Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Faces of Death" is Fake?

An expose on arguably the most famous - and infamous - Mondo movie of all-time


Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve probably heard a ton about “Faces of Death.” For those of you that are late to the party, “Faces of Death” is a series of films supposedly showcasing real-life instances of death, murder, disease, destruction and sundry other forms of mayhem and madness. The film’s notorious reputation has vaunted it towards something of an “urban legend” status - allegedly, resulting in the film being banned in more than 40 countries, including the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Finland and Norway.

The movie that kicked off the series was originally released in 1978 - clearly imitating the style of pioneering “shock-documentaries” from the 1960s, like “Mondo Cane” and “Kwaheri.” Even before the film made the leap to VHS in the 1980s, the movie was a bona-fide low-budget hit the world over - supposedly made for less than $500,000, the film is believed to have grossed more than $35 million in theatrical revenue alone.

Even today, “Faces of Death” is talked about in hushed tones, the sort of dank, dark motion picture that we all secretly desire to screen, but just don’t have the guts to check out. But as the decades have dragged on, an entirely different sort of urban legend surrounding the film has arose - namely, that that the movie is one big fabrication from start-to-finish.

Long, long before movies like “The Blair With Project” or “Catfish,” “Faces of Death” straddled that fine line between cinematic fact and fiction, creating a brutally realistic (for the most part) world that, in the eyes of some astute viewers, was more than just a little suspect. At this point, there’s more than enough evidence out there to validate that most of the scenes in “Faces of Death” were faked. In fact, in the 2008 Blu-Ray pressing of the film, the movie’s editor, James Roy, pretty much came out and said that a majority of the film was staged, and even showed off how the producers of the film fabricated some of the film’s more infamous sequences.

According to director John Alan Schwartz (who also served as the film’s writer and second unit director under pseudonyms), the movie was “intended” to be a Japan-only release. Of course, the film ended up becoming a worldwide sensation, creating a never-ending series of “documentaries” that lined the wall ways of video store horror sections throughout the 1980s and all the way up until the dawn of the DVD era.

Meet Dr. Frances B. Gross...or as the credits call him, "Michael Carr." 
I recently decided to give the legendary film a viewing, on this, it’s 34th birthday, to see whether or not the film still holds up after three and a half decades of cinematic infamy. Do the “death scenes” still seem authentic and shocking, or are they just embarrassing and corny-looking these days? And for that matter, what scenes in the film are indisputably fake, and which scenes are 100 percent legitimate? If you’ve never seen the flick - or are just too squeamish to see it for yourself - this extensive review tells you practically everything you need to know about the motion picture…and maybe, it will even help you sort out the facts and fictions of one of the most notorious films in modern movie history.

The film begins with footage of what appears to be an open heart surgery procedure. There are a lot of really gross slurping sounds going on in the soundtrack, before the heart stops beating and flat lines. Following the opening credits, we’re introduced to the “narrator” of the movie, a character named “Dr. Frances B. Gross” (a fictitious creation, obviously, that is even listed as made-up in the film’s closing credits.)

Up next, we have a few moments of what appears to be autopsy footage, which is followed up by “Dr. Gross” doing a monologue about human mortality while a “heart in a jar” is prominently displayed. He says he has a “recurring funeral dream,” which is then dramatized for us. After we watch a (most likely, staged) funeral procession, the good doctor decides to flap his lips some more about what “death” means, while some wholly unnecessary shrieking plays on the audio track in the background.

Our first field trip is to a cemetery in Mexico, where we get an up close look at some petrified human remains. After that, we’re treated to some bullfighting footage, which is followed shortly thereafter with scenes of an authentic dogfight…in slow-motion, no less.

From there, we take a vacation to the Amazon, where we watch a snake get eaten by some piranhas. Well, I’m assuming that’s what happened, because you never actually SEE the snake get attacked. Basically, what we’re seeing here is two separate pieces of stock footage spliced together, culminating with a third video of powdery blood billowing through the water (which is spliced with quick cuts from the earlier two videos.) The dead giveaway that the scene is doctored can be found in the water, which is clearly a different hue in all three videos.

