“Do you see the glass as half empty or half full?” This simple question has been used many times to determine whether or not someone is an optimist or a pessimist. Personally, I feel it’s a very flawed test. A glass of water isn’t sufficient enough to accurately represent the gravity of the human experience. However, when describing the pessimism in Faces of Death II (1981), half-empty is more than appropriate. Popular culture likes to paint the 1980s with broad brushstrokes of fluorescent colors. Nostalgia for large hairstyles, quirky movies, and decadent rock and roll tends to overshadow the cultural upheaval on the world stage that was just as prevalent.
Faces of Death II shines a light on the darker side of the decade and makes no attempt at hiding its intention to shock the audience while doing so. The VHS cover art, which depicts a surgeon brandishing a scalpel with the tagline “When make believe is just not enough” cuts through any pretense that it’s to be taken seriously as a documentary. Despite presenting itself as such, no one watches any of the Faces of Death entries to be enlightened or gain a better understanding of the world around them. That being said, all art is subjective. While the series is known for its sometimes-laughable attempts at depicting the “realism” of death, there’s a noticeable amount of growth and development from the previous installment in terms of content and presentation.
Actor Michael Carr once again reprises his role as Dr. Frances B. Gross. The fictional pathologist serves as host and narrator, offering insight as the visceral imagery parades itself across the screen. The original Faces of Death (1978) ended with an optimistic light at the end of a tunnel. A scene of childbirth coincided with Gross speaking of a perpetual cycle of life that never ends. Fittingly, this arrived at the conclusion of a segment exploring the possibility of life after death. Right from the beginning, Faces of Death II separates itself from this pipe dream. Gross explains that his belief in an afterlife has greatly diminished. This new outlook from Gross seems to coincide with the overall shift in the films’ tone. Faces of Death II relies on more real footage as opposed to the many fabricated scenes of its predecessor. Like many Mondo films, there’s very little in the way of an actual structure. Segments are haphazardly grouped with little connection with one another. Although this time around, more emphasis is placed on topics and subject matter that was relevant to the time period.
The Killing of America (1981), another Mondo film released the same year, utilized a similar formula. The film presented a thesis on the degeneration of American society in the wake of serial murder, assassination, and an explosion of violent crime in urban areas. With no fabricated sequences whatsoever, the audience witnessed a country unraveling at the mercy of its own transgressions. Faces of Death II attempts to deliver the same result at times. Somewhere beneath the label of “shockumentary” that often gets forced upon it, there is an expose on a world being pulled in a variety of directions. In some aspects, this is merely a mirror image to another form of media which has been more jarring than an exploitation film.
“We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blond,
who comes on at five.
She can tell you ’bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye.
It’s interesting when people die.”
– Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry”
From the American conflict in Viet Nam to the present day—the evening news has never passed up an opportunity to capture the most graphic images and beam them right into our living room. As someone who grew up during the 1990s, I can vividly remember the carnage-soaked news reports regarding the conflicts in countries such as Bosnia and Sarajevo. Still, there’s a disconnect that’s present. Viewing the images from a faraway country in the comfort of your own home makes the turmoil seem far removed from your own day to day life.
Faces of Death II is no stranger to this sensationalism of events occurring in the third world and beyond. The 1980s were a decade with countless revolutions, the continued rise of American imperialism, as well as the paranoia of the cold war as it slowly approached its final years. Nowhere on earth where all of these factors more present than in Latin America. There was no shortage of regime changes or underhanded dealings with the CIA. Naturally, the struggles of a revolution and the violent sensationalism that comes with any armed conflict would be too much for any film to pass up.
The display of an execution by a Sandinista hit squad in El Salvador at first appears to be playing right into the hand of American cold war propaganda. Oddly enough, the film takes an objective viewpoint—discussing the civil war as a struggle between the left-wing communist guerillas and ruling class of the far-right who are “determined to hold on to their power.”. Not taking any side, Gross’ narration stresses the ongoing conflict and the death toll that could multiply if a full-scale civil war were to occur. Displaying how widespread the epidemic of violence is, scenes of napalm strikes in Vietnam and the conflict between Palestine and Israel are touched upon. As anyone familiar with world events can attest to, this conflict is far from reaching any foreseeable resolution and continues to make headlines.
The expansion of man and his forced influence on others isn’t limited to the squabbles between governments. Like the previous Faces of Death, there exist scenes of real animal death. However, there appears to be a commentary on the price that comes from progress and consumerism, rather than just shock value. The footage of a Persian lamb being skinned alive for the sake of a hat is jarring—yet the juxtaposition of the consumer wearing the finished product illustrates the apathy some have regarding the origin of their goods. (Not to mention a man being the most dominant predator of the wild.)
The film also makes an indictment on progress being achieved at the cost of life—both human and otherwise. Stock footage of American soldiers being used as Guinea pigs during the detonation of a nuclear warhead is a grim reminder of cold war paranoia. More importantly, it reverberates that the governments of the world will view their subjects as a ‘means to an end’ when there’s something to gain. The cold, methodical methods of gaining such knowledge through others are graphically illustrated with footage of animals being tested on. Primates, force-fed chemicals and undergoing the agonizing effects of withdrawal screech in agony while their keepers collect data for what Gross describes as the possible outbreak of World War Three. Both of these scenes, in conjunction with one another, allow us a closer look at the desperation that emerged from the cold war. The race for superiority was to be won at any cost.
While Faces of Death concluded with optimism—the sequel ends with proof that reality is always more provocative than fiction. For a series that ranged from the macabre to the ridiculous with barely any middle ground, the final curtain found in Faces of Death II encompasses third world sensationalism and the human penchant for carnage. In 1980, William Tolbert, then leader of Liberia, was overthrown in a coup lead by Master Sargent Samuel Doe. Members of Tolbert’s were hastily tried and executed on the coast of Monrovia, the Liberian capital.
The footage of the mass execution by firing squad is what the film chooses to end on. The deposed, stripped to the waist and tied to wooden columns await their end by firing squad. The entire sequence is barbaric. As the firing squad hit their targets and the spectators celebrate, the film slows down its speed, as the credits roll, we give into the madness of mob mentality. This macabre spectacle itself is ironic and foreshadows events in more recent years. A decade later, Doe would be overthrown. His sadistic torture and murder would play out for spectators eager to glimpse the deposed tyrant. As recently as 2012, VICE traveled back to the African nation for The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia. It seems the fascination for this country and then turmoil contained therein has no sign of ending.
Faces of Death II was indeed a provocative work. Whether it’s held in high regard for being so or dismissed as bottom of the bag exploitation, there’s certainly a great deal one takes away from the experience. A third film would follow, as would several imitators, but they would never quite measure up to the expose of violence that shaped the world we live in today.