“To Witness the Final Moment”: 40 Years of ‘Faces of Death’

Tom G. Wolf / February 11, 2019

Death is a touchy subject for most people. Intellectually, we know it’s inevitable, and yet it’s almost never discussed—until necessity intervenes. And for those of us who have spent time contemplating how we’ll depart this mortal coil, it tends to be in a fairly hopeful fashion: we’re lucid, surrounded by friends and family, and perhaps sharing a few choice departing words before fading away into the aether.

This isn’t particularly surprising; in the modern Western world, we’re arguably far more insulated from death than ever before in human history. Infant mortality is low, human lifespans are getting longer (and senior citizens are shuffled off to hospitals or palliative care to die), violent accidents in the workplace are the exception and not the rule, and large-scale epidemics are nearly unheard of. But the truth, of course, is that death is often ugly, brutish, and totally out of our control. In his 2018 book The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore, Reverend Peter Laws notes the sharp disparity between expectation and reality—and speaks in support of a greater awareness around it:

Yes, death can be surprisingly peaceful, but sometimes it’s loud and too painful to even think straight, never mind communicate. At least macabre culture has an honesty about it. It reminds us of the loud, untimely, sudden death. It’s a bleak but helpful caution that we ought not idealise our passing. Rather we might do well to share our love with others before we reach the deathbed. On the deathbed, it might be messy.

Nonetheless, media that reminds us of this fact tends to be poorly received by the public at large. Anyone who’s been involved in a fringe culture—heavy metal, goth, horror or occultism, to name a few—is well aware of this. In the most extreme cases, these subcultures are used as scapegoats, and a moral panic results.

But few films have stoked public outrage like 1978’s Faces of Death. One of the most notorious shockumentaries ever made, 2018 marked the film’s strangely auspicious 40th anniversary. Though it never hit Satanic Panic levels of notoriety, it would be fair to say that Faces of Death was viewed as a sign of profligate times by many authority figures. It was cited in a late-80s murder trial and multiple lawsuits followed in the subsequent decades after its release, as concerned parents tried to shield their children from its “corrupting” influence. Consequently, and predictably, Faces of Death would grow to become an underground phenomenon.

“Experience the graphic reality of DEATH, close-up…”

Part documentary and part gross-out, Faces of Death was always bound for notoriety. By claiming to offer footage of real death captured on film, it immediately marked itself out from the many other mondo-influenced documentaries doing the rounds in the decade. The fact that it was a box-office smash in Japan—and in a piece of astute marketing, claimed to be banned in many other countries—only aided in its blatant pursuit of “otherness.”

For a reader who grew up in the internet era, it’s difficult to grasp just how significant the film was upon its release. In 2019, real-life violence and atrocities are just a few clicks away on the internet—beheadings by the Islamic State, grisly accidents caught on video, crime scene photos, horrific album covers, and more are all to be had by anyone with a morbid curiosity and an ironclad stomach. Faces of Death probably seems positively dull by comparison.

The film itself is a largely plotless and nihilistic affair; stitched together from a variety of newsreel and amateur footage, disparate scenes of violence are displayed with little context and no clear meaning other than the apparent desire to shock and horrify. Viewers are “treated” to scenes of heart surgery, people eating a monkey’s brains, an autopsy, a woman throwing herself out of a window, seal clubbing, and an electric chair execution, among others. Serving as intermediary and occasional narrator to all of the gore on display is the ominous Dr. Francis B. Gröss—though his role is more akin to a pseudo-philosophical Vampira than David Attenborough.

Yet in a pre-internet era, material such as that depicted in Faces of Death was much harder for the average person to access. A quick trip to the library could certainly enlighten you to historic horrors like World War II or Jack the Ripper, but the grisly knowledge of day-to-day death was largely confined to specialists who regularly dealt with the subject, such as medical professionals and the military.

Pre-Digital Deathsploitation

It would be foolish to pretend that Faces of Death emerged wholesale from the collective unconscious with no precedent. Just as John Wayne Gacy didn’t create murderabilia, so Faces of Death was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to death-related media. Like any cultural phenomenon, it was a product of its time and circumstance—something critics and finger-waving moral guardians are frequently eager to ignore whenever they find a new punching bag.

