Faces of Death

The infamous shockumentary Faces of Death made its debut back in 1978. Hosted by (the ficticious) Dr. Francis B. Gross, this now classic mondo film (and its eventual sequels) purported to show the dark side of life — that is, death — in its rawest form.

Do not believe those diplomas. This man is not a real doctor.

I personally discovered Faces of Death in the late 1980s during my high school years. While several of my friends and I were into watching “normal” horror films, there was one kid (there’s always that “one kid,” isn’t there?) who kept telling us about “Faces of Death,” an underground film that featured real deaths. None of us believed that such a tape even existed until he brought his copy to school and loaned it to us. The condition of his tape, a highly-worn copy of a copy complete with a handwritten label, just added to the film’s mystique for us.

For those of you who have never seen Faces of Death (and by all counts, “lucky you”), the film combines stock newsreel footage with “actual footage” of people being killed. I put “actual footage” in quotes because about half of the film’s footage is obviously fake. In fact, part of the fun has always been trying to figure out which clips were real and which ones were not. The scene in which members of a Satanic cult sacrifice a woman and rub her blood all over their bodies is so ridiculously silly that, in retrospect, it seems laughable that my friends and I spent months debating whether or not this footage was authentic.

That being said, there are plenty of scenes that are real. Faces of Death contains authentic footage of animals being slaughtered, autopsies, Holocaust footage, and post-accident cleanup. If that’s what you’re into, well, there you go.

An alligator is about to show up here. I can’t show you what happens next.

The first apartment I ever rented was located right around the corner from a shady video rental store with a disproportionately large selection of kung-fu, horror, and adult videos. By this time (the early 90s) the first three Faces of Death films were readily available in most (independent) rental stores, and my friends and I rented them often — not because we enjoyed them, but because we enjoyed exposing others to these wretched films. I suppose one could liken the experience to, moments after tasting something awful, passing it to someone else and begging them to try it too. That type of indoctrination has been around for a long time, and still happens today via the Internet. Anyone who has ever sent a friend a link to the Scary Maze Game knows what I’m talking about. (Note: Turn your speakers up …)

There are six official Faces of Death videos in all, although parts 5 and 6 simply contain recycled clips from the first four films. There’s also a “Worst Of” compilation. The best Faces of Death video isn’t a Faces of Death video at all — it’s the “Behind the Scenes” documentary included on the DVD and Blu-ray releases. (Yes, “Faces of Death” has been released on DVD and Blu-ray.) In the documentary you’ll be let in on all the secrets you suspected — for example, director “Alan Black” aka “Conan Le Cilaire” were both James B. Schwartz, who also portrayed the rapist in the court scene, the leader of the Satanic cult, and the druggie killer (I thought those guys looked familiar!), among other “characters” throughout the series. Oh, and that execution that takes place in the electric chair? It was filmed in the director’s friend’s loft.

Since the release of Faces of Death and its many sequels there have been many imitators, including Traces of Death, The Many Faces of Death, and Banned in America, among others. In the late 70s when Faces of Death was originally released, the film was quite taboo. These days, there’s a television show on Spike TV (1,000 Ways to Die) that shows reenactments of strange and unusual deaths, often using better special effects than the original Faces of Death had.

Oh, and that About 10 years ago I happened to be driving past it when I noticed their “Going Out of Business” sign. By the time I arrived all their remaining VHS tapes were on sale for a dollar each, so for around a hundred bucks I ended up buying their entire kung-fu and horror sections (at least what was left of them). That day, in several paper grocery sacks, I hauled out dozens upon dozens of terrible kung-fu and horror films, including that same copy of Faces of Death my friends and I used to rent and watch back in the day.

I didn’t buy these tapes at that store. I got them at a flea market, many years ago. I don’t remember exactly how many years ago, but it must’ve been a while because it was back when I would have paid good money for videotapes, so … at least a decade, maybe more. As you can tell by the photo, I only opened one of them. About 10 minutes into one of these films reminded me that these are not for me. For some reason, owning these movies was more important to me than actually watching them.

Faces of Death. A little disgusting, a little offensive, but definitely a rite of passage at slumber parties throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Rob O'Hara

I'm into old video games, old arcade games, old computer games, writing, photography, computer/network security, and of course, the 1980s!

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10 thoughts on “Faces of Death

  1. Yeah, these seemed to be a rite of passage for my friends in junior high. Also good was Mondo Crane which was only slightly more realistic. Even more horrific was another low budget shockumentary called Shocking Asia.

    I shudder to think of those even now.

  2. The new DVD release says it is now banned in 48 countries. I wonder which two countries were asleep at the UN meeting back when they originally screened it? ;)

  3. Also, Mizphit, thanks for the link to that article — what a great read! Even though I don’t think I could ever stomach sitting through those movies again, I would pick up that book (the director’s memoirs) for sure when and if it comes out.

  4. Great post, Flack! I can remember circling the VHS shelves of my local video store staring at the covers to the series…I was never brave enough though to rent it, though many of my friends went through the rite of passage and told me in vivid detail what was shown. Probably worse that way as my imagination created the scenes in gory color. Brrr.

  5. StuntZombie says:

    Doesn’t one of those feature a scene with a bunch of people smacking at a monkey’s head until it splits open, allowing them to eat its brain? I remember seeing that at my uncle’s house at a family gathering, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

  6. K3v says:

    Another “me too” here for watching these in the late ’80s with friends. I Spit on Your Grave and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (“I heard it really happened!”) were other favorites.

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