Contrary to what hipsters might say, the 1990’s were not a good decade. While a lot of my friends were obsessing over lackluster flicks such as Scream, The Craft, and Blair Witch. I had an unhealthy obsession of my own; the Faces Of Death Mondo series. I would watch the first four religiously, and on a weekly basis. For many of my teenage years, I believed that the segments in the film were real stock footage. I even Believed that Dr.Frances B. Gross, (actor MIchael Carr) was a real pathologist. Over the years, those involved with the film have come forward to discuss which segments were staged, as well as several actors revealing their role in the film. I’m not going to lie, for me some of the magic is still there. It certainly deserves the cult status it’s achieved over the years.
Filmed in a documentary style, it’s no wonder this film was believed to be real.
As far as the staged footage goes, some of the scenes actually had very clever effects, considering this film had a budget of less than $400,000.00. Take the scene were diners in a North African restaurant dine on a monkey they’ve just murdered with mallets (which were actually made of rubber) for instance. A fake monkey head was constructed and the brain that becomes the feast for our tourists, is simply cauliflower and red gelatin. A scene depicting a violent shoot out with police is very believable in its presentation, right down to the slain family at the very end of the scene. However, there are a lot of staged moments where one just has to call shenanigans. For example, why would a camera crew be at a hilltop BEFORE someone gets mauled by a bear? Also, multiple camera angles are kind of a dead give away, as is the use of slow motion during a scene involving a car stunt gone wrong.
As far as the real stock footage goes, some of it might have gone to far. As I’ve stated several times before, it was common for mondo and exploitation films to use animal cruelty as a tool for shock value. This film is no exception to that statement. The creators included several scenes of actual slaughterhouse footage, complete with “Old McDonald” playing in the background. Once again, I don’t condone animal cruelty in any way,shape, or form. This was an element of the exploitation genre that was a product of its time, as barbaric as it was. A lot of other classic stock footage was used as well, including police surveillance camera footage of a young woman committing suicide,a man being cryogenically frozen, footage of napalm bombings during the Vietnam war, stock footage from WW2 depicting Hitler,Mussolini as well as the Concentration camps. One of the more fascinating segments of the film, is a trip inside the Los Angeles county morgue. We’re even treated to a brief interview with head coronor Thomas Noguchi, who had been a key witness during the Charles Manson trial.
Beyond its shortcomings, and at sometime laughable moments Faces Of Death remains one of the true cult classics of the Mondo genre. Several imitations were spawned, including the Traces Of Death series, and Anton LaVey’s 1989 films Death Scenes, which Ironically enough is sometimes released under the title Faces Of Death VII. The film definitely has a certain mystique about it, even today. Both The Black Uniforms and The Exploited would lift samples from Dr.Gross’ narration. Although the film claims to be banned in 46 countries, it was banned in less than 10. But even so, a tag line such as that pulls you in, and you can’t help but give it a watch.
There are 3 official sequels that do exist. Faces Of Death II contained more real footage, including a mass execution of the Tolbert regime in Liberia, and the death of Welsh Boxing champion Johnny Owen. While not as graphic as it’s predecessor, I consider it my favorite of the series due to it’s realism. Faces Of Death III was somewhat of a farce, with almost no real stock footage, except for some more slaughterhouse scenes with hijinks music, and re-enactments so laughable, they’re downright hilarious. As far as Faces Of Death IV goes, don’t waste your time with that one, and please trust my judgement on that.
The magic still exists with this one, just because of how seriously it takes itself.