The groundwork was being laid for decades beforehand—centuries, even. A comprehensive list of death-related media would fill books, but a few salient examples are worth mentioning. A quick glimpse at the sheer amount of medieval artwork dedicated to memento mori (“remember that you will die”) or the danse macabre is testament to the fact that fascination with death is not a new thing. Half-skeletonized bodies—frequently wildly anatomically inaccurate and all the more unsettling for it—cavort in terrible displays that serve as a macabre reminder that death is no respecter of persons or station. The Japanese shinbun nishiki-e and kawaraban, woodcuts often depicting death and violence, acted as the tabloids of their day, spreading a mix of real news and tall tales. While ostensibly depicting real events, it would probably not be unfair to say that there was some overlap with the contemporary penny dreadfuls in England.

Later, the development of photography meant that death could be captured far more easily and accurately. The notorious (and often exaggerated) Victorian practice of post-mortem photography has been extensively documented, but we can arguably see its legacy today in the necessary art of crime scene photography. Indeed, American photographer Weegee would attract considerable acclaim in the 1940s, upon his publication of Naked City, a book of photos depicting crime-related death.

And of course, no discussion such as this would be complete without at least a nod to Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris. Depicting violent acts onstage from 1897 to 1962, it was incredibly popular with all walks of life. While undoubtedly fake and crude by the standard of today’s special effects, photos from the spectacle’s prime still have the capacity to make one wince.

This February 1, 1968 photo from the AP’s Eddie Adams, seen on the front page of US papers nationwide, captures the exact moment South Vietnamese Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem

In more modern times, the importance of the Vietnam War can’t be discounted. As the first “television war,” its coverage stood in stark contrast to the propaganda-laden media that emerged from WWII and the Korean War. It was not unusual for journalists to visit the frontline, capturing images of the violent realities of combat and conflict. TV audiences at home were exposed to hitherto unseen images of carnage, which flew in the face of the heroic and glamorous images the U.S. Armed Forces sought to project. Such images helped set a precedent for the images seen in Faces of Death and their subsequent imitators. (Noted horror effects maestro Tom Savini learned how to depict death and gore partly through his experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam.)

From a strictly cinematic standpoint, graphic road safety films such as Signal 30 (1959) and Red Asphalt (1964) practically became a genre unto themselves. Graphic real-life footage of accidents was utilized to “educate” impressionable teens on the dangers of careless driving. While not distributed in mainstream cinemas, they still had a considerable reach among their intended audience. The most recent film in the Red Asphalt series was released as recently as 2006.

Similarly, by the time the ’70s rolled around, the notorious Hays Code had been completely undermined and replaced with an early version of the current MPAA ratings system. Freed from the constraints of an earlier generation, a new wave of naturalistic and shockingly violent films began to emerge, many of them now rightly recognized as classics—The Godfather (1972), Straw Dogs (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), and Taxi Driver (1976), to name a few. While many of the associated directors would likely balk at the idea of an association with Faces of Death, it’s hard not to see such works as helping set the wider stage.

And perhaps the most  obvious connection is the mondo film—sensationalist “documentaries” that largely traded in cultural oddities, extreme violence, and “deviant” sexuality, while heavily conflating the real and the fake. Italy’s Mondo Cane (1962), an international success, inspired hundreds of copycats that disturbed and titillated audiences in equal measure; Faces of Death was the logical endpoint of the genre.

“The only thing I question is their method of death.”

Faces of Death never actually saw a cinematic release in the US, for reasons that will be evident to anyone who’s watched it, or simply read the description above. But this didn’t mean that it wasn’t widely seen; rather, the burgeoning home video market stepped up to fill the void. The stark black, white, and red VHS cover of Faces of Death made it an intimidating prospect on store shelves, the eyeless skull daring prospective viewers to rent it. Future installments would have similarly striking covers, though it’s debatable whether any of them carry the same impact as the original.

