitation documentaries/shockumentaries – or mondo films, as they are also known – are staged, despite being presented as genuine footage. But that isn’t the case of Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s The Killing of America – every bit of footage you see, we’re afraid it’s very much real.
Made in 1981 for the Japanese market (which was then obsessed with exploitation films and death themes), The Killing of America could easily be renamed as The American Nightmare. As it destroys our perception of America the Beautiful, from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 to John Lennon’s in 1980, we are guided through a 20-year long increase in senseless killings by snipers, hostage situations and serial killers, and confronted with real archive footage that makes no efforts to spare us to the cold, shocking killings on camera, or the eerie smile of killers on camera. From Charles Manson and his followers, to Reverend Jim Johnson, James B. Hoskins and Ted Bundy, the documentary doesn’t seek an explanation (though it suggests violence did increase after Kennedy was murdered), but it does offers a pattern (highly intelligent individuals who get bored/hear voices/don’t like Mondays) and proposes a solution (gun control).
Considered one of the most controversial documentaries in the History of Cinema, The Killing of America still has a strong impact on modern audiences – particularly because of its sober style. The factual voice over full of long pauses and dramatic statistics, the matter of fact piling up of shooting after shooting, the bitter sweet ending – it’s like a fly on the wall Michael Moore, minus the funny bits. And don’t expect a breather, either – much like Alan Clarke’s Elephant, The Killing of America isn’t here to make concessions to your sensible conscience, and feeling sick and depressed after watching it is a perfectly normal (and hopefully expected) reaction.
Not all is perfect, of course, and some 80s terms and perspectives will of course clash slightly with the 2016 audience, but the fact that a 35 year old documentary still holds so much relevance – even more now that the whole world holds its breath before the Presidential Election – should worry us, and a modern sequel would only have to add up the crescent racial tension to the mix to update it. It’s not an easy watch, but definitely a must watch.
The Killing of America screened at the 2016 UK Frightfest and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on 31st October 2016.