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April 5, 20246 Mins Read

The further you look back on history, the more you realize that the separation of fact and fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the longest time, there wasn’t much of a difference between storytellers and historians (just look at how many people still think the Trojan War was a real event), and while this skewed perception of reality can have devastating consequences in the modern interconnected world, I think there’s some wisdom to be found in extracting a dose of truth from obvious hoaxes.

When it comes to media, one of the most enduring examples of this is Found Footage cinema, a whole genre that relies on our willingness to accept that what we see on-screen is real even if we don’t actually believe in ghosts, demons and witches. This decidedly modern form of filmmaking may have been popularized in the digital age, but the seeds for it were planted decades earlier. And though we often hear about classics like Cannibal Holocaust and UFO Abduction when discussing the origins of Found Footage, there is one horrific production that I think deserves more recognition as a precursor to the genre as well as a prescient warning about our fascination with morbid media – 1978’s controversial Faces of Death.

Banned in dozens of countries and censored in even more, John Alan Schwartz’s debut feature was an unprecedented hit in the world of mondo shockumentaries – a sensationalist form of cinematic “journalism” that was meant to entertain rather than inform. Grossing over $35 million on an alleged budget of $450 thousand, Faces of Death is one of the most popular examples of morbid curiosity putting butts into seats, with each ensuing controversy (from the high school teacher who showed the film to his class to the teenager who killed his friend after the movie supposedly made him curious about what it felt like to kill someone) only fueling the film’s legend.

And yet, while it seems easy to dismiss Faces of Death as a trashy bit of irresponsible schlock meant to appeal to the worst aspects of humanity, I’d argue that the original flick is much more than a simple compilation of tragedy and might even contain a little bit of artistry beneath all the blood and guts. Exploitation cinema might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can definitely tell that Schwartz had something to say here because of his restraint in what footage is presented when compared to the flick’s numerous follow-ups.

The Monkey was not harmed!!!

Surprisingly enough, Faces of Death was originally meant to be entirely comprised of graphic but unrelated archival footage (much like its inferior sequels) before the filmmakers realized that this approach made the content feel excessively gratuitous and hard to watch. Schwartz then decided that it would be much more interesting to simulate and recreate real events and tie them together with a narrative throughline about our collective relationship with death.

That’s how we wound up with the finished film’s internal fiction of a pathologist (Michael Carr) presenting viewers with a collection of varying atrocities caught on film as he muses about human nature and the titular faces of death. By blending fact and fiction on a sensationalist canvas (with the director claiming that over 40% of the footage is staged, which includes all the really disturbing bits), the film paints a unique picture of a world ruled by our own mortality – something that I don’t think would have been as impactful had this been a traditional narrative or documentary film.

However, if we’ve established that the vast majority of the picture’s most infamous moments are faked – which is a relief for animal lovers like myself due to the excessive amount of zoological violence – who exactly is this film for? The cynic in me wants to believe that Schwartz simply wanted to trick gorehounds without getting sued, but scenes like the brief yet poignant interview with the “real” hitman François Jordan and recurring ecological themes and imagery seem to suggest that there a method to the madness here, or at the very least an attempt at a sincere exploration of the subject matter.

This is precisely why I believe the film was so influential in the Found Footage genre, as this was an early example of a horror production using its hybrid presentation as a narrative tool towards entertainment rather than a genuine attempt at maliciously misleading viewers. It may not have been the first film to accomplish this, with movies like The Legend of Boggy Creek making use of some similar ideas, but you can definitely detect shades of Faces of Death in future faux-snuff films like the August Underground trilogy and even Bloody-Disgusting’s own V/H/S anthology.

One of the more obviously staged scenes.

Naturally, Faces of Death is also notable for being an analog precursor to one of the most disturbing trends in media history: the meteoric rise of real death and gore videos on the internet. Anyone who grew up online is well aware of the disturbing content that used to be hosted on websites like and LiveLeak, and it’s pretty clear that taking part in this sadistic kind of content was the logical next step after consuming shockumentaries like Faces of Death and its sequels. Hell, some of these sites went so far as to model their homepage after the iconic Faces of Death skull artwork – which is ironic considering Schwartz’s original refusal of simply compiling real gore in his movie.

The legacy of Faces of Death may be much larger and more complicated than most of us would care to admit, but that doesn’t exactly make Schwartz’s film a masterpiece (a sentiment that the director likely agreed with judging by the three pseudonyms he uses in the credits). Not only is the whole thing in poor taste, as the flick does in fact contain a few shots featuring real accidents and dead bodies, even if the really gruesome bits are achieved by masterful effects work, but not even the lofty narration can shake the (partially correct) feeling that much of the experience has been stitched together from a random assortment of stock footage.

Love it or hate it, Faces of Death is an undeniably important part of horror history and a landmark in extreme media. The complicated ethics behind the production and the true intentions of its creator will likely remain a heated topic of discussion for years to come, but I think we can all agree that this debate is the most compelling evidence to confirm the movie’s status as a disruptive and eerily prescient piece of underground art.

That’s why I can’t wait to see what Legendary comes up with for their upcoming reboot.

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