Released in 1982 the shocking documentary The Killing of America was banned in the USA when it came out. Detailing the rise in gun crime, gruesome slayings and mass murders and the gradual decline of the country as it slowly kills itself watching it now over 30 years latter on the brink a giant change in American politics it is even more important and disturbing than it ever was.
The screening at this years FrightFest on a rainy and somber Monday morning it blew me away as it took the audience on a bloody trail from the 1963 death of President Kennedy to the shootings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King through the Vietnam War, Charles Manson and the demise of John Lennon mixing explicit news footage and keynote interviews which will shock you to the core.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray now in its entirety after such a long time I was lucky enough to talk to The Killing of America’s director Sheldon Renan about his massively brilliantly vital and brutally violent movie.
Love Horror: How did The Killing of America come to be made?
Sheldon Renan: Mataichiro Yamamoto, a young independent Japanese producer with a taste for edgy content was looking for projects that would get him started working in America. Mata was acquainted with Leonard Schrader, an American screen-writer who had lived in Japan, was fluent in Japanese and understood Japanese audiences. FACES OF DEATH had been very successful in Japan. Mata convinced Toho-Towa to finance an edgier version of FACES OF DEATH – but one which, written and produced by Schrader, would be better than just another “Mondo-genre” exploitation film.
They were having trouble finding the kind of content they would need to acquire, so I helped Len, who I knew through his brother, the writer and director Paul Schrader. I had experience producing “clip shows” for PBS, had produced a TV series that introduced Japanese films to American television, and had researched homicide for a feature script. So my company provided the line production services, including researching and acquiring the film clips (from TV news footage to the Zapruder film), and I directed the live action interviews and framing material. But the original idea, structure, and final cut were the work of Len Schrader (and his wife Chieko) and Executive Producer Mataichiro Yamamoto.
Love Horror: What was the process like of putting the documentary together?
Sheldon Renan: It was kind of a snowball process, additive, step by step, where we knew stories we wanted to tell, experiences we wanted to provide, and that led to planning for certain things we wanted to shoot, and footage we wanted to acquire… about violence and homicide in America. And about how America – starting with the Kennedy Assassination – became an increasingly violent and gun-obsessed. That’s what we wanted to tell people and that’s what Len Schrader put into words with his powerful narration.
I wanted to start over the Grand Canyon (which the Japanese loved) and then fly over the west to “the city”… played by Los Angeles… in which violence had “infected” the American Dream. (This is still used in the Japanese version, but the American version is more direct. The film flies directly over the Hollywood Hills to reveal LA and a troubled population.)
Len would research which stories and incidents best fit his evolving narrative. We would look for TV and documentary footage that covered those stories. Meanwhile I was shooting material that would give the film its cultural and geographic context – and could be used to set up stories and transition from story to story. Eventually we shot in LA, at the Grand Canyon, in the prison at Vacaville in California where Ed Kemper and Charles Manson were serving life sentences, in Austin for the Texas Tower massacre, in Dallas for the Kennedy Assassination, and Houston for a particularly gnarly serial killing case.
In LA I spent time getting to know the LAPD, including a group of homicide detectives… that had their own special culture. I got to know the L.A. County Medical Examiner team. All these people were involved in different ways with homicide. Eventually we got permission to film with police driving in Watts, to shoot helicopter to helicopter with air patrols, and to actually film autopsies. They let me go through all the files – which was very upsetting, by the way — and to find evidence photos we could use for montages.
At the end, when John Lennon was shot, Mata told me to get to NYC to shoot at the vigil for Lennon in Central Park. That gave us the ending we were looking for.
Love Horror: What did you find most disturbing when researching or making the film?
Sheldon Renan: No question, it was time spent researching the evidence files and shooting the autopsies at the LA County Morgue. That screwed me (and everybody) up good. After that it was putting together the stories of the mass murder casses. You basically couldn’t get the smell of rotting flesh out of your head when working on those sequences. I had a long period of depression after the film was done, and Lee Percy, our heroic editor, reports having “flashbacks” for years after that.
Love Horror: Was there any footage you had that was too shocking to be included?
Sheldon Renan: No, if it was real, if it was true, if it helped tell the story, and if we could get the rights, it went in. In the case of the Zapruder Film, for example, we managed to get the original 8mm. We blew it up to 35mm, and we optically stabilized it – and so for the first time you could see every detail, including the top of President Kennedy’s head flying off.
Love Horror: How did audiences and critics react when it first came out?
Sheldon Renan: It was very popular overseas – the 7th largest hit in Japan in 1982, for instance. But the company that bought it for the U.S. decided it was too rough to release. The few audiences that had a chance to see it were often upset. It was taboo stuff. People being shot. People dying. People being pulled apart in autopsies. Audience members knew some of the stories. They had seen much of the footage. But not all of it, and not all of it together, and not all of it in a coherent narrative structure. Even at the cast and crew screening in Los Angeles, about a third of the audience walked out. But that was in 1982. But bit by bit, it began to get a kind of reputation as a “sleeper”. A powerful film to to be discovered. By the time it was shown at the True/False Film Festival in 2016, audiences found it relevant, compelling.
Love Horror: Your film was never distributed, televised or made available for sale in the United States, what are your views on censorship and how did that effect The Killing of America?
Sheldon Renan: I don’t think films should be censored for adults. I think what you really need to know is what has really happened.
Love Horror: Are you pleased the film has been fully restored and is getting not only a DVD and Blu-ray release but a run in cinemas as well?
Sheldon Renan: I think it’s great that it’s finally will be seen here, on the big screen and in the BluRay format for big screens at home.
Love Horror: What do you think the answer is to the consistent rise in gun violence in the US?
Sheldon Renan: I think the access to guns should be regulated, available only to people who have passed significant background checks and undergone safety training — and that the power of guns should be limited to what is required for self-defense or sport. I don’t believe in open carry. I don’t believe in making assault weapons available to all.
Love Horror: Do you think there is a relation between horror and violent movies and real life violence?
Sheldon Renan: Fiction reflects reality… purifies and clarifies it… tries to find meaning in it. Almost everybody thinks about homicide every day, but typically our actions don’t reflect it. But the films, TV shows, books and plays we choose to consume reflect our fascination with violence. But usually violence is “romanticized” in horror and crime films. In fact, there is nothing romantic or graceful or picturesque about real violence and actually homicide.
Love Horror: Have you thought of making a sequel looking at America now and how do you think the country has changed since your film was released in 1981?
Sheldon Renan: Complicated questions. I’d love to see a follow up film about homicide – because some of these stories continued after the film was released. But it should be made by somebody younger than me – because this was a very difficult and dangerous film to make. By the end, my crew refused to go out filming without having body armour.
The situation in America is more complicated — in some ways worse, in some ways better. But there are more guns in the hands of citizens and criminals alike. More people alienated and incarcerated. Less idealism. And very few easy answers.
Love Horror: Thank you so much.
Out now the UK Blu-ray release of the infamous ‘shock doc’ The Killing of America arrives loaded with exclusive special features – including the even more unnerving Japanese version known as Violence U.S.A. – which remains one of the most profoundly disturbing and still chillingly relevant documentary experiences of our time.