One of the many pointless rites of passage for dopey teenage boys in the 80s (present company included) was watching Faces of Death on VHS. Originally released to theaters in 1978, the infamous “mondo” movie—a collection of “real death” scenes collected from various supposed “real” news sources and hosted by a death-obsessed world-traveling “pathologist” named Dr. Francis B. Gross (geddit?)—was a box office smash in the kind of greasy grindhouses and drive-in movie theaters where murder and mayhem reigned, eventually gobbling up a reported $35 million in box office receipts. But that was only the beginning…
Faces of Death really became a phenomenon in 1983, when the infamous Gorgon Video company released it on a garish, big-box VHS with its crude drawing of a grinning skull on a pitch-black background with the impossible to resist tagline: “Banned! In 46 countries!” As soon as you saw it, you just knew you had to watch it. Faces was, arguably, the first real “viral video.” It spread largely by word of mouth, each giddy viewer embellishing its beastly atrocities in a far-flung game of VCR telephone. By the mid-80s the film’s reputation had grown so fierce that even the title could send a nervous kid into a pile of trembling sweat and goo.
Don’t worry, this guy is gonna be fine.
So did it live up to the hype? Sorta. Everyone has their “favorite” moments—the “bloody” dog fight, the brutal electric chair execution, American tourists gorging on the brains of a live monkey, the guy getting eaten by an alligator, the Satanic cult cannibal feast, the dumb camper who tries to feed a bear a sandwich and becomes the real lunch—but even the least discerning sixteen year old was left with more questions than answers. Why would a camping couple bring multiple cameras with them to film a spontaneous inter-species act? Do you really bleed from the eyeballs when you get electrocuted? Why does the chimp suddenly turn into a monkey halfway through the “feast”? But here’s the thing: it was the 80s. We had no Internet. The true story of Faces of Death was not in the latest edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. We suspected some amount of fraud, but how much and how it was created was unknown. It should also be noted that although a lot of the film seemed fishy, most of it was definitely authentic. The dramatizations in Faces of Death are littered with actual slaughterhouse and morgue footage. It’s a grim view no matter what.
This monkey has some serious concerns about the ‘Faces of Death’ script.
The beans were finally spilled thirty years later. Gorgon released a “30th-anniversary edition” of the original Faces of Death film on DVD. One of its many bonus features was an eye-opening documentary called The Death Makers which revealed the many secrets of FOD. Turns out that guy really didn’t get eaten by the alligator after all. The bloody dogs? They were actually just goofing around, their faces smeared with delicious raspberry jelly. The executed guy was an actor. The monkey brains? Cauliflower! In fact, almost every dramatic single scene in the film was fabricated. There was no Satanic cannibal cult. Everything you know is wrong. Again. Faces of Death was followed by several increasingly low-budget sequels and now holds the dubious position of Godfather of all snuff flicks. Given our current media climate, where whole websites are dedicated to real life death-on-tape, it almost seems quaint.
If only we could go back to a world where the worst thing you could see is a bear fighting a guy over a sandwich…
‘The Death Makers’
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
You gotta have a gimmick: The true story of the multi-million dollar ‘Snuff’ film hoax