Try to picture this for a moment. It’s a Friday night the summer after you’re 6th grade year. You’ve gathered on a hot and humid June evening at the house of one of your best friends. It’s past midnight and the parents have drifted off to a peaceful night’s rest, blissfully unaware of the terrors that await their youthful charges. It’s about this time that your buddy brings out the black plastic clamshell case containing a movie that his older brother rented at the local mom and pop video shop. You, along with a half dozen of your prepubescent friends, gather around the old RCA television and pop the dirty VHS tape into the Quasar VCR. When the film finally begins, the 6 of you bearing witness to the viscera on display are just the latest in a long series of indoctrinates who have stared horrifically into the bloody eyes of the FACES OF DEATH.
FACES OF DEATH was a rite of passage for pack-mentality preteen boys. It’s something so taboo that watching it ranks right up there with stumbling onto your dad’s secret cache of Hustler Magazines. In many ways FACES OF DEATH is even more elusive than the glossy stock pages of Larry Flynt’s monthly girly rag. After all, the coverbox of FACES OF DEATH proclaims that the film has been banned in 43 countries. Hell, by 1988, even the U.S. Supreme Court had validated Flynt’s right to free speech, but I’ll be damned if you could go into Blockbuster Video 10-years later and rent a copy of FACES OF DEATH. It was like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.
In reality, FACES OF DEATH is the expectation that proves America’s most notorious unspoken entertainment rule. Puritanically speaking it’s always been inferred that we, as a society, would rather seen a pair of blown out brains than a pair of naked breasts. Parents have no problems purchasing their 12-year old children fifty dollar copies of Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt 2, but would shudder in unspeaking, unmentionable, terror if a certain pop star’s bejeweled nipple were accidently exposed during, say, a live sporting event. Sex sells, but only to those of age. Violence it appears is free for anyone to enjoy. FACES OF DEATH lives to circumvent that logic. No one rented FACES OF DEATH!
The original shockumentary, FACES OF DEATH is the next logical progression in a series of films that began in 1962 with the release of MONDO CANE. And while by today’s standards and practices the events of MONDO CANE would make for about as shocking as an episode of SURVIVOR, FACES OF DEATH is more like a PeTA protesters worst nightmare. Culling together stock footage of fur seals being clubbed, African cows begin bled out and headless chickens in the spasmodic throws of death is one thing, but “FACES” rather insidiously and ingeniously inserts staged footage of Middle Eastern restaurant patrons eating monkey brains and cannibal cults eviscerating corpses for the camera’s unflinching and exacting eye. Mish mashed together the old and the new, the real and the unreal create a hodgepodge of absolute truth that is telegraphed to the viewer as utter fact, disseminated by the principle that “the camera never lies” or that “seeing is believing”.
With the 30th anniversary DVD release of FACES OF DEATH all the fictions will have their facts revealed and the things that you swore were real will be proven to be anything but. It might be considered something of a let down, the unmasking of the specter that haunts this film. But, considering how poorly the film has aged over the past 30 years, considering the totality of offences that could be downloaded in a moments notice on a dozen or more free internet sites at any hour of the day, in any library or coffee shop, it just seems like the time is right for the filmmakers behind this legendary cult classic to come clean.
Keeping in mind those thoughts, the obvious reason to feast your eyes (or rather, your ears) on FACES OF DEATH one more time is to indulge in the audio commentary track. Director Conan LeCilaire is here to tell you many things you already know, or at least suspected. And, perhaps, a time or two, surprise you by what you didn’t know. The rest of the disc is padded out with a featurette on Special Effects creators Allan A. Apone and Douglas J. White as well as film editor Glenn Turner. What is amazing about these interviews is not the contributions each made to the illegitimacy of the purported “real’ footage, but the fact that they managed to avoid talking about it for so very long. Instead, many allowed friends and colleagues to continue to contend that staged events were absolutely real—despite knowing full well that the proceedings they were discussing were inarguably false. It’s fascinating to watch the giddiness of these filmmakers as they finally give up their long-kept secrets.
Not for the faint of heart, or specifically for those who love animals. FACES OF DEATH might not be as outrageous as you remember it was all those many years ago, on that late summer night, cramped with your friends in front of the soft ozone glow of the television. Watching the DVD tonight will surly not provoke tomorrow’s fervent debate around an office water cooler in the way that it once commanded across a crowded lunchroom. Still, the film does stand tall as a none-to-subtle reminder that once upon a time, before the rampant proliferation of the internet, before the tragic desensitization we’ve suffered at the hands of reality television, there was something truly shocking in the world. A time when only the bravest of 12-year old boys were willing to look into the FACES OF DEATH.