Controversial and shocking for its time, Faces of Death holds a special place in the heart of every 80s horror kid
With blockbuster movies like The Conjuring franchise and It taking over theaters across the world (not to mention YouTube videos in the millions, depicting all sorts of monstrosities both real and imagined), a poorly-shot and edited “mondo” film supposedly depicting violent human death doesn’t seem all that shocking or relevant in modern times.
But Faces of Death, directed by Conan LeCilaire and written by Alan Black, was one of the few holy grails of horror for teenage gorehounds of the early 1980s.
Just to see the VHS box cover on the shelf of your local mom-and-pop video store (or better yet, a liquor store that also rented movies) was enough to make your fingers tremble and your stomach churn. For those of under the age of 18 at the time, there was an additional challenge to the Faces of Death viewing experience — we had to convince the guy behind the counter to actually let us rent it.
But leaping these hurdles and popping the forbidden tape into the VCR made for an awesome Saturday night.
The opening surgery sequence, followed by a comically dark introduction by Dr. Francis B. Gross (Michael Carr), sets the stage for the graphic horrors about to unfold on the TV screen, including animal slaughter, an alligator attack, a weirdly exotic dinner of monkey brains, and the strange dining habits of various indigenous tribes. The footage was grainy, the audio filled with scratches and pops, the colors muted and somber; in other words, it was the perfect late-night horror show for young genre fans who never bothered to question the authenticity of the material.
Later in the film, as Dr. Gross waxes philosophically on the “mysteries of death,” we are treated to scenes of forensic pathology, blood-drenched autopsies, and the embalming process. In one sequence, a man on death row, his eyes taped shut so that “they won’t pop out,” is electrocuted until he begins frothing at the mouth, the room “smelling like burning flesh.” Eventually, with blood pouring from his eyes and seeping out the edges of the masking tape, the man dies, leading Dr. Gross to “question the whole meaning of justice.”
While not a work of art by any means, Faces of Death was genuinely unsettling at the time, and watching it with friends was considered a grueling highlight for horror fans searching for the next big thrill.
As the film nears its end, the footage of homicidal death and dismemberment turns political, addressing such topics as warfare, nuclear technology, and the Holocaust. Like the slaughterhouse footage earlier in the picture, this material is certainly not “fun” or entertaining to watch, and the sheer repetitiveness of the film at this juncture begins to grate on the viewer. As if sensing this problem, the filmmakers quickly return to allegedly real footage of people being killed in transportation accidents.
It’s gruesome, bloody stuff, especially when you’re 13-years-old, stuffed with pizza and Coke and candy, and believing that everything you’ve just witnessed is as true as your own hand in front of your eyes.
Bringing the narrative arc to a close, Faces of Death concludes with a discussion of life after death, a woman giving birth to a baby, and an absurdly upbeat tune called “Life,” which features the lyric, “Your life is like a puzzle and the pieces one by one fall into place.”
Rest assured, at the time that Faces of Death was all the rage on home video, none of us kids was thinking existentially about the future, God, or the ways in which our lives fit into some grand design. We just wanted to say that we rented the movie and got away with it, and that somehow we had survived its gruesome and sordid depictions of human and animal violence and death.
The infamous documentary might not hold up today, but back in those glory days watching Faces of Death was a bona fide rite of passage.