Killing of America (US - BD RA)
Gabe rings in the new year with a look back at decades of violence in the USA...
Technically speaking, the Mondo film ‘shockumentaries’ are a specifically Italian phenomenon, from its root word ( mondo = “world”) to the fact that the practice was first instituted by Italian provocateurs Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi. Following the team’s groundbreaking Mondo Cane (1962), Jacopetti & Prosperi took more extreme ventures in pseudo-documentary exploitation – Mondo Cane 2 (1963), Africa Addio (1966), and Addio Zio Tom (1971). As the so-called ‘Italian Kings of Mondo’ ended their career, the genre flourished in Germany, Asia, and in the American grindhouse. These foreign imitators including the notorious Faces of Death series (1978-1996) and somewhat less revolting, US-made cultural exposés, like Romano Vanderbes’ This is America (1977) and Sheldon Renan & Leonard Schrader’s (a future Academy Award nominee for Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985, and brother of Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader) The Killing of America.
The Killing of America does seek to educate its audience as it jolts them with mortifying images, unlike the majority of the Mondo movies, which exploited real-world horror for its entertainment value. Renan & Schrader couples the grim footage with archival and newly recorded interviews (with members of the law enforcement community, Sirhan Sirhan, Ed Kemper, and others) – all in an effort to de-sensationalize the material. The filmmakers also tend to tell their story of violence in post-WWII America in semi-chronological chapters, contrasting the more structure-free Jacopetti & Prosperi geek-shows. That said, their editorial juxtapositions and Chuck Riley’s pointedly apathetic, fact-driven narration still produce plenty of Mondo-esque hyperbole. With these somewhat admirable intentions aside, The Killing of America was still met with major controversy and never distributed, televised, or made available for sale outside of Japan, where it was retitled Violence in the U.S.A..
As Severin’s re-release advertising will tell you, this 35 year-old movie remains relevant in the modern era, though the conclusions it draws are understandably not satisfying, usually because of its limited perspective. There is little to no attempt to explore the complexities behind the violence on display. There’s little mention of mitigating factors, cultural disparity, political idealism, or mental illness – everything is presented as simply evil and/or tragic. This isn’t even to mention the disturbingly puritan, fear-mongering aspects of certain sequences, such as one that heavily implies pornography, sex toys, and homosexuality are related to sadistic murder/rape. The film’s tight runtime doesn’t leave enough space to properly explore anything outside of the shock value, of course, but the longer Japanese cut is actually more sensationalistic. It’s hard to believe that anyone involved was looking for a means to ‘solve’ any problems.
For The Killing of America’s Blu-ray debut (DVD versions had been released in the UK via Exploited Films and Australia via Big Sky Video), Severin has created two new transfers; each mastered from 2K scans of the original negative. The first is the shorter US release, which runs 95:09, while the second transfer is the aforementioned extended Japanese Violence in the U.S.A. version, which runs 115:42 (this is exclusive to the BD). Both versions are presented in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Considering how much of the movie is comprised of raw archival and newsreel footage – much of it 8mm and videotape – there had never been much of a chance to squeeze additional detail from the negative. There are also a number of inherent flaws in the material and, while I could whine about uneven grain, blotchy patches, and dirty spots, these imperfections give the film much of its gritty, unsettling edge. I can say that the lack of compression makes the footage look more film-like and that Severin has made a substantial effort to balance these levels and punch-up the colours (at least compared to images from the DVD and VHS versions I could find on the internet). I didn’t notice any differences in the PQ of the sequences shared between the two cuts, nor did Violence in the U.S.A.’s exclusive scenes (made up mostly of goofy, gum commercial-quality images of people rollerskating, windsurfing, skydiving, et cetera) exhibit any more extensive film damage.
As the descriptions may imply, the Killing of America cut is narrated in English and the Violence in the U.S.A. cut is narrated in Japanese. Both soundtracks are presented in uncompressed, LPCM 2.0 mono and the Japanese track is a smidge more crackly at times. The overall sound design is surprisingly complex for a down ‘n dirty shockumentary. While certain sequences only feature the stark, somewhat flat narration, others are built up with overlapping music, source audio, and pertinent sound clips. Mark Lindsay and W. Michael Lewis’ score fills the movie with relentless synth melodies to help set the grim mood when necessary. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” also make appearances and sound just fine.
- Commentary with director Sheldon Renan (US cut only) – Renan is straight down to business on this moderator-free track. Just about every minute of the discussion is filled with facts, figures, and personal anecdotes. There isn’t a lot more insight in terms of what he and the other filmmakers were trying to convey with the film, but it still offers plenty for viewers to chew on.
- The Madness is Real (20:22, HD) – Renan talks a bit more about the film’s production, his history as a documentary editor for Japan, interviewing Ed Kemper, gathering B-reel, and making a ‘more artistic version of Faces of Death.’
- Cutting the Killing (16:09, HD) – Editor Lee Percy discusses his first job editing Noel Marshall’s Roar, cutting his teeth on trailers, and finding structural threads among the hours of film that made up Killing of America.
- Interview with Mondo Movie historian Nick Pinkerton (14:48, HD) – Pinkerton gives his personal perspective on the shockumentary/Mondo genre, including clips from pertinent trailers.
The Killing of America is more interesting in the context of the Mondo and Faces of Death movies and product of its time (i.e. the onset of the huge murder rate of the 1980s) than it is as a standalone documentary. It alleges to run on shock value, but fans of the nasty extremes found during VHS era of death clip movies may be disappointed by its comparatively “tame” atrocities (still horrifying by most standards, of course). Besides, its contradictory tones are more interesting than its violent footage or muddied morals. Severin’s Blu-ray debut looks as nice as it could be, considering the raw quality of its footage, and includes two cuts of the movie, a full-bodied director’s commentary, and a nice collection of retrospective interviews.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 25th October 2016
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: LPCM 2.0 Mono English and Japanese
Extras: Two Cuts, Director Commentary,
Easter Egg: No
Director: Leonard Schrader, Sheldon Renan
Cast: Chuck Riley, Ed Dorris, Thomas Noguchi, Sirhan Sirhan, Elmer Wayne Henley, Edmund Kemper
Length: 90 minutes
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