The Doc Option: Watch ‘The Killing of America’ Instead of ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’

Killing of America 1

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a fake of a movie. It is a concretion of film noir tropes that has none of the pathos or thematic richness that people love noir for. Its paper characters match its comic-booky aesthetic, which was interesting when the first Sin City came out nine years (!) ago, but is stale now. It aims for cheap thrills, which is not necessarily an unworthy goal, but it fails to deliver any of those thrills. The movie is just one bland act of violence after another.

The Killing of America is also one act of violence after another, but it actually has something on its mind. And as a cavalcade of actual death, assembled in an unpolished print and unreleased to this day in the U.S., this shockumentary has a billion times more outsider credibility than the hardboiled poser that is A Dame to Kill For. Both films depict worlds of total moral decay, where murder is a distressingly commonplace part of daily life. But Sin City invites you in to be turned on by this, to revel in the brutality, while The Killing of America wants you to question the kind of culture that would produce Sin City in the first place.

Killing of America 2

“All of the film that you are about to see is real. Nothing has been staged.” This is how the 1981 documentary begins, a sensationalist claim that puts it in line with the likes of Mondo Cane, Faces of Death and other exploitation docs. Unlike claims by those movies, though, the title card here is not a lie. Starting with the JFK assassination, then moving through the Vietnam War and the protests against it and then exploring the rise in violent crime across the U.S., along with the disturbing rise of serial killers and incidents such as Jonestown, The Killing of America presents one filmed or recorded death after another. It is a parade of inhumanity, accompanied by the dispassionate narration of Chuck Riley, who provides context where needed.

The doc was directed by Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader, the late brother of filmmaker Paul Schrader, with whom he occasionally collaborated on projects. Most notably, he co-wrote the under-seen masterpiece Blue Collar with Paul and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters with wife Chieko Schrader, who also co-wrote this film. And he wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Schrader’s sense of social justice spurred him to make this doc, which is his treatise on the downward spiral of American culture. Our country, it suggests, is on the road to ruin, the hope for peace offered up by the ’60s utterly dashed away.

Killing of America 3

Its vision is a compelling one. Like in Collapse, the strength of its effect outweighs any concerns about how true to life its world really is. The America of this film is one being sucked into a mire of savagery at an accelerating rate. Apparently, sex-related serial killings were so prevalent in the ’70s that one man who committed 20 of them went ignored by the media. As if the footage of assassinations and murders and police brutality weren’t enough, the movie seeks to knock the viewer off kilter with sheer weirdness. Robert Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, is interviewed, as is Ed Kemper, “The Co-Ed Butcher,” and Thomas Noguchi, the L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner who performed or supervised autopsies on numerous celebrities. It’s these kinds of lurid detours that sometimes work against the movie’s overall serious tone, though the respite from the violence might be worth it.

The Killing of America had a brief run in one New York theater (a dramatic venue, at that, not a cinema), but otherwise it has never had a public exhibition in the U.S.. Nor has it gotten a native home video release, although it did in other countries. Unlike its mondo kin, this film is not content merely to shock. At its core is a simple but deeply troubling question: why is violence so much more prevalent in America than most of the other prosperous nations on Earth? What is the flaw in our national character? The movie has no answer; it simply asks the question, again and again. And while the crime statistics in the U.S. have improved in the decades since the doc’s release, we still far outpace most other First World countries on this front. Because of this, The Killing of America can instill dread in an audience even today.

The Killing of America can be purchased as an import DVD and copies can be found in full online all over YouTube.

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at