As with any cult sensation, the bootlegs proliferated just as quickly as the legitimate copies. Horror aficionados of a certain age will know this feeling pretty well: some releases were difficult to track down, distributors went out of business, or the local stores just plain didn’t stock them. Where do you turn in such a situation? Probably to a third-generation, washed-out pirate tape that may or may not have been edited, watched with a group of friends in the basement of someone you kind of knew in high school. Everyone who’s seen Faces of Death has a Faces of Death story.

While available easily enough in its uncut form on DVD and Blu-ray these days, there was no way of guaranteeing the integrity of the viewing experience back then. Naturally enough, rumors started to swirl around the nature of the film. Where had it come from? Who made it? Was it real? Some of this mystery was clearly intentional. Director Conan Le Cilaire used an obvious pseudonym, in part to hide that he was also Alan Black, the film’s writer—which was also a pseudonym. As noted during his recent appearance on the Snap Judgment podcast, Le Cilaire prefers his real name not to be used when discussing the film, so we’ll respect that here too.

Dr Francis B. Gröss was (shockingly) not a real doctor, either. He was simply an actor friend (Michael Carr) of Le Cilaire who happened to be available. Nor was the film banned in 46 countries; no-one’s certain of the exact number, but it only seems to have been a handful—most of which have since lifted it. The biggest secret, however, was that for all of the emphasis on the real horrors displayed on-screen, heavy portions of the film were nothing but a work of staged deceit, aimed at enhancing the overall nastiness of the film. The electric chair, the decapitated monkey, the alligator attack, the cannibalism—all that, and more, fake!

This was primarily the result of pragmatism. Though Le Ciliare was able to source considerable amounts of footage due to his own time as a documentarian and contacts with news organizations, he found that relying on real footage left him with a film that was far too short to be released as a finished product. Continuing in the grand mondo tradition of blurring reality and fiction, Le Cilaire knew he had to fill out those remaining minutes with some memorable footage.

Real or not, cinema has never been quite the same since. Those blurred lines can certainly make what we know is real far more shocking in context. As John Fecile noted while writing for the Guardian during late 2018:

The great irony I found while making the podcast was how many of the most talked-about scenes in the film are fake – yet to this day, many viewers believe it’s all real. That said, many of the sections of genuine documentary footage – in particular, the grisly aftermath of a plane crash – are undeniably shocking.

Le Cilaire hasn’t entirely stopped working the crowd today, either. On the aforementioned Snap Judgment podcast, Le Cilaire makes some claims about the box office gross of Faces of Death vs. Star Wars in Japan, which are difficult to believe at best. Presumably, when one batch of rumors is headed for obsolescence, it doesn’t hurt to have some new ones to keep the mystique fresh.

“… My compulsion to understand death was far greater than just an obsession.”

My own Faces of Death story is not as elaborate as many of those who went before me; I first watched it in 2009, many years after the main controversy around the film had come and gone. I simply stumbled across a copy in the horror section of the local DVD store and decided to rent it. I had heard of it previously, but who knew from where? In a book? The internet? In discussion with fellow horror fans? Either way, the film had again made its way into the heart of suburbia, with little warning or context as to what lay within.

My father and I watched it together that night and, for the most part, we were unmoved. Both of us are keen special effects fans and even without knowing the whole story around the footage, we cottoned on that plenty of what we were seeing had been “enhanced,” if not outright fabricated. Far and away most distressing were the scenes of real animal death, though the scenes from the autopsy must certainly rate a mention. None of it was an experience I particularly cared to repeat, though I wouldn’t deny it made a considerable impression on me.

I’m not alone in this feeling, either. Faces of Death has crafted a complex and extensive legacy, frequently lurking just outside the mainstream. Given the financial success of the original film, imitators naturally followed. You might assume that peak controversy might would have been hit with Death Scenes—a similar film hosted by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey—but it seems to have made comparatively few waves upon release. Joe Francis, later creator of Girls Gone Wild, would release Banned From Television in the late 90s. Traces of Death, arguably the most famous of the imitators, released numerous installments between 1993 and 2000—upping the ante by including significantly more real footage. It included an extreme metal soundtrack and was itself banned in numerous countries.

