If YOU have never thought about death, it’s time you started thinking.”
As the trailer for Faces of Death (1978) comes to an end, the final statement issues a firm declaration to anyone watching. What lies in store for us beyond the mortal coil has long been a mystery — one that this film in particular chooses to address in its own way. Looking at the infamous Mondo film from afar, it might appear to be the most repugnant form of entertainment ever conceived. Who in their right mind would watch over 90 minutes of living creatures, human and otherwise, meeting their end by unnatural means? Like those who sat in Roman Colosseum centuries ago, there’s a morbid taste for blood and spectacle that some of us possess. At one time in my life, I too was one of those caught up in this act of voyeurism. Much like Caesar, who sat in judgement in regards to weather or not a gladiator would live or die, I watched from afar. “Finally,” I thought to myself. “Something that coincides with those Slayer albums I’ve been listening to.”
So, friendly reader, allow me to set the stage. As a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Southern California, I was an outsider. I was socially awkward with a taste for heavy metal and renting movies from Blockbuster. Both of which allowed me to cope with the fact that I didn’t belong with the in crowd, or anywhere else for that matter. My home situation was one of constantly having my self-esteem pummeled and my attempts at creativity sabotaged. At the time, I was still recovering from the trauma of abuse. The ordeal took a drastic toll on my mental health. I felt trapped on all fronts; I needed an escape. It was around this time when I heard others talking about a “sick” movie that was full of death, carnage, evisceration, and soaked to the gills with blood. More importantly, it was rumored to be completely real.
At last, I came across a copy of a battered VHS tape that looked like it had run the gauntlet of abuse from its previous owners. With anticipation and morbid curiosity, I watched. And I ended up watching it again…many, many times.
A lot of horror films from the time period made me feel more alienated. Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), The Faculty (1998), all of these seemed to be vehicles for the reprehensible people who ostracized me. They were full of characters whom I had no interest in. They seemed to take place in some alternate universe where high school was a magical place. I knew I was different; I needed something different. I wanted something that was made for the kid who constantly felt isolated. The weird teenager who locked himself in his room during the weekends and lost himself in music that no one else he knew listened to.
Here we are, more than 20 years later, and looking back at a movie that was a cornerstone of my teenage years. This can easily be a double-edged sword. On one hand, there’s the nostalgia I have for something that helped me get through the awkwardness of adolescence. While reminiscing can be great, it’s easy to gaze upon something through rose-colored goggles and overlook faults and shortcomings. Then, there’s the viewpoint that comes from analysis and criticism. As someone who writes about film, I’ve always felt that it’s my duty to be objective with what I see before me. All that aside, let’s venture into a world that lies “beyond the threshold of the living.”
First and foremost, let’s deconstruct the narrative style that Faces of Death attempts to emulate. Sometimes referred to as a “shockumentary,” it’s one of many that attempted to capitalize off the success of Mondo Cane (1962). That is, a series of segments are presented in the style of a documentary to project a certain level of realism. This conglomeration in particular is hosted by a “pathologist” named Dr. Frances B. Gross (Michael Carr). Throughout the film, Gross narrates each event as it occurs, attempting to convey seriousness when discussing the subject matter. Therein lies the appeal this film still holds for me. I’ve seen plenty of documentaries since watching Faces of Death for the first time. I’m very familiar with the intention of presenting evidence in support of a general thesis. There’s no thesis that exists. Everything shown throughout the film is loosely sewn together in a haphazard form of continuity.
I can look back and laugh at the absurdity and lackluster quality of these sequences. Shamelessly staged and presented under the guise of “journalism,” they possess a wild ambition to fool the audience. There also exists material depicting animal death. If you read my essay on Cannibal Holocaust (1980), then you know my stance on intentional animal cruelty in a film as it relates to providing shock value. I could never bring myself to condone such an action. There is no condoning it. Cannibal Holocaust — using it within the context of “found footage” — furthers the illusion of a group of filmmakers surviving in the wild. But once again, it’s still sensationalism…no matter how you look at it.
Faces of Death contains imagery of a similar nature. Scenes filmed at an actual slaughterhouse depict the processing of cows and sheep. Gross’ narration of “watching the cow choke to death on its blood, I could only feel pity…” is offset by the film’s soundtrack that comes close to whimsical. While this footage is real, and situations like this occur every day, it’s placed in for the sake of sensationalism. As a teenager, I was somewhat indifferent to the whole ordeal. The shock faded quickly. Similarly, a scene with a chicken being decapitated and the aftermath of its body fluttering is set to “Old McDonald,” which robs the scene of any shock and comes across as slightly comedic. Once again, Gross attempts to be poignant insisting that if forced to be a provider, he would choose the life of a vegetarian.
