Faces of Death is one of those movies that isn’t especially good, but people cling strongly to, anyway. I should know; I’m one of them.
You see, Faces of Death was all about the experience less so than the quality of the picture. And everyone who went through the effort of tracking it down before the internet made it readily available has their own unique story about the “adventure” which they recall with fondness.
Faces of Death (1978)
For me, I was in high school when a friend of mine told me about this “awesome movie called ‘Faces of Death’ that shows footage of actual people dying!” and then proceeded to point me toward Top Ten Video in Brookfield Plaza; a small independent video store which was the only place in Springfield that carried the tape. So, I waited until one rare weekend where my parents were away on a trip and my brother was off at some overnight track meet and I had the whole house to myself. Not having a car, I went for a long walk after dark around the city, eventually stopping by Top Ten Video where I convinced the clerk to sell me the tape for some ridiculous price. I then hurried the thing home and watched it behind shut curtains with the lights off at one in the morning (a scenario I typically reserved for porn).
I wasn’t stupid; I could tell when they were faking the footage and when they were showing genuine material, but that didn’t matter to me. It was the experience of hearing about this thing through word of mouth, finding out where to get it and then going through the effort of actually procuring a copy that made the moment so memorable. One of those nostalgic memories that can never be recaptured, I suppose. And, with the internet having material ten times more horrible than anything on Faces of Death available at a click for free, I suppose the era of Faces of Death being something uniquely special has up and passed us by.
Anyway, if you haven’t heard by now, Faces of Death was a highly controversial “documentary” from the 1970s cobbled together from “real” footage of explicit death; people and animals dying in all sorts of gruesome and ridiculous fashions with the whole shebang caught on film. Our host is a pathologist named Dr. Francis B. Gross (Michael Carr), whose obsession with death has taken him around the globe where he’s been witness to dozens of exotic and nauseating murders, suicides, accidental fatalities and anything else you can imagine. Get ready to squirm.
If you’ve spent even so much as five minutes on Wikipedia, then you know by now that Faces of Death is full of shit. Or, rather, about fifty percent of it is. Originally, Faces of Death was going to be nothing more than a collection of actual news and police footage of death and destruction, but unfortunately, most footage of that nature only provides the aftermath of the tragedy and not the event as it happened. So to rectify this oversight, Director John Alan Schwartz went through the trouble of dramatizing the events leading up to the aftermath footage before segueing into it “seamlessly”. Think of how Godzilla, King of the Monsters tried to drop Raymond Burr into scenes from the original Godzilla, except in Faces of Death it would have ended with Raymond Burr’s actual autopsy.
A discriminating viewer can pick out the “real” from the “bullshit” easier than finding Waldo, as anything that looks too elaborate to be real most likely isn’t. For instance, there’s a scene where a news crew covers a wildlife marshal getting pulled into a lake by an alligator, a convict gets fried in the electric chair, an Arabian beheading, a suburban shootout and more. The “actors” in these sequences were made up mostly of the crew, such as the makeup artists and the editors and what have you, so the moment they open their mouths you can tell it’s all make-believe. To their credit, they use some exceptional editing and effect techniques to segue into the real footage rather well, but it only has the effect of making you think that the real stuff was faked, as well.
So what all is real in Faces of Death? Well, about what you’d expect. All the slaughterhouse footage is real, as is the headless chicken (though the monkey brains scene was faked), and some of the more “mundane” footage, such as the Mexican mummies are all on the up and up. You’ve also got lots of file footage of real city morgues and actual human autopsies to sink your teeth into. These are probably the most nauseating parts and the likeliest to turn the stomachs of the squeamish (I had no idea there was so much, uh, yellow stuff inside me). I say “mundane” not so much in that it’s boring or that it isn’t incredibly gross, but more-so in that it lacks the drama of the more elaborate sequences.
Still, I think that the blatantly dramatized footage was a good addition. This is already a pretty morbid movie, and nothing but 100% genuine footage would have made it almost unbearable. The dramatized stuff adds some levity to the picture and takes a few pounds off that weight that’s crushing your conscience as you sit through this thing, watching real human misery and destruction for the purposes of entertainment.
I suppose Faces of Death is one of those “you had to be there” films. It was around for twenty years before the internet made explicit images of death available to one and all, and for those two decades the Faces of Death series was where you went to see the unglamorous side of kicking the bucket.
It’s a snuff film, and I mean a real snuff film; not some Eli Roth wannabe endeavor. So that alone is going to limit its appeal. It’s badly acted, yeah, and pretty goofy at times, but that’s part of its charm, too. For all its faults, I still enjoy Faces of Death for the memories and even looking at it objectively, I think it remains an entertaining novelty, with some fantastic music and lots of eerie atmosphere. But then, I’m probably a sick individual.