The original Faces of Death series would continue in various forms until the 1990s. In the grand tradition of trashy grindhouse cinema, a number of sequels were simply compilations of existing footage, while others appear to be created by unrelated parties who simply co-opted the name. The films have also fallen on fertile ground in the world of extreme metal and grindcore. Bands such as Carcass, Naked City, Pungent Stench, Brujeria, and most recently Pissgrave—to name just a few—have attracted considerable attention and condemnation by using photographs of real corpses as part of their album artwork. Given the genre’s typical focus on the morbid, it’s made for a natural if controversial fit.

Even to this day, many news organizations and image libraries will purchase gory and violent images, usually from crime scenes or accidents. Most of them are not publicly circulated—but occasionally they will pop up in true crime publications or similar outlets. Gunther von Hagens, most famous for his Body Worlds exhibitions, also owes a considerable debt to the film, whether or not he realizes it. In 2002, he performed the first public autopsy in London since the 1800s. In 2005 and 2006, the BBC would screen a number of his television specials, all of them centered around death, autopsies, and the construction of the human body. What was once viewed in semi-secret on poorly dubbed VHS was apparently now fit for one of England’s largest public media institutions.

Staged scenes from the original Faces of Death, 1978

But if we were to point to the most direct line of descent for Faces of Death, it would have to be in the form of the internet. Shock sites such as Rotten.com and Ogrish would eventually find themselves fulfilling a similar function as Faces of Death for a new generation. There was even a similar emphasis on working the audience; real and staged photos alike were presented to the public to gawk at, devoid of context and leading to countless rumors in the process. Depending on who you asked, such sites were pure filth, darkly intriguing, or a Dada-esque means of protecting free speech for the wider populace. Interviewed by Salon.com in 2001, Soylent, the pseudonymous operator of Rotten.com, noted that such sights might not be to everyone’s taste. But trying to use legal means to “protect” people from them would likely violate wider principles of the First Amendment:

‘If you watch the Discovery Channel or the Learning Channel, you see pictures of dead bodies, cadavers of famous people,’ he says. ‘Horrors are sprinkled throughout life, and I see no problem with concentrating them. If you want, we could go down to the bookstores and find pictures of cadavers for you – it’s very easy. It’s not possible to write a law to make it impossible to display that stuff, even for minors. It’s too much of a slippery slope to take.’

“But now it is time to witness the final moment, to discover the circle that forever repeats itself.”

On the same day I pitched this piece, I was walking to the train station to head home from the local shopping center. As I approached, I saw that the station entrance was surrounded by police cars and ambulances. I caught a glimpse of a stretcher being loaded into one of the ambulances, but didn’t think much of it. Maybe someone had a heart attack or a collapse; there are some retirement villages nearby, so it didn’t seem particularly unlikely.

Yet when I arrived at the entrance to the station itself, it was blocked off. A police officer turned us away; they were coy about what exactly was going on, but the subtext of their words was clear—someone had thrown themselves in front of a train. The stretcher I had just glimpsed was presumably carting that person’s remains off to the morgue. I felt uneasy at the realization, but I also couldn’t help but be struck by the morbid synchronicity.

40 years after its release, Faces of Death no longer outrages the public in the way it once did. It’s become a niche artifact of its era. But it hasn’t really fallen into camp, either. Certain scenes still have the power to take the viewer’s breath away, and viewing with caution is still advised. The truth is that death and its many means is always going to hold a forbidden fascination for a certain audience. If Faces of Death and all of its bastard spawn can be said to have redeeming qualities in the conventional sense, perhaps it is as a means for processing the inevitability of our own “final moment,” and as a reminder to build a better world before it comes.

Tom G. Wolf is a Sydney-based writer who is a keen fan of horror films, heavy metal, and cats. You can read more from him at Lupine Book Club.

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4 thoughts on ““To Witness the Final Moment”: 40 Years of ‘Faces of Death’

  1. I’ve never seen the movie myself but I can remember seeing it on the video store shelves and can remember my friends talking about it. I can certainly remember it being a “big deal” at the time.

    Your piece was excellent and I enjoyed your exploration of the subject.

    • Thanks mate, really appreciate it. Glad you enjoyed it. The movie wasn’t something that was so widely discussed when I was a kid, I think in large part due to it being banned in Australia until a decade or so ago. But things like Rotten had definitely filled that gap in schoolyard lore.

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