CULT CORNER: Faces of Death (1978)

Dylan tackles the horror of “real-life.”

Who made it?: John Alan Schwartz (Writer/Director), Rosilyn T. Scott (Producer), F.O.D. Productions.

Who’s in it?: Dr. Francis B. Gross, lots of unfortunate people.

Tagline: “Banned in 46 Countries!”

IMDb rating: 3.7/10.

It is always worth remembering that the main agenda of most films is to make money. Even if there is a hugely passionate creative team behind them, at some point somebody will have had to stump up a vast sum of money, and most likely, they will want that money back. This is difficult even for a big-budget Hollywood movie, and for independent filmmakers, it is an insanely difficult task. This is especially true of the horror market, which is absolutely saturated with films that are essentially the same. Many films followed the freakshow carnival route of being “the most controversial film of all time,” and a good example is John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes, when he reportedly looked through the law books to find the most horrific but legal act. It turned out to be bestial copraphagia, and the film’s unsimulated ending is still disgusting to this day.

Faces of Death is made of a similar mould. It claims to be a documentary consisting entirely of scenes of death and corpses. Be it caving accident, slaughterhouses, execution, or even a satanic cult’s human sacrifice; no stone is left unturned. A classic piece of “mondo” filmmaking, there is a creepy air to the presentation of the film, from the music to the “doctor” presenting it. Were this 100% accurate, then the crown of controversy would easily be won by this film.

Yet the vast majority of Faces of Death is just one big illusion. The execution was staged in somebody’s attic and the leader of the satanic cult was played by the director. And with this movie being nearly forty years old and made on a small budget, it isn’t difficult to tell the difference between them. A good rule of thumb for the movie is that, if it seems too controversial to be shown, it’s probably fake. Of course, it is easy to forget that this movie came out in the late seventies, where verifying the movie’s validity would not be as easy as checking IMDB. Although virtually impossible to recreate now, I can picture seeing this in a dark midnight movie theatre and being swept up in the illusion.

However, for me, Faces of Death goes too far in attempting to be controversial and shocking. If it was just a faux documentary of different deaths which managed to pull the wool over millions of people’s eyes, then it would hold a deserved place in horror history. However, the problem is that only the footage created specifically for the movie is fake. All the slaughterhouse footage is real, and there are some very unpleasant shots of dead bodies and mangled accident remains, all from real news footage. This makes for extremely unpleasant and rather cynical viewing. Whatever you might think of something like Pink Flamingoes, there is a glorious anarchy to its offensiveness. This isn’t just a case of displaying real footage for an actual documentary – the only reason is to bring more shocking footage to the screen, without showing any consideration for those actually affected by the disasters shown.

But is this actually controversial? Personally, I think not. There is no real meaning behind showing this footage, no political or philosophical agenda rather than just making money. This means Faces of Death has more in common with an episode of World’s Wackiest Videos than an actual controversial piece of art. It doesn’t make you ponder the meaning of existence, but instead gives you a chance to see baby seals being clubbed to death. Any fear of death it inspires is only though the fact you are watching clips of dead bodies strung together, rather than any real inspiration.

Faces of Death highlights that controversy in filmmaking is not the creation of anything morally wrong, rather its construction of controversy. Nobody actually eats feces in The Human Centipede, nobody has ever died in a slasher film, and vampires, zombies and werewolves have never even existed. Titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS are named only to bring in the punters. And yet they drag in much more controversy than films that deal with situations that happen to people every day.

Some kudos should be given for its place in cinema history, and it is indicative of the whole style of independent movies. But what it shows is that, time and time again, the concept of a movie is far more controversial that the actual concept itself. Faces of Death was a massive success, of course, making $35 million from a $450,000 budget. It was followed by three immediate sequels, all in a similar vein. Four and five were just rehashes of the original, and not worth your time. It was banned in several countries, although whether it is as many as the “forty plus” that is plastered over so many of the DVDs and videos is debatable.

Best Scene

The whole bloody thing is on YouTube. What a world!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • In an interview, director John Alan Schwartz said that he played the leader of the flesh-eating cult at the end of the film.
  • Many actors and special makeup/effects crew have come forward to try to obtain credit for their work on this film. Most of these people were not in any union at the time of filming. This is the reasoning for the brief credits which helped make the film more realistic.
  • One sequence involves cryogenic patient Samuel Berkowitz, who was frozen in July 1978 and stored in northern California. The relatives who were funding the suspension began to lose interest and/or wherewithal, an offer was made to continue the suspension as a neuro (head-only) free of charge, but it was turned down. Instead in October 1983 they had Berkowitz thawed, submerged in formaldehyde, given a proper funeral and buried. No attempt was made specifically to preserve.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama

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