First there was the mondo movie, a globetrotting and misanthropic pseudo-documentary genre pioneered by Gualterio Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, it mutated into the much grimmer, oft-nihilistic shockumentary genre that produced films like Faces Of Death. The Killing Of America emerged during that time and it’s often lumped in with the shockumentary cycle but it’s actually its own unique animal. It has the ambition and cinematic vocabulary of the mondo film while also channeling the grim, unsparing tone of the shockumentary — and the results are as harrowing as they are artistically valid.
The Killing Of America was a 1981 collaboration between erstwhile screenwriter Leonard Schrader and archivist/clip-show director Sheldon Renan. It approaches the epidemic of senseless, random violence in America by proposing a theory that the wave of assassinations in the ‘60s — John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King — set the stage for a new type of attention-seeking killer who could give vent to his or her frustration and earn instant notoriety. As a side theme, it also comments on how the proliferation of guns in American society aids and abets this wave of violence.
Though its timeline of events ends at the dawn of the ‘80s, Killing Of America remains disturbingly prescient in its exploration of these concepts over three decades later. Schrader and Renan methodically lay out the situations and illustrate them with a mixture of file footage, atmospherically shot new cinéma vérité montages (Godard cameraman Willy Kurant contributed to the photography) and a restrained but artful use of graphics. As example after example is laid out in a “you are there” fashion, you might find it hard to breathe. The hardboiled, deeply-voiced narration adds facts and statistics that seal up the grim mood in an airtight fashion.
The resulting film abandons the globe-trotting element of mondo movies but retains that type of scope in how it goes from case to case and decade to decade within the United States. It doesn’t spare the audience from shocking imagery — there’s a quick tour of the L.A. County morgue near the beginning and a number of gruesome crime scene photos — and yet it is careful how often it throws these punches, using them to convey the life-and-death stakes of the case the film makes rather than for cheap shock value.
Instead, what makes The Killing Of America disturbing is how it allows the viewer to step inside the minds of the string of serial killers and mass murderers that it chronicles by allowing said killers to discuss their motives and reasoning in their own words. Along the way, you see Kenneth Bianchi mugging for the camera in an unsuccessful attempt to sell an insanity plea, Manson toying with reporters and Sirhan Sirhan giving an interview where his insanity keeps ruining his attempts to appear even-keeled. That said, the scariest moment is an interview with Edmund Kemper, who cheerfully relates his bizarre way of thinking and awful crimes in a matter-of-fact manner that will chill your blood.
To sum up, The Killing Of America is as unnerving as any mondo or shockumentary film but artistically, it plays on a whole different level. It’s as thoughtfully crafted as it is shocking and it uses its bleak power to make points about the underside of American life that remain resonant and necessary.