While “Old McDonald” only makes one appearance in the movie, a reoccurring abundance of lighthearted music chimes in at the strangest times. During real footage of a suicide, an upbeat number counting of “1, 2, a 1, 2, 3, 4” can be heard before she leaps to her death. While this strips the macabre tone away from the visceral nature of certain scenes, it also introduces an element into the fold which resonated with me at that age: becoming desensitized to violence. Death has always been a factor in much of the art and entertainment I’ve surrounded myself with over the years. From Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the movies and documentaries I’ve watched, it’s even intertwined with the music I listen to. By the time I came across Faces of Death, the images of ceased mortality didn’t seem so visceral. Growing up, I had seen news footage of the war in Sarajevo and the bloodbath and starvation in Rwanda and Somalia. If anything, this normalization of death was somewhat therapeutic. The trauma I endured everyday was gradually softened. In this world, death was no longer morbid and provided an outlet to escape. As macabre as this might sound, this whole ordeal aided in my mental health improving and allowed me to get through High School in relatively on piece.
As for the fabricated images that the film paraded in front of my teenage eyes, what can I say? Here’s the thing about being young: You’re inexperienced with the world around you. Therefore, you sometimes take things at face value and don’t question them, simply because you don’t know any better. Which is also the worst thing about adolescence, you THINK you know everything. You’re convinced that the world is against you. I didn’t take into consideration that all of these scenes, allegedly filmed around the world, had the same shot consistency and saturation. Or that a few of them were shot with multiple camera angles. If anything, my experience with Faces of Death was akin to War of the Worlds. The first time, the alien invasion seems real. The second time around, you know it’s not real and disbelief has to be suspended to engross yourself in the experience.
Despite the laughable presentation involving an organ-harvesting cult and an “interview” with an assassin after a kill, it does manage to capture a few solemn moments that utilize the correct tone. The scenes inside the Los Angeles county morgue, in particular, are rather well done. Head coroner Thomas Naguchi, who gave evidence at the trial of Charles Manson, is briefly interviewed. Despite the abrasiveness regarding the slaughter of animals, and the unintentional comedy that comes from staged recreations, this scene doesn’t make light of a single moment. As the cameras pan over corpses being attended to by morgue employees, the after effect of death resonates. While graphic in some moments, there’s a confrontational feeling of seeing death with no filter and completely uncensored. Even Gross’ narration, which sometimes seems like it was lazily written, is rather provocative. Gross talks about how seeing the victims of violent crime affects him deeply. In particular, recounting how he never sees this part of the spectrum because a pathologist only deals with people who die from natural causes. As a teenager, I couldn’t help but be moved as he recites the words of Luther Easton:
In a world with no sound, their cries go unheard;
The reality of life becomes totally absurd
The counting of time, is considered a crime;
And the money one earned, is not worth a dime
So here they will lie, for the rest of the night
Their bodies remain still, In darkness and in light…
But don’t be afraid, for it will happen to you.
For all will stop, as your body turns blue.”
Stock footage from World War II and the Holocaust makes an appearance. And once again, Gross has one line of dialogue when discussing the largest human tragedy in history that’s rather poignant. As footage of concentration camp victims is shown, Gross describes the barbarity of the events.
Helpless human beings were murdered like animals in a slaughterhouse. I personally don’t know if a situation like this can repeat itself, but if it does, then we all deserve a life in Hell.”
Again, this is another example of Faces of Death utilizing tone and somewhat effective narration to reach its audience. The footage playing itself out with no music or narration is disturbing. It’s also a sobering reminder to never forget death and injustice on a large scale. Faces of Death itself ends on a life-affirming note regarding life after death and rebirth. This optimistic conclusion, while a bit disingenuous, is the perfect ending for a film that attempts to push the boundaries of transgression.
Naturally, a number of sequels did follow. And yes, I’ve watched every last one of them. The series gradually diminished in quality, but there is one irony that is truly unsettling. The conclusion of Faces of Death II (1981) features a mass execution in Liberia. This is the famous coup d’etat of the Tolbert regime at the hands of Samuel Doe and his rebels. The leaders of the regime strapped down to trees and cut down with rifle fire is a visceral sight to behold. Less than a decade later, Doe himself would be overthrown. His torture and murder televised for the thousands of spectators demanding blood in the name of justice.
Growing up isn’t easy. Anyone who says otherwise most likely lives inside a John Hughes movie. It might seem strange that something like Faces of Death would make the ordeal easier. For what’s it’s worth, I’m glad I had these movies in my life. As ridiculous as they are, I’m glad I had something to help me through the bad times. Faces of Death, I love you. You taught me how cruel and unforgiving the world is, and you made me realize that life is worth something. And even after all this time, I can forgive you for just how fake you look.