Faces of Death produced in 1979 feels like a petulant unruly offspring of the Mondo genre. As if the films of Mondo creators Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi were not shocking enough, Faces of Death removes all the extraneous fat of the mondo shockumentary genre with its far flung cultural exotica - here the emphasis is placed solely on death and suffering. Presented like an educational documentary, the film is introduced and narrated by one Dr. Francis B. Gröss, a pathologist conducting an investigation into the various faces of death which amounts to a seemingly endless conveyor belt of death footage organised around a particular theme.
Nowadays Faces of Death seems positively quaint with its earnest and cautionary narration, but back in early 80's the film seemed genuinely groundbreaking ushering in the "Death Film", one of the most despised offshoots on the Mondo genre. Much of the footage in Faces of Death is faked - a monkey having his skull cracked open for some diners to sample his brain is entirely fabricated, so too are scenes where a crocodile devours a game warden, a grizzly bear attacks a hapless tourist, a stuntman is killed on a movie set, a man protesting against nuclear power sets himself alight, and a convict is seen convulsing and foaming at the mouth in an electric chair - "his eyes are taped to prevent them popping out of their sockets", Dr. Gröss reliably informs us...
Some 40% of Faces of Death is estimated to be fake but the film's factual footage is often disquieting - a woman is captured on a news team's camera jumping off a building and hitting the ground beneath, paramedics are seen collecting the mangled body parts of a cyclist hit by a truck, there's footage shot inside a morgue showing cadavers in various states of disrepair, including the remains of an infant. In true mondo style, there's some animal atrocities in the film as well - cattle are seen having their throats cut in a slaughterhouse, a herd of seals are clubbed to death, and two pit bull dogs fight to the death - "they have been conditioned by man to wage war on their own kind" the good doctor wryly comments...
Another piece of fakery - a man is about to be beheaded in the Middle East
Despite the film being pure exploitation Faces of Death strives to be a serious discussion on the subject of death but continually comes up short. The musical accompaniment consists of some seriously inappropriate cuts - during the electric chair sequence the soundtrack features a jaunty speakeasy number, as well as a mawkish folk ditty strummed over some footage of environmental neglect ("Jesus doesn't live here anymore"). The faked footage is easily given away, despite the film makers using guerrilla style camerawork, but nevertheless the film was a huge hit on VHS (like porno, home video was probably the best way to see it), and the film became something of an urban legend, in turn fuelling some popular myths - at one point in the film a San Franciscan cult is seen cannibalising the innards of a corpse, and orgying among the bloody viscera - probably confirming the suspicion among viewers that such satanic cults were out there, perhaps making snuff movies of their antics.
"The act of seeing with one's own eyes" - a scene shot at the LA morgue
Like it or not, Faces of Death is not going away. In 2008 the film made its unlikely high-def debut in the US courtesy of Gorgon Video’s Blu-Ray edition (Region A). Overall, there’s not much to get excited about. The image looks dated, colours are washed out and detail is lacking while audio is merely serviceable. Paradoxically, the transfer might be entirely suitable, part of the film’s success on video was the limitation of the image which gave the faked footage an authentic rough hewn look. As for extras this 30th Anniversary Special Edition fares better with interviews with the crew who worked on the film, as well as an excellent audio commentary with director John Alan Schwartz who spills the beans on much of the film's ballyhoo.
It's been said that the film was made for the Japanese market and a shot in the morgue sequence of film where corpses have their gentailia covered up might confirm this. It's often said that Faces of Death outgrossed Star Wars, when shown in Japan, something I personally find hard to believe...