The tools of the trade if you want to chow down on some (alleged) 
monkey grey matter. 
From here, we watch some Amazonian river basin dwellers shoot blow darts at monkeys (which looks pretty fake), which is followed up by a brief segment involving headhunters showing off their latest collection of shrunken heads (which looks ASTOUNDINGLY fake to me.)

The next 10 or so minutes are probably the hardest scenes in the movie to sit through, since they involve genuine footage of animal slaughter. We watch a few cows get punctured, and then we see some farmhand lop the head off a chicken. That part is particularly messed up, since a variation of “Old McDonald” plays on the soundtrack throughout the duration of the scene.

We see some grisly slaughterhouse footage (including scenes of kosher ritual slaughter) while the narrator makes some philosophical comments about vegetarianism and American consumption habits. After we view some lambs getting pureed, he notes that we really don’t give a shit about all of this, because “we only deal with the finished product” when it comes to animal-based foods in the U.S.

It’s around this point that we arrive to quite possibly the movie’s most iconic scene, in which a bunch of Western-looking visitors pummel a monkey to death and chew on its brains. Watching the scene, it’s pretty apparent that the entire thing is staged, since the actors are so wooden and we never actually see the mallets connect with chimpanzee’s head. And if that’s not bad enough, once they finally peel the chimp’s skull open, the monkey looks NOTHING at all like the live chimpanzee we saw earlier. At this point, it’s pretty much common knowledge that the scene is 100 percent staged - and there’s even video evidence out there from the special effects folks behind the movie, explaining how they put the piece together.

So, the narrator does some more monologues about the “spiritual” merits of hunting, which leads to stock footage of Japanese guys shooting fish, dudes in the Great White North clubbing some seals, and ultimately, footage of dead crocodiles that are obviously the victims of poaching. Which, in turn, leads us to quite possibly the most hilariously awful moment of the movie.

After all of those scenes of animal cruelty, we clumsily transition to what’s supposed to be “news footage” of a small town being haunted by an alligator. It’s not so much that horrendous acting that gives away the phoniness here, as it is the fact that they couldn’t even use a REAL camera for the scene, as one of the dudes in the shoot seems to be lugging around a piece of poster board cut out in the shape of a camera.

From there, we watch a guy that’s playing the town’s game warden take a tumble into the water, where he’s allegedly eaten by the hungry gator. There are some up close scenes of water splashing, which are most obviously just spliced in stock footage scenes. After about a minute, the game warden’s “corpse” is dragged out of the water…and if I didn’t know any better, I swore I could see the guy still breathing while camera crew huddled around him.

"Hello, audience. I am doing a television news story with my microphone that
 is not even plugged into anything..."
The next scene features what appears to be some very real assassination footage from 1968, of a guy named “Jean Voisier” getting shot on camera. The only problem here is that, following a quick Google run, I couldn’t find a damn thing about assassinations occurring in 1968, featuring ANYBODY named “Jean Voisier,” or even the “Parti Socialiste Populaire,” for that matter. While there is the possibility that the scene could be real, it’s most definitely not from the time frame the narrator of the film tells us. The next scene - an interview with the supposed assassin from the previous video - however, is unmistakably a fabrication (even if it is kind of funny to watch a mercenary shoot watermelons, though.)

The next scene is a supposed police shootout involving some deranged dude that killed his whole family. The problem here is one that the producers of “Faces of Death” couldn’t possibly have imagined when they were making the movie - the fact that, 30 years later, we could access this thing called “the Internet” and actually look up official documents and records. As it turns out, the suspect - dubbed “Mike Lawrence” by the narrator - doesn’t correspond with anything on Google related to “killing spree,” “police shootout” or even “multiple homicide” - although, oddly enough, some dude named “Mike Lawrence,” apparently, DID go on a killing spree in Canada in 2000.

