Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Growing up in the age of VHS and video stores it was a rite of passage for the hardcore to not only get ahold of Faces of Death, but be brave enough to watch it. By the mid-80s, the mondo shockumentary was the stuff of urban legend. A collection of deaths both human and animal hosted by Dr. Francis B. Gross, Faces of Death felt like something truly taboo. That it boasted to have been banned in more than 40 countries only further propelled this collection of violence and gruesome death into forbidden fruit territory. Initially released on November 10, 1978, it didn’t take long for Faces of Death to earn notoriety. Forty years later, this shockumentary doesn’t hold up to the reputation it once had, but its merits as an influential gamechanger is undeniable.
Faces of Death wasn’t the first mondo film, a name for exploitation documentary films that emphasized taboo subjects and often featured brutal animal deaths, and the first, Mondo Cane, served as inspiration. Writer/director John Alan Schwartz (he uses the pseudonym Conan LeCilaire) wanted to push the envelope further, though, and wanted to feature humans getting killed. He set about collecting as much actual footage of human death as he could find, most of which he purchased from news organizations. But what he cobbled together wasn’t enough to fill a feature length film. So, he decided to supplement the grotesque footage with staged death scenes.
The beheading, the electrocution, the alligator attack, and even the monkey brain scene that may or may not have inspired the dinner scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom all were shot in a month. The makeup effects were handled by special makeup effects artist Allan A. Apone, uncredited at the time. It’s these staged deaths that show their age the most; the effects don’t hold up as well and relegates the film as of its time. The monkey brain scene? Apone used cauliflower with food coloring and gelatin. Though the makeup effects may show its age, Apone has had an extensive, illustrious career with films like Suicide Squad and Captain America: Civil War under his belt since his early days working on the first two Faces of Death films.
After a hugely successful theatrical run in Japan, Faces of Death found its biggest success on VHS in America. The cover box may have stated it was banned in 46 countries, but the truth was that it was banned in only a handful. Not least of which was the UK, as it earned a spot on the prosecuted Video Nasties list. Shot and compiled on a budget of around $450,000, Faces of Death wound up earning $35 million in its home video frenzy. That profit meant that Faces of Death would continue on with seven additional sequels, though some were just “best of” reels of earlier films.
At least 40% of Faces of Death is staged, and the filmmaking techniques have become much more obvious in an internet-based age where death and violence is far more commonplace. We’re now much more desensitized to violence. But in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was nothing like it. Faces of Death paved the way for shocking horror to come, and traumatized youth from the comfort of their own homes.