In an attempt to test out a new format, we at Malevolent Dark are going to do a little back and forth on the topic of 1978’s forbidden fruit, Face of Death. Purported to jam packed with authentic scenes of real death and morbidity, this film beckoned those that frequent video store horror aisles. This film carries a gargantuan legacy, despite the fact that history has proven conclusively that large portions of the film were staged. Still, anyone growing up in the 80’s remembers this films infamy. In this article, fellow contributor, Zack Puckett and I will discuss this film and it merits… or lack thereof.
Faces of Death, the 1978 Original
I’m a bit afraid to tell this story as it will likely reveal how old I really am. Faces of Death could only be found in one video store in the mid-size Illinois town that I grew up in. That one store willingly stocked the likes of Make Them Die Slowly and an assortment of Herschel Gordon Lewis goodies. I became very acquainted with Gorgon Video here. My friend and I must have asked at least 20 times to rent this film for our sleepovers. We received a resounding no. Then, inexplicably, we were able to break my friends mother down and finally, “uhhhh, fine. Grab it… Weirdos”.
We were finally going to see the ultimate taboo.
As we dove right in, the experience was nothing short of fascinating. Narrated by the ridiculous Francis B. Gross, this film seemed to be a news reel of death and macabre. At the time I was somewhere around the ages of 10-12. As far as we could tell, most of the footage looked real. However, ever for a young lad, other scenes strained credulity.
It seems that our stories are similar at least in the fact that the video store is the first place to spot these elusive films in the wild. I remember going with my Dad to the lone Hollywood Video for our weekly horror movie rental. I was familiar with the 80s titles and most of the 90s due to having watched them over and over. These were in no way boring but I was then coming into an age of curiosity and exploration when it came to cinema.
We grabbed our movies and headed to the front after I had picked my Dad’s brain about every title I could possibly find. Then I looked to the bottom shelf behind a glass case and there was that infamous picture of the Grim Reaper staring back at me. This wasn’t the day I would set my hands on this film to take home but it sparked a fire of wonder.
I honestly don’t think I got to finally delve into these films until I was around nineteen or twenty. After finishing it, I did as much research on it and discovered the truth of the authenticity of most of the clips. Though partially real and mostly staged it still leaves a certain sinking feeling in your gut.
So this raises an interesting point about research. When I first saw this film, 1985-1986, the ability to research was limited to old issues of “Famous Monsters” or “Fangoria”. I did have access to a modem and bulletin boards. Rumors of its authenticity, or lack thereof, were out there, but nobody could prove anything. Still, even as a kid I had my suspicions. Really, if you had a Satanic blood cult that centered its practices on the evisceration of a human subject, would let someone come and film… and then just leave?
Also, even as a youth, my fascination with Biology lead me to the conclusion that those weren’t real monkey brains.
Still, many of the scenes had been gleaned from local news reels. When coupled with the monotone narration of Dr. Francis B. Gross, it seemed that films purported mission had merit. I quite preferred this approach to that of some later ‘Death Clones’ like Traces of Death (1993). These films seemed to revel in the destruction whereas Faces of Death held a modicum of respect for the content they offered.
I do agree the infamous Satanic cult scene was one of the main giveaways to me that this film was a mixture of fake and authentic scenes. I also thought to myself how would he get away and why weren’t the police questioning him for their location. Anyways, yes it was very easy to research this after my first viewing. With smartphones available and the internet anywhere and everywhere it only took me a few minutes to reveal the truth.
I will also agree that the Traces of death definitely mocks death whereas Faces of Death doesn’t poke but is just informative. Other than tone, I do prefer the Traces films due to their authenticity and it has almost no re-used footage from other Shockumentaries released prior.
Knowing how you look at movies, I am not surprised to hear you say that. You are a stickler for the extreme and authentic. I on the other hand much prefer the approach of Faces of Death. First and foremost, I have a hard time separating the movie from the state of my young mind when I first saw it. To the young mind, this was the craziest thing that I had ever seen, and I really thought I was partaking in a true underground experience. To contrast, I just recently witnessed the Traces of Death films. It seems that my tolerance for real death and suffering has gone down considerably, LOL.
For better or worse, it seems like these types of films have lost their relevance. For the most part, the Internet offers all too many places to find this type of material. And content gets created everyday. It’s all too interesting to think how far things have progressed. By that I mean that as a society we have moved from an obscure box on a video store shelf to live streaming of real death and destruction into our homes on demand. I wonder if we should be proud of that, but now I am starting to sound like Dr. Francis B. Gross.
Any last thoughts or standout moments in Faces of Death before we wrap this?
Wow, I literally heard his voice when I read those words! I can understand where you are coming from. There are many films that have a nostalgic place in my mind as well. I myself found these films around the same time but these weren’t the first death scenes I had seen. Earlier you mentioned the internet making things more readily available to find. In my case, there were a few websites as a teen that did exactly that. They kind of prepared me for these types of film.
The standout scene for me, that I now know is fake, was the electric chair scene. I’m not gonna lie. That clip stayed burned into my mind for a good while. It took me finding that it had been staged in a loft to get it out of my head.
I will give it to the Faces of Death Series that even though a lot was not all real. They still pack a punch and leave you feeling some type of way about death.
While I prefer some of the more authentic clones of Faces of Death I still hold this in high-esteem. [usr 3.5]
Zack, I love the way you said, “They still pack a punch and leave you feeling some type of way about death”. I think that perfectly summarizes Face of Death. I think the scene that really sticks with me is still the monkey brains scene. First of all, I like monkeys, so I was all “WTF”. Second I could barely believe that someone would eat fresh monkey brains. Seems like a good way to get a tummy ache. As it turns out, my instincts were solid and the scene turned out to be fake. I’ll admit that I was tickled to see that very same scene replayed in Indian Jones and The Temple of Doom.
The truth of the matter is that Faces of Death represents a type of exploitative cinema that could only have been created in the time period in which it was. I suspect that it will feel very dated by modern audiences and likely will only appeal to those that want to delve into its dark world through as a study of the evolution of horror themed reality content. In that, it also acts as a time capsule. I fear all too much that through this exercise, I have revealed my age.
On pure nostalgia alone, I’ll give Face of Death a score of [usr 3.0]