In the next scene, we have a brief chat with a guy that’s supposed to be the L.A. County coroner (and apparently, “English” is not his first language). We watch some corpses get X-rayed, and see some educational bits about tissue analysis and embalming. These scenes could possibly be real, although the shady camerawork employed suggests some shenanigans afoot.

The next scene is a brief primer on capital punishment in the U.S., complete with a dude getting his in the gas chamber. Since it’s sort of a felony to leak video footage of executions in the U.S., it’s  a pretty safe bet that scene was staged…and quite poorly, if you know anything at all about how gas chambers actually operate.

OK, Larry, we get it. You really don't want to watch the rest of the movie...
Next to the monkey brain scene, the next moment is arguably the most famous scene in the entire film. So, there’s this guy, named Larry DeSilva. He’s been sentenced to death via electrocution. We have some very cinematic scenes, with harmonica music playing in the background, as DeSilva is led to the electric gallows. He’s strapped in, with his eyeballs wrapped in bandages to keep from them leaping out of his skull. The switch gets thrown, and DeSilva gets John Coffeyed right before our very eyes (which is just mildly ironic, since DeSilva’s eyes practically melt during the event.)  The narrator says some things about the faults and foibles of our justice system, while some downright tense music plays in the background. It’s a very disturbing scene, to be sure, barring you overlook two, teeny details:

1.) There are zero records out there of a guy named “Larry DeSilva” being executed at any point in the history of the United States; and

2.) The procedures we see are totally against the protocols set in place by most facilities, including the eye bandaging (since the eyes of people strapped into Ol‘ Sparky don‘t really explode, you know) and the fact that the character is barbecued several times over. For a quick round-up of everything the scene got wrong, try checking out this video right here.

We get one more execution video after that - apparently a public decapitation from an unnamed Arabian country filmed by a Canadian tourist. And yes, the terms “unnamed Arabian county” in conjunction with “Canadian tourist” makes me doubt the validity of the footage just as much as you.

The next scene is just about the most embarrassing moment  in the entire movie - a clearly staged scene involving a very Manson-esque “blood cult” in San Fran that carves open a cadaver and start munching on the entrails. I guess it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that, many years later, it was revealed that the “head” of the cult was actually portrayed by the guy that directed the movie.

The next five minutes of the movie is just a hodgepodge of random scenes, clearly a reference to the movie’s forerunner “Mondo Cane.” We watch Appalachian worshipers throw rattlesnakes at each other, as well as a chick leap off a building. There’s a brief vignette about cryogenics, followed by some footage of a “beached” corpse. This leads to a most likely staged sequence in which some rescuers find a dead dude inside a cavern.

I'll give you three guesses as to how this plays itself out...
The next sequence is just painfully fabricated. There’s a couple that’s hanging out in the woods, on one of those drive-thru safaris that used to be really popular back in the day. They encounter a bear, and the dumb-ass husband decides to hop out of the car so he can feed it a sandwich. The results, I suppose, should be pretty predictable.

There are so many red flags on this one that I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps we can start with the fact that the scene CLEARLY employed a multi-camera set-up, which no single human being with a crappy home video camera could have recorded. You also have to recall, home video recorders circa 1978 were roughly the same size as houses, and not ONCE do we ever see the OTHER PERSON recording the footage onscreen (not even when the guy getting attacked is flailing all over the place). The audio is most obviously dubbed, and poorly - I’ve seen chop-socky movies with better lip-syncing than this segment. And of course, there’s the little tidbit about us never ACTUALLY seeing the bear attack transpire. All we hear are noises and up-close, very stock-footage looking scenes of angry bear faces and claw swipes. There are just way too many up-close shots, quick cuts and multi-angle views to make this amateur video - but yeah, its inherent fakeness should appear obvious to anyone with a working set of eyeballs (sorry, Larry DeSilva.)

