Faces of Death was a 1978, virtually no-budget pseudo-documentary, horror film. Modeling itself off ‘Mondo’ documentary exploitation-type films, Faces of Death promised viewers an authentic, up-close, no-holds barred look at death.
The film would be a ‘shock-u-mentary’ where footage of deaths and disturbing and grisly acts captured by film cameras would give audiences an insight into the horrors of death like they’ve never experienced before.
That and to simply gross out viewers getting them to cover their eyes.
Faces of Death was a cheapie, tasteless, gross excursion. The film has no real story thread. It is presented by ‘Dr. Francis Gross’, a world-traveling pathologist who has assembled a collection of ‘found footage’ involving human deaths, animal attacks, suicides, autopsies and odd delicacies – I’m speaking of the monkey brain kind.
And that’s pretty much the movie.
Thanks to being so low-budget and with its unsettling content, Faces of Death became hugely profitable in foreign markets. It then somehow managed to get distributed in the U.S. where it enjoyed a profitable run mainly in grind houses and drive-ins.
Estimates I’ve read say the cost of the film was around half a million bucks and it took in around $35 million. That’s a pretty impressive profit for a movie where one of the most memorable scenes is people gagging on monkey brains.
Despite being so profitable, if there was any cinematic justice Faces of Death would have faded from memory. It would have taken it’s surprisingly large amount of money it earned from movie screens and quietly disappeared, satisfied with getting its attention from moviegoers for a short awhile.
But something would come along that would reignite Faces of Death and launch it into a legendary movie curiosity – VHS.
Faces of Death would grow into something of an urban legend. A rite of passage movie. An adolescent dare you would take to find out for yourself if all the tall tales you’ve heard about it in the school cafeteria about it were actually true.
Rather than being egged on by your friends to walk up to the porch and ring the doorbell of the supposed haunted house in town, this was the electronic equivalent of accepting an intimidating dare. Only with this one you wouldn’t be standing on a darkened porch, you’d be putting in a clunky video tape into your VCR and pushing play!
What horrors will await you? Will you manage not to look away? Will you cover your eyes? Can you make it to the end of Faces of Death and stand triumphant?!?!
That was pretty much how the legend of Faces of Death went for me. My friends and I, heard talk about this sordid little movie making the rounds in VHS machines, we all sat and watched it after managing to rent a copy – which is strange when I think back on it.
This was back when video stores would have their blocked off backrooms with pornos and hardcore horrors and kids were forbidden to even step foot in there! Kids were meant to stop at the shelves containing The Fox & The Hound, Splash and Star Wars. But somehow we managed to get a ahold of a copy of Faces of Death for a Friday night.
We all stuck with it watching it all the way to the end!
Faces of Death is an incredibly odd film It was an early type of ‘found footage’ film – at least that’s what audiences were meant to think. The fact that all the horrors that you were about to see was “real”, captured on film and completely authentic was meant to provide a more visceral jolt than just a regular old horror movie.
In reality there were a lot more smoke and mirrors happening with Faces of Death than what was thought at the time. Remember, this was back in during a time where you couldn’t just go on the internet and get information about things. This was a ‘word-of-mouth time’. You’d hear things from a kid in school and you’d take it as gospel. That was all the confirmation you needed to validate that Faces of Death was authentic. A classmate said it was all real and nothing was fake in it – ‘Well, ok! I totally believe it now!”
And that’s how the film marketed itself – very successfully too! It claimed it was banned in forty-six countries. Now right there that makes it sound like there must be some really bad stuff in this movie for it be banned in so many places!
Well, in fact the film was only banned in a handful of countries – at least temporarily. But that doesn’t sound as impressive on a videocassette cover declaring a ban in forty-six countries.
Now over forty years later, the truth behind Faces of Death has finally been revealed. The filmmakers have fessed up and thanks to this new internet thing we all have access to, you can search out and learn all the dirty little secrets of how they put Faces of Death together.
While there is indeed some pretty disgusting things on display that are real, most of the horrific acts that millions accepted as fact and made them wince back during the VHS Days were staged and performed by actors.
It’s pretty clear watching Faces of Death today that so much of it is fiction. A cannibalistic cult, an electrocution on death row, that dinner group killing and eating monkey brains. It’s a pretty big leap that ANY film studio or movie theater would release what basically would be a ‘snuff film’ to the general public. The 1970s and 80s had some crazy stuff going on, but even that would be hard to accept taking place.
Many portions of Faces of Death were performed or restaged scenes. The plane crash in a residential neighborhood with dead bodies hanging all over houses and littering the street was one bit I always remembered. In fact, the filmmakers tried to recreate newsreel footage of many of the real world incidents they saw.
What’s makes Faces of Death a bit confusing and helped sell it all as real, thus tricking viewers, is the way it was packaged. While purported dogs fighting to the death (that were actually two dogs playing with each other but thanks to editing and sound effects tried to make it appear you were watching this violent inhumane fight) was sandwiched in-between some actually real gross segments with real human corpses. The real human autopsies is another stand out piece that I still remember. That stuff is disturbing to see.
So, you can start to question as to what you’re actually seeing and whether it’s legit or not. You’re guard starts to come down and you can actually believe that you’re witnessing an electrocution of a criminal, while in fact it’s a all a performance with special effects.
I always made the comparison to Oliver Stone and his 1991 film JFK. Thanks to his filmmaking skills, some snazzy editing, the addition of music, audiences weren’t able to tell what was actually true or Stone’s own interpretation of events in that film. Instead of focusing on a conspiratorial theory, Faces of Death used similar tricks and special effects to sell outlandish horrific scenarios.
It worked. The film got a lot of attention and its popularity in the world of VHS skyrocketed. It became such a trending thing that even film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert addressed it on their show. In a segment titled ‘Video Nasties’ they discussed the popularity of horror films kids were watching and particularly addressed Faces of Death. Not surprisingly they admonished it as a sick, unredeeming film that should never had been made.
It seems like such a long time ago huh? The impact of Faces of Death feels like something that has dissipated since then.
Today thanks to the glorious internet kids have no problem finding and watching any kind of adult or graphic content they want. Viral videos out there get shared and watched by millions, like all those ‘One Guy, One Cup’ reaction videos is nothing new. They’re all just updated versions of those ‘video nasties’ that worried parents back in the 1980s. Only now, it’s much easier for kids to watch them.
There has been sequels to Faces of Death. No surprise that filmmakers and studios saw how profitable films like this could be and ran with it trying to squeeze as much out of the title as possible.
I wouldn’t say Faces of Death is something that movie fans have to put on their ‘Must Watch List’. It’s crudely made, doesn’t offer up much other than disgusting content and certainly won’t leave as a big of mark on viewers today as when it did in its glory days of VHS.
Faces of Death is now an interesting little tale of how such a low-budget movie could create such a stir and an example of how powerful VHS watching once was. It was a perfect collision of a type of film and the home video revolution that made a Faces of Death something everyone needed to see for a generation of movie watchers.
The story behind it and its legacy is much more interesting than the film itself.