FACES OF DEATH (1978) is most often thought of as a stylized documentary. It covers the topic of death from many different angles including farm animals being bred for consumption before concluding with the biggest face of death, war. In between these notable bookends lies the so-called ‘meat’ of the film where we’re shown the brutality of death through news media coverage and other sources available at the time the film was produced. The remainder of this review will detail ‘the facts’ and ‘the fiction’ around the film, unmasking the many FACES OF DEATH.
All the scenes in the LA County Morgue are 100% real. From the opening credit autopsy to the mangled body of the motorcycle accident victim. The clubbing of the baby seals is 100% real. This footage was obtained from the Alaskan Wildlife Foundation and inserted into the film. At the time, this is how the Alaskan Wildlife Foundation kept the population of the seals to a manageable number. The woman jumping from a skyscraper committing suicide was 100% real. The footage wrapped around it, wasn’t. The dead body that washed ashore on the beach was 100% real. The man falling to his death in an unopened parachute was 100% real. The airliner crash and the dead bodies around it are all 100% real. Scenes of animal deaths, whether in a slaughterhouse or on a farm, are all 100% real. Stock footage was used for these scenes as no animals were harmed during the making of FACES OF DEATH.
Dr. Francis Gross was an actor and not a doctor. The pit bull fight is real, but the fight was a precursor to the dogs mating and neither dog died. Both dogs were sprayed with stage blood for added effect. The piranhas used in the piranha/snake attack were actually perch. The snake carcass was provided by the snake handler working on the film. The monkey used in the brain eating scene is 100% fake. The people eating the monkey brains consumed cauliflower dipped in a red colored sauce. The sheriff/alligator scene is 100% fake. Quick edits provided the impression of realism. The assassination of the political figure is 100% fake as is the story wrapped around it. The police shootout and the shootout victim is 100% fake. The electric chair execution is 100% fake. The beheading in the Arabian Desert is 100% fake. The desert was located in California and the Arabians were Native American Indians. The cult sacrifice in San Francisco is 100% fake. The death of the man falling in the cave is 100% fake. The death of the man mauled by the brown bear is 100% fake. The bear was a trained animal and quick editing and a fake bear provided the realism here. The man who set himself on fire outside the nuclear protest is alive and well.
I haven’t seen FACES OF DEATH for at least 25 years now. I recall seeing it last in the mid-80s at a midnight screening somewhere in the Bay Area. The monkey brain eating scene was memorable as it stood out as one of the film’s most vivid moments. How could these cold-hearted people kill an innocent animal just to appease their appetites? Well, they couldn’t, because it was fake. Despite the lack of veracity to much of the film, there are valid moments of shock in FACES OF DEATH. In particular, the stock footage of farm animals being slaughtered for human consumption provides a visceral connection with the viewer. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good steak, but the methods used to kill these animals is unacceptable. Then there’s the clubbing of the baby seals. Who could do such a thing to a helpless animal and sleep the same night? The real human tragedies of the film lie with starving babies in India and the actual footage of dead concentration camp Jews executed by Adolf Hitler during the Holocaust of World War II.
That being understood, FACES OF DEATH is a fairly well produced film which plays very straight. It does a wonderful job easing the audience into the subject of death using animals, then strikes a bit harder with the unfortunate deaths of humans before throwing its knockout punch focusing on war and famine. Oddly enough, even after all these years, the real impact of the film lies in the historical and stock footage, not in the sensationalist segments created by its producers.
FACES OF DEATH was written and directed by John Alan Schwartz (credited as “Conan le Cilaire” for directing and “Alan Black” for writing). The film was shot over a 6 to 9 month period using 16mm film equipment and was released by Aquarius Releasing in 1978. The films funding came from Japanese investors for the Japanese video market. The film’s budget was said to have been $450,000 which generated $35,000,000 in box office receipts. The film’s credits are roughly 90% pseudonyms as most of those involved wanted no recognition for it. At the end of the credit roll, the following appears: “Exiguous scenes within this motion picture have been reconstructed to document and further clarify their factual origin.” Although the viewer is being explicitly informed aspects of the film are fake, this notice went mostly ignored. The film ended up being banned in over 40 countries with media outlets outright calling it a true snuff film.
I can only recommend FACES OF DEATH as a curiosity piece. It doesn’t have any re-watch value. If you’re a filmmaker or a special effects artist, then you may find something of interest in the structure and execution of the film.
Contributed by: Mike Murphy