Up next, there’s a very brief segment on the destructive power of nature, with lots of stock footage of volcanic eruptions, floods, tornadoes and wildfires. From there, we segue into this indescribably bizarre music video about pollution while a song about Jesus and the environmental movement plays in the background. After that, we see a brief video of some kids protesting outside Three Mile Island, concluding with a junior protestor setting himself on fire. It’s a real stunt (meaning they actually set a dude on fire to film it), but a “real” death scene caught on camera here? That, I highly, highly doubt.
Some rather dubious product placement for Budweiser, don't you think?
Next on a whirlwind tour of the macabre; a brief video on all the mass death events of the 20th century, including World War II, famines in Africa (with a special emphasis on cholera outbreaks), and even some stuff about cancer. Since this stuff is too high brow for our liking, we jump into more sensational fodder next, with scenes involving skydiving jumps gone awry and a clearly staged “car stunt accident” from some unnamed movie.

While most of the stuff we have seen so far has been faker than K-Mart jewelry, the next segment contains footage that is most definitely authentic, and disturbing as all hell. Train derailments, highway accidents, a plane crash - all given a surreal quality, as the narrator drones on and on about the “moral lessons” we can learn from misusing technology. From there, we are shown arguably the most horrifying thing in the entire movie - real-life footage of PSA Flight 182, which crashed in a residential San Diego community in 1978. If you’re looking for nightmare fuel, trust me - this sequence provides it in ample doses.

The denouement of the film is a really clumsy segment on “life after death,” with a bunch of parapsychologists tracking ghostly movement inside a “haunted house.” The footage, apparently, was enough to make the narrator believe that death is not man’s final destination - harkening back to a statement made earlier in the film by the alleged L.A. county coroner.

And after an hour and a half of (almost entirely fake) carnage, how does the film end? With footage of babies being born, flowers blooming, and deer running around in parks while an upbeat, hippie-dippie song (entitled, I shit you not, “Life’s a Stream”) plays over the closing credits.


And if you’ve ever wondered what you’ve missed out on, that’s “Faces of Death” for you in a nutshell. While there are certainly some grisly scenes to be found in the picture, the movie, as a whole, is pretty tame by contemporary standards; odds are, you’ll see more blood and gore on an episode of “Criminal Minds” than you do in this movie. 

Clearly, a ton of scenes in the movie were faked, with only a few stock footage scenes displaying “real life” violence (and most of those scenes, I might add, involve animals, not human beings). The movie seems very, very outdated (trust me, you can tell this thing was a product of the ‘70s before you even hear any dialogue), and the film has this pervasive “fakeness” to it that makes the entire thing seem cheesy and less than sincere.

Still, the movie does have some merits. As bad as the editing is in some parts, the movie at least does a commendable job of splicing things together, creating a pretty decent illusion of mayhem when the visuals on display are rather minimal. If nothing else, “Faces of Death” isn’t a boring movie by any stretch, and if you ask me, nowhere near as graphic as its reputed to be.

Unlike the myriad imitators that followed it, such as the Traces of Death and Faces of Gore series, there’s an almost playful quality to the movie. The producers of the film seemed to take a lot of joy in “fooling the audience,” and at times, the movie even takes on this weird, New-Age vibe that seems more trippy than exploitative.

“Faces of Death” really isn’t a convincing film anymore, but its impact on American culture - and in many ways, cinematic expression - is difficult to overstate. All in all, the film may not be great art - or even good art, for that matter - but it remains a miniature triumph of independent filmmaking none the less.

And at the end of the day? The movie may have been (largely) fake, but there’s no denying “Faces of Death” has a had a profound - and very real - influence on how we view “entertainment” in the U.S. of A.

19 comments:

  1. great break down. would be awesome to see this kind of write-up for the sequels as well, being as they contain the more memorable scenes of the whole franchise (imho). I was too young at the time to recognize what was real or fake, and now I'm too old to sit through all of them just ascertain the veracity of a few scenes.

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  3. In the next scene, we have a brief chat with a guy that’s supposed to be the L.A. County coroner (and apparently, “English” is not his first language). We watch some corpses get X-rayed, and see some educational bits about tissue analysis and embalming. These scenes could possibly be real, although the shady camerawork employed suggests some shenanigans afoot.

