Faces of Death


We had made it through I Spit On Your Grave. We somehow survived Bloodsucking Freaks. We knelt at the awesomeness of Romero's Dawn and Fulci's Zombie -- but now we were in for something a little more dangerous. Yes, we were a bunch of adolescent horror nerds, and we were about to experience ... the movie. The one that was so nasty that the Video Village staff had to place it in the PORN section just to keep youthful eyes away from the flick. But I knew it was back there. And that was just the empty case, anyway. So one boring Sunday afternoon I grabbed the VHS from the back shelf (don't worry, I worked there, kinda) and called the whole gang.

"Come over. I got Faces of Death."

The guys were planted in my family room fifteen minutes later. We were nervous. Excited. And really in a hurry because my mom would be home from the mall kinda soon. All we knew about Faces of Death is what we'd learned from the "older" (say, 16-year-old) kids from cooler parts of the neighborhood. But this gang had defeated every "video nasty" that made its way into Northeast Philadelphia, and we were damned if a documentary featuring ACTUAL DEATH was going to break our spirit. And then we were consumed by, um, autopsies, alligator attacks, electrocutions, cult sacrifices, immolations, faulty parachutes, and tons of abused and/or skinned animals.

And you know what? That's precisely the style (and era) in which goofball relics like Faces of Death deserve to be discovered: As forbidden fruit, snatched by a bunch of young movie freaks with more enthusiasm than good taste or common sense. Suffice to say that one's first visit with Faces of Death is a pretty memorable one -- and it's an experience best "enjoyed" by the younger movie fans. (Not too young, mind you. There's some really nasty stuff in this movie.) But if I'd first experienced Faces of Death at 25 years of age, I probably would have sneered a little and chuckled a lot. Frankly, after watching the movie this evening, I'm stunned that me and my horror pals actually bought this stuff! Save for some obviously authentic footage of an actual suicide, an assassination, and the horrific aftermath of a San Diego plane crash, pretty much all of FoD is staged, silly, or simple stock footage.

Hosted by the humorously portentous Dr. Francis B. Gross, Faces of Death claims to be about, well, death. In all its many guises. Starvation, fire, war, amphibian wrath, it's all here, folks -- and if you're a big fan of "shocking" nature footage that wouldn't be scary at all in a different context, there's lots of icky stuff to be found here. (Anyone itching for a trip to the slaughterhouse?) As an actual documentary, Faces of Death is obviously a joke. Plainly said, we've got a LOT of dusty old news report material, and when that stuff doesn't tell the whole story, the filmmakers simply add a bunch of (craftily edited but generally unconvincing) "re-enactments." The infamous "monkey bash" sequence, for example, feels fake from every angle -- but then a hazy-looking beheading (also fake) feels eerily realistic. So as a "film," it's a big sweaty mess. As a "gimmick," though -- as something to be discussed in hushed tones among 14-year-old horror lunatics, banned by film censors, and loathed by moms the world over -- the thing was an absolute gold mine.

I suppose the question then is: Do you want to spend 100 minutes with a plotless non-documentary that fakes real deaths? Well, I certainly wouldn't call Faces of Death a good film, but I'd probably call it required viewing for anyone who wants to be a true-blue horror geek. For all its ugliness, goofiness, and morbidity, there's still an amusingly sticky grindhouse haze that runs through the flick -- and reminds me of a time in which I was WILLING to swallow this stuff. Nowadays the flick feels relatively lame when compared to some of the stuff found on the uglier "real horror" websites and TV shows, and it definitely feels more than a little goofy and dated. But as a cultural curiosity and a sleazy little time capsule, I have to say I kind of enjoyed my second visit with this twisted old flick. You won't find many from my generation who really LIKE the movie -- but we've all surely seen it (and all the sequels) and we definitely have our opinions on it.

Certain members of that generation will of course be thrilled to learn that the original Faces of Death has just made its debut on DVD. (I doubt that Best Buy or Wal-Mart will be bursting with copies, so I got mine at Movies Unlimited.) So there's one more piece of late-'70s genre nostalgia that you can add to your collection, fellas. And hey, the DVD boasts a rather fine widescreen transfer of the movie (all things considered), a 4-minute deleted scene that deals with capital punishment, 11 minutes of outtakes, the original theatrical trailer -- and three extensive treats that the horror-philes should certainly appreciate. Two of them are featurettes -- a 16-minute piece with editor Glenn Turner and a 22-minute piece with FX creators Allan Apone and Doug White -- that tell you pretty much all you need to know about the veracity of Faces of Death. And if you're still holding out hope that that one beheading was actually authentic, be sure to check out the very illuminating audio commentary with director Conan LeCilaire and horror geek moderator Michael Felsher. The multi-pseudonymed director is very forthcoming about how cheap, quick and fake the movie actually is, but also brings a few cool perspectives to what's generally considered a worthless freak show of a movie. Felsher does a great job of keeping the info flowing, and the guys have no trouble filling the 100-minute chat session. If you HATE the film, but you're still a little curious about it, then I'd say the rental might be worth it for the commentary alone.

But I still can't watch the slaughterhouse stuff. Call me a wimp.