FACES OF DEATH: From Viral VHS To Cult Sensation

Exploring the controversy and cultural impact of the extreme horror that became a real sensation ahead of the upcoming Legendary remake.

By Dolores Quintana · @doloresquintana · February 21, 2024, 5:23 PM EST
faces of death 1978

​​What does it take to look Death in the eye? To face the eventual end of life that all living creatures face? One of the most infamous horror films, Faces of Death, gave people the opportunity to briefly flirt with the specter that fills most of us with fear for our entire lives. It makes sense that this controversial film is a subject of debate and conjecture.

Legendary Films announced in 2021 that the co-screenwriting team of Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzai would remake John A. Schwartz's film. This announcement has fired up curiosity about the mondo horror film series created by John A. Schwartz under the pseudonyms of director "Conan Le Cilaire" and screenwriter "Alan Black." Goldhaber and Mazzai collaborated on the horror film Cam in 2018, and Goldhaber directed How to Blow Up a Pipeline last year.

The new film is to star Barbie Ferreira, Dacre Montgomery, Josie Totah, Jermaine Fowler, and pop star Charlie XCX, and published reports say that filming began in April 2023. It is not known when the film will be released, but it is anticipated that it may be released in 2024 and among this year's most anticipated new horror movies.

Evolution Over Time

But what is Faces of Death? Is Faces of Death real? Its roots lie in the phenomena of Mondo films from the 1960s, a blend of exploitation films and documentaries that started with the 1962 Italian film Mondo Cane. Sometimes called "shockumentaries," these films are presented as being filled with actual events, frequently beyond belief. Mondo Cane was a series of vignettes with nudity, animal deaths, and local customs.

Since Mondo Cane was very popular, a wave of similar films resulted, and staged scenes became part of the production because of the audience's demand for more grotesque scenes. There is an argument to be made that Mondo films eventually spawned the Italian cannibal films, another subgenre of exploitation with films like Ruggero Deodato's polarizing Cannibal Holocaust, which is the origin of the Found Footage genre.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Composer Riz Ortolani's easy-listening anthem "More" from Mondo Cane won a Grammy Award. It was nominated for an Oscar and subsequently covered by artists like Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison. Ironically, Riz Ortalani also composed the soothing title theme for Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, known as the most relaxing song for one of the most disturbing Italian cannibal horror films.

Faces of Death Legacy

During the 1980 and 1990 home video boom, the film became a rite of passage among the young. The film's cover art is iconic, and instead of using graphic images from the film, it is merely an illustration of a grinning skull, which has a hypnotic power on viewers. It was the kind of movie that groups of friends dared each other to watch or dared themselves to watch because viewers asked themselves if Faces of Death was real. The film's reputation for unnameable and allegedly real horrors, like onscreen deaths, gave the movie power over the audience. Was it a real "snuff" film?

Is Faces of Death Real?

The film seemed to ask if you had the courage to face death itself by watching real deaths onscreen. Is it real? Did people and animals die on camera? The answer is a hybrid, like the movie itself — a blend of fact and fiction. Yes and no. But no one ever asked the real question at the back of their minds. Viewers' fascination with Faces of Death is about confronting their own eventual fates.

In a 2013 essay at Cinema Excess, filmmaker John A. Schwartz said, "Although the Faces of Death series continues to generate discussion about its challenging images and the ethics under which we created it, I agree totally with Nicolo's observation that its real power remains the ability to force the viewer to address uncomfortable issues of mortality."

Stephen King has called horror movies and fiction a "dress rehearsal for death." In a way, watching horror films is an inoculation against the fears related to death and violence. As you take little sips of horror and death, you toughen yourself against the fear that human beings have about the chaos of existence and find a way to deal with your own personal terrors.

Schwartz also addresses the issue that films have always had in the public arena. Faces of Death is a film meant to convince people that all of the footage was genuine and a real story. Clearly, scenes were staged, and Schwartz has admitted to doing so. He states, "Part of the controversy about the film was that people couldn't distinguish its fact from its fiction. Perhaps its message is even more relevant now we live in a world that is manipulated by the media…Of course, what I really did was fool people around the world."

Documentary or Exploitation?

His statement opens up a larger debate that has never been fully explored. The whole point of cinema is to convince you while watching a movie, that what you see is real on a specific level. If you don't believe in what is happening on the screen, the film fails in its purpose. However, if you walk out of a theater or turn off a TV show and then proceed to verbally attack an actor because you are still convinced that what happened on screen was real after the show or movie is over, you cross a line.

The line between reality and cinema has been crossed successfully more than once. Obviously, Faces of Death is an example of it, but Cannibal Holocaust was so successful at convincing the audience it was real, despite the fact that someone was shooting the action with a second camera, that director Ruggero Deodato was charged with murder and animal cruelty after Italian authorities seized the film.

The Blair Witch Project is another example of a film that blurs the line between reality and fiction. The marketing campaign for the film was perhaps too successful and included a website with posters of missing persons using photos of the film's actors. Faces of Death's approach of combining archival footage with staged scenes worked quite well.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The director claimed in his essay that the film had been banned in 48 countries and 46 in the film's marketing, but that claim is called into question by more than one source. Indeed, the film was given a theatrical release that made anywhere between $35 million to $65 million, depending on who you ask. British censors did ban Faces of Death during the "video nasty" era of home video in the United Kingdom.

The footage from real slaughterhouses located in Vernon, California, a town known for meat processing on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, and Petaluma, California, was shot by Schwartz's crew. But the film's crew also shot the staged scene of the restaurant patrons eating monkey brains in Long Beach, California, using a trained monkey, who was quite an actor, and foam mallets.

