Faces Of Death (1978)
Directed by: John Alan Schwartz
Written by: John Alan Schwartz
Anyone who grew up in the 80s (and maybe later) at least heard about this movie. “Man! Have you heard about this movie that shows actual deaths! It’s AWESOME!”
Some (but not many) of us were “lucky” enough to have actually seen the movie. I saw it when I was probably about 16 or so and I’ve never forgotten some of the scenes.
Here’s the deal, though: even at that time, I knew that a lot of the scenes were fake. Basically, that any of the scenes involving white people was fake. If there’s an animal and/or a person with pigment, it’s very likely real.
Set up like a Mondo movie, it basically goes through a series of scenes of death narrated by a man named Dr. Frances B Gross (Michael Carr), a coroner with crooked glasses.
From a group of tourists beating the head of a monkey open to eat the brains to a “real” electrocution complete with goofy/bad New Orleans jazz and a Psycho-esque sax…well, it’s all fucking fake.
There are plenty of “disturbing” scenes in the film, but only some of the real stuff is actually stomach-churning. And even a lot of that is pretty much “circle of life” stuff (a school of piranha attacking a snake) or religious ceremonies (the killing of a cow in South America). That kind of stuff I can kind of handle. The slaughterhouse stuff was a bit more to take, but it’s how we all eat in America and most of the West. It’s gross, but I can deal with it.
What I can’t handle are the inhuman acts against animals. One of the first scenes is of a pit bull fight. It’s real and it’s something that still happens. It’s really hard to take that sort of thing. The scene is particularly graphic, but it is sick.
Actually, I take one thing back. This isn’t inhuman, unfortunately. It’s humans being absolutely human. THAT is what’s so awful about it.
Dr. Gross narrates the film almost like a less philosophical Werner Herzog. “If nature does not destroy the environment, it is very possible that man will.” (Cue scenes of pollution.)
Speaking of Herzog, there’s a particularly silly scene of a man filming a bear in a park while his wife sits in the car saying, “Be careful, Bob!” Of course, you know what happens from here.
All of this is in the first hour. Then, suddenly, the movie takes a turn for the very, very dark. Suddenly, writer/director John Alan Schwartz shows lots and lots of stock war footage and films of suicides and accidents, from cars to airplanes. Much of this is absolutely real (I think) and is pretty hard to watch. Especially bad is an entire sequence given over to the aftermath of an airplane crash. It’s pretty hard to tell that some of these bodies are actual bodies.
It turns out that most of this footage was shot by ambulance chasers. These people would chase after fires and accidents and film the aftermath. Then they would sell the footage to news stations who would then edit out all of the gore. The crew of Faces Of Death had to finish a lot of the scenes to show even MORE aftermath. The woman who jumps off the building was real. The body that people walk up to was an actress. This was done to appease the Japanese folks who were bankrolling the film.
Even worse is some of the stock footage of the Holocaust and starving children in Africa. Always hard to see, it’s important footage that is almost out of place in such a silly movie.
After the semi-real footage of accidents, war and famine, Dr. Gross moved on to talking about a ghost hunt. Strangely, this is when the movie completely lost me. Flour on the floor? Seances? EVP? Each sillier than the last.
And then, what happens with each death (supposedly)? A birth, of course! The credits roll over a bunch of shots of women and their babies.
Man. This movie tries really hard to be both downbeat and uplifting…or is it all a ruse?
I believe the latter. Not only did the director/writer/producer use different pseudonyms for each job, but they kept the names of the special effects and makeup crew out of the credits. Sure, it was mostly because of the non-union status of these folks, but I don’t think Schwarz really minded. Gotta make it seem as real as possible, right?
Of course, years later, he would come out a few years back and tell everyone which scenes were real and which ones weren’t…but he made a LOT of money off of people not knowing before he ever did that.
Faces Of Death is definitely one of the more notorious of the Nasties. That certainly doesn’t make it one of the best, but it’s one of the most well known. It’s also one of the least likely to be watched by anyone who wouldn’t watch a movie like this. It’s not a movie that you accidentally see.
Overall, though, it’s not as awful as I remembered it. Hell, how could it be? Things always seem worse when you’re young than when you rewatch them years later.
The movie also might have had a point…at least the editor seemed to think so. According to him in the interview doc, the movie made us look at a part of life that we are afraid of. It made us see death as an unavoidable event. “Whether it makes for a better society or not, I’m not sure.” But there it is, big as life. Faces Of Death. It’s a real, live movie.
Honestly, I’m pretty sure that it was just made as an exploitation film. The “deeper meaning” came years later when these people were trying to justify it to potential employers. I’m down with that, though. Whatever you gotta do.
The best thing about the movie, actually, was the special feature section of the DVD. It included the aforementioned interviews with the editor and the special effects guys. Those were seriously the most enlightening things here and the bits with the most rewatchability, really. I think I’m, once again, done with Faces Of Death. I also feel no need to see any of the five sequels. Or the “expose” documentary. Or the compilation movie. Or any of the imitators.
LOW POINT: After talking about Three Mile Island, Dr. Gross says, “One man thought he had the solution.” Then a protestor sets himself on fire to the tune of a song called, “Jesus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”