Much of the controversy surrounding Faces of Death is about the question of whether this film is real or fake. The question could also be asked whether or not this actually matters. To the British Board of Film Classification, it probably didn't. The depictions here could conceivably violate their taboo of demonstrating techniques by which crimes could be committed. The film is also frequently advertised as having been "Banned in 40 Countries". To be sure, whether this film is or isn't real would matter to censors outside of England.
Audiences may or may not care. Faces of Death is much more effective on the Big Screen. Though quite a bit of the discomfort is still present when viewing this film (and its sequels) on VHS or DVD, the experience of having the film fill up an entire wall in an audience packed with the unsuspectingly curious is lost. The effective nature of Faces of Death's visuals can still make just about anybody nauseous. Even when other scenes can inspire laughter.
So, is Faces of Death real? Interestingly, that is the very subject of yet another Mockumentary by the makers of the series called Faces of Death: Fact or Fiction. That film set aside, the answer is "Some parts are, some parts aren't."
John Alan Schwartz did collect quite a lot of variably shocking and merely unpleasant footage as the basis for this film. The rest... is staged. Footage of actual corpses is surprisingly disturbing, regardless of the fact these are simply shots in a morgue. Similarly, footage of wars, accidents and other startling News Footage is often hard to watch, especially when things get very real. Post-Holocaust discoveries and analysis of mummified bodies are real... and really gross. Hell, the movie starts off by depicting an open heart surgery that, quite frankly, the producers didn't have the budget to fake.
On the other hand, there is a great percentage of this movie that is completely staged and very fake. The camera angles say it all, folks. A scene depicting a rescue crew on a perilous journey into a cavernous descent to hopefully save a fallen young man belies its reality by having shots from below of the crew climbing down. Thorough for fiction, but... did the broken body of the kid wake up, set up a camera and start rolling before passing out again? We should all be so lucky. Other scenes, such as an electric chair execution or a Middle Eastern tribe's beheading of one of its own are less convincing than your local Halloween Haunted House's special effects. A man setting himself on fire outside the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant isn't terribly convincing, nor is the sequence in which a man is eaten (off camera) by an alligator. These are interspliced with scenes of actual autopsies and a real execution or two (stock footage, of course), so it's not hard to understand how a grindhouse audience from thirty years ago might have a percentage of believers therein.
In truth, some of the faked scenes actually worked in a horror movie kind of way. The scene of western diners enjoying monkey brains (after first braining the monkey) springs to mind. On the other hand, there is enough real footage of actual animals being killed to more than outweigh that moment. Seal clubbings, pit bull fighting, tribal people killing for food, a woman killing a rooster for food and letting its headless corpse roll around for a while and some very disturbing scenes of cattle and sheep in a slaughterhouse are the order of the day in this first Faces of Death movie. It's enough to bother just about anyone, including those tough folks who came to the theatre to prove it was no big deal.
Again, though... is it real? Though a lot of the footage is, the very thread of the film is a lie. "Dr. Gross" is actually actor Michael Carr, who has no medical degree to my knowledge. Looking further into the long credit listing, Director Conan Le Cilaire is actually John Alan Schwartz, Writer Alan Black is actually John Alan Schwartz, Second Unit Director Johnny Getyerkokov is actually John Alan Schwartz and the leader of the flesh eating cult is actually John Alan Schwartz. Johnny Getyerkokov... that's not even clever. A "Richard Head" was the co-writer (with Getyerkokov) of Faces of Death: Fact or Fiction.
Was Faces of Death really banned in 40 countries? Probably not. Though it was literally banned for 19 years (after its 1984 listing as one of the Original Video Nasties) in the UK (the currently available version has been cut by over two minutes), the word "Banned" is thrown around pretty liberally when controversy is desired. Technically I could advertise my site as having been banned in a great number of places, seeing as how Web Filtering software does prevent this site's viewing on many computers. But, you see, that would be bullshit, now wouldn't it?
In reality, in addition to England, Faces of Death has been either edited or banned in West Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, South Korea, and Norway at one time or other.
Does Faces of Death deserve the condemnation and reviling that it gets? Well, that depends on the tastes of the viewer. Personally I could live for a long, long time without watching this movie again. However, in that much of this film consists of stock footage, clearly these things existed long before Faces of Death did. Further, the staged moments are no worse (though, sadly, no better) than any of the admittedly fictional low budget horror flicks on the Video Nasty List.
It's hard not to notice, though, that for all its content and controversy, Faces of Death doesn't come off as mean spirited or cruel. In fact, Gross (fictional, though he may be) seems to be pretty disturbed by all this as well, claiming after some of the slaughter scenes that if he were to have to fend for himself, he would be a vegetarian. They also throw in quite a bit of semi-sanctimony in the form of an anti-pollution message and an anti-nuclear war plea. Yes, of course this comes off as somewhat humorous and unbelievable given the context and the phoniness of so much of this film. However, for the derision poured upon this film by so many, one would expect this to be a bloodthirsty celebration of death, murder, animal killing and all that stuff. But at no time does Gross (or the film itself) seem to truly have fun with all this. Later films in the series (there are seven more and a remake is said to be on the way) might be a different story. Yeah, it's exploitation, but it's also at least TRYING to be a documentary.
That's not to say it's a very good film, of course and the question of just who would go out of their way to see this film and why springs easily to the lips of any critic. But... should people have the right to see it? Sure! Do the filmmakers promote crime or encourage the content shown here? No. My advice to you is to be well aware of what you're seeing. Yes, it's quite fake in a great many parts. No, it's not all fake. Yes, it can disturb just about anybody. Two Stars out of Five for Faces of Death! I've officially seen every one of the Video Nasties now. This "real" one certainly helps to put nastiness into perspective. And for those of you who still wonder why people are vegetarians... don't be sheepish, try not to be chicken... watch this film, you might have a cow.
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