Schwartz claims that the scene had at least one visual clue that should have shown it was staged, but no one ever noticed. He added that it is the one scene that people insist is real to this day, even to him.

faces of death 1978 monkey brains

The director was also open about the execution sequences being fictional. It is to his credit that he was able to convince an audience that all of the sequences were real due to a clever blending of archival footage, footage shot by the crew, and low-budget effects; the monkey brains were "played" by cauliflower dyed red, and acting. Even though the film credits Michael Carr as pathologist Francis B. Gröss, people still accept it. John Alan Schwartz plays the cult leader in the sequence that depicts a corpse that was supposedly stolen for use in a cannibalistic cult ritual that then turns into an orgy.

Ah, the magic of cinema.

The film proved so popular that four direct-to-video sequels, Faces of Death II, Faces of Death III, and Faces of Death IV, and the documentary Faces of Death: Fact or Fiction were made and are an early example of a franchise complete with its own documentary. John Alan Schwartz wrote and co-directed these sequels.

Later, during the mid-1990s, two compilations, entitled Faces of Death V and Faces of Death VI, were repackaged for release in countries where the films were not originally shown, and The Worst of Faces of Death, another compilation was released between Faces of Death III and IV.

faces of death v cover

The series has had a strong influence on the horror genre with its marketing, its claims of reality despite the use of filmmaking techniques, and shaky camerawork that seemed like documentary footage, which, along with Cannibal Holocaust two years later, set the stage for the Found Footage boom and films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity from the 1990s and 2000s through to current found footage films like The Outwaters and Horror in the High Desert.

It is each film's absolute insistence that what is occurring onscreen is real even though the film has actors playing roles, which is a filmmaking and marketing technique that comes straight from Faces of Death and exists in conjunction with the director's admissions that many of the scenes were indeed faked and each film's credit rolls and IMDB page.

But still, the film has a power that defies the logical considerations of the facts right before our eyes. Cinema's magic is to convince you of the reality of the film despite the fact that you know it is a work of fiction.

Cultural Critique

Aside from the British Film Board of Censors declaring the film a video nasty, other legal issues related to the film include the curious case of a teacher, Bart Schwarz, in Escondido, California, who insisted that his class watch Faces of Death, which resulted in a lawsuit. Two of the girls in the class, Diane Feese and Sherry Forget, sued the school board and won a combined total of $100,000 in damages. Even more curious was that the teacher was put on leave but not fired for the incident.

Famously, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film two thumbs down, with Siskel calling the film "a piece of trash." and noting that teenagers are holding "video nasty parties" where they watch "gross-out films" to see if they are "man or woman enough" to "sit through all of this disgusting gore."

Siskel and Ebert both question the truthfulness of some of the scenes, particularly the presence of the second camera in the bear scene and the lack of moralizing on the deaths in the movies. They decry video stores making special shelves within the horror that highlight the films. It would be safe to say they didn't like it.

Faces of Death Legacy

The influence of Faces of Death on pop culture and filmmaking is profound, even though it might not have been immediate. Mondo Cane started it, but Faces of Death's popularity shoved open the door for other outsider artists like John Waters over time and set the stage for the popularity of the Italian Cannibal films, which had a similar genesis from Mondo Cane. The heyday of the gory Giallo films led to the Slasher genre.

Modern horror films' love story with gruesome and detailed on-camera deaths can directly be traced back to the public's fascination with the documentary-style violence of both Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and Faces of Death, a decade later, which was released the same year as Romero's sequel Dawn of the Dead, which largely jettisoned the patina of the documentary style, but still had a grittiness that held a feeling of reality and was packed with spectacular scenes of bloody carnage.

Faces of Death 1978 mask

It changed the outlook of society, that you see stated by Siskel and Ebert in their review of Faces of Death. At the time, that was society's standard, but things have changed to the point where a mainstream film company and esteemed filmmakers are now making a remake or reboot.

From the standpoint of ethics, the usage of archival footage of deaths and footage from the coroner is questionable, but the fact that hiding such footage from the eyes of the public does not mean that such deaths and realities do not exist. Is it more ethical to stage such scenes? Not according to some criticisms, who believe that gore and scenes of pain and torture should never be shown.

It's not that you shouldn't film it; it is tasteless to show it. Is hiding such reality really to the benefit of society? It is a hard question to answer, but alternately, is it to anyone's benefit to hide unpleasant things from human eyes? Where does that end? Is it necessary to never tell the public the truth to adhere to standards of taste that have long changed? Then what does the truth actually mean? Is it the truth that is not upsetting or disturbing? What is truth, then?

Nowadays, horror film fans are intimidated by the reputation of such films as A Serbian Film, Megan is Missing, Martyrs, and The Human Centipede series. Some older films, known for their graphic content, have emerged as similar challenges like Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, Nekromantic, and Cannibal Holocaust. Such films have heavily influenced the horror genre, and graphic gore has become much more acceptable in mainstream horror films.

A film like The Sadness and horror television shows like Hannibal are the products of this expansion of the genre. Extreme horror cinema continues to push boundaries, annoy parents, and upset stomachs as the frontier keeps getting pushed outward because horror fans' tolerance for violence and gore grows.

Faces of Death is not available on any streaming services, so you'll have to borrow a copy from your best friend's older brother. Or, just order yourself the whole set. And, of course, we'll keep you posted on that upcoming Faces of Death remake, but we imagine that one will be a lot easier to track down.