    Actually Thomas Noguchi, in the video of the L.A. county corner is a real person, he is the one that did Sharon Tate, John F. Kennedy, Marliyn Monroe and Other celebrity autopsy, It is not illegal to show footage from inside a morgue or an autopsy as long as certain facts are not released, if it was a murder or any personal information. Have you not watched Michael Baden's autopsy files or Dr. G. Medical Examiner.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Noguchi

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    1. Thanks for that! The author did google searches for other scenes but not for the great Thomas Noguchi? He's one of my idols in forensic pathology. I first remember seeing him in the amazing documentary The Killing of America.

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    2. I don't think he said it was illegal for autopsy's.Only for executions(but people do download films from sites who do this by sneaking a video camera into a movie so anything is possible). I did do a do a search(slight abuse of power) for a Mike (or other) Lawrence with all permutations thru N.C.I.C. and no results. This film scared the *** out of me when it came out( one year before I went into the Army. I'm glad it's fake. I'll sleep better. But still we all have to recognize for what is was and what it did. Great job "scarier" than any movie today.

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  4. Also the Desilva is actually a play on the name Albert DeSalvo, who strangled 13 women in Boston his oldest victim was 84.

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  5. The scene with the French guy to me seems really fake... like they're not really French!

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  6. Fake or not(mostly fake), they are still fun to watch!

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  7. My Uncle was on faces of death for a showing of the head of jhakeen murietta. Not sure of the speeling. its so funny how something can be written so convening and so many people will believe. it Faces of Death was a real series. I

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  8. Let me tell you. They use to rent these out at our local video store. I remember these videos. That shit was real as fuck to me at least, also to get banned in 40 states seems to me that would be a sign of authenticity. Some of the shit was gruesome, remember soldiers shooting Africans in the jungle like nothing, people shooting there faces off with shotguns, and among other horrible outcome s.

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    1. That's EXACTLY the reason why I had to walk out of the apartment, LOL, whenever someone had decided to bring one of those videos over (on VHS :))

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    2. It wasn't banned in 40 countries. It was banned in almost every country for being overly gruesome (most notably in the UK and Australia) not because it was real. Many movies were (and still are) censored in countries around the world.

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  9. Let me tell you. They use to rent these out at our local video store. I remember these videos. That shit was real as fuck to me at least, also to get banned in 40 states seems to me that would be a sign of authenticity. Some of the shit was gruesome, remember soldiers shooting Africans in the jungle like nothing, people shooting there faces off with shotguns, and among other horrible outcome s.

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  10. The editor’s magic can be seen in the dog fight segment; two pit bulls fight each other to the death in what looks like a glimpse into a dog-fighting ring. But the director told Felsher it’s really something a lot less terrifying, “It looks really savage and cruel and mean in the movie. But these dogs were the most playful dogs in the world, we just smeared them with jelly, they were just playing around they weren’t doing anything wrong at all, in fact the footage itself is so laughably cute, we couldn’t believe that anyone would buy this but, you add sinister music and some sound effects and cut it a certain way, and it looks like these dogs are killing each other.”

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    1. Sorry, I meant to say the above quote wasn't by me but taken from an interview with the director.

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    2. Who wants everyone to think it wasn't real because we weren't allowed to see it. Recording or engaging in this activity had been a criminal offense for a while now. I'm standing behind the fact that those of us who were brave enough to watch it saw some horrors that most never get to.

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    3. Who wants everyone to think it wasn't real because we weren't allowed to see it. Recording or engaging in this activity had been a criminal offense for a while now. I'm standing behind the fact that those of us who were brave enough to watch it saw some horrors that most never get to.

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  11. The guy who washed up on the beach was real though. Happened while they were filming something else. He had gone swimming high and drowned.

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  12. what does that say in the background on the right side over there? Something about Mexican's fucking or something?

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