The Killing Of America (1981)

“I am an American, and I killed Americans. I am a human being, and I killed human beings. And I did it in my society.”

The speaker is Edmund Kemper, a serial killer, rapist, necrophile and cannibal, arrested in 1973 shortly after calling the police to turn himself in, and here interviewed in his prison cell, where his high IQ has made him the penitentiary’s best reader of books for the blind. When Kemper utters the phrase, “in my society”, he archly raises an eyebrow.

As its very title suggests, The Killing of America is all about that society, and about the violence and murder that it has nurtured. Stitched together from real footage and news broadcasts of the time, The Killing of America belongs firmly in the ‘mondo’ genre, exploiting a po-faced parade of shocking actuality either to outrage or perhaps to titillate the viewer – but it certainly comes with a strong thesis that continues to resonate decades after it was made.

That thesis, narrated by Chuck Riley, is that while guns and outlaw actions have been part of America’s landscape since the cowboy days, the political assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy ushered in a new era where the rate of deadly crimes would triple, copycat killers would flourish, and a new irrationality and anomie would come to dominate the business of murder (in particular with the rise of violent acts against random victims). Taking in the Sixties’ spate of sniper mass-killings (beginning with Charles Whitman in the Texas Tower), Charles Manson, race riots, state violence against Vietnam protesters at Kent State, the Jonestown massacre, the proliferation of serial rapists and killers in the Seventies, it ends with the murder of John Lennon in 1980 and the subsequent peace vigil for him in Central Park (where, as Riley’s voice-over wryly points out, there were two further shootings). Blow by deadly blow, it hammers home its portrait of an America that has lost its dream – and its way – to killer impulses.

Directed by Sheldon Renan and an uncredited Leonard (brother of Paul) Schrader, The Killing of America was big in Japan, but after a brief run in 1982 at The Public Theatre in New York, it had no North American commercial release (in theatres, on television or indeed on video) until 2013, when it screened at Montréal’s Fantasia Festival. Viewed with hindsight, it is both a patchwork history of America’s low points in the Sixties and Seventies, and an exercise in negative nostalgia – but it is also, maybe more importantly, a troubling account of the beginnings of an American decline that has not been halted in the meantime. Indeed, one might see a direct throughline from this to Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine (2002), as America’s perverse love affair with the gun continues unabated, with all-too-obvious consequences.

© Anton Bitel