Posted: 10/19/2008


Faces of Death: 30th Anniversary Edition


by Jason Coffman

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If you grew up in the 1980s, chances are good that your local video store had Faces of Death (and its sequels) on the shelves. As an adolescent rite of passage, Faces of Death was hugely popular among young horror fans looking for the most disgusting, horrific images they could find. Once the slashers in your local video store stopped doing the trick, it was time to gather up your courage and rent Faces of Death. The film was a huge success on home video, and was the center of controversy for years. This is due both to the film’s content and the fact that debates have raged over what in the film is real and what isn’t.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a bit of backstory is required: Faces of Death purported to be the first documentary to show actual deaths from various places around the world, both of humans and of animals. The most infamous sequence involves a group of people eating at a restaurant in “the middle East” where a live monkey is killed by the diners, who then eat its brain directly out of its skull. Other notorious scenes include a beheading as punishment for some sort of crime (also in the middle East), an animal control employee being attacked by an alligator, and a police raid on the home of a man who has murdered his wife and family. Aside from the monkey, animals fare little better: there’s footage of cows being slaughtered for kosher, Alaskan seal populations being curbed, and more.

And now, 30 years after the film was originally released, is a 30th anniversary edition DVD (and Blu-ray), lovingly remastered from the original vault materials, with a commentary track and extras that finally put to rest any questions about what is real and what is re-enactment. These extras are really the most interesting part of the package, although the film is certainly worth a look as a strange curio from the late 1970s. While there certainly is some disturbing footage in the film (including some of an actual autopsy), overall the film itself feels pretty tame compared to modern horror films and just about anything you’re likely to see on cable.

Looking back, Faces of Death predates and seemingly predicts “reality” entertainment, most notably COPS— the raid on the murderer’s house basically is the same thing you’d see on any given episode of that show. Popular crime investigation series like CSI and documentary series like The First 48 often get into graphic details of various crimes. Even though the crimes on CSI are fictional, the amount of detail on that show often makes Faces of Death look conservative. It’s a sad commentary on our modern media when Faces of Death seems like the product of a more innocent time!

All that aside, however, the extras on the disc are fascinating. Director “Conan LeCilaire” explains the film’s origins in a lively and extremely informative commentary track. Interestingly, the version of the film that appears on the 30th anniversary discs is not the U.S. home video version, but the original Japanese theatrical cut. “LeCilaire” explains early on in the commentary that the film was financed by Japanese producers for a theatrical run there, and only later became a success in the States during its home video release. The commentary completely demystifies the origins of the film’s scenes, and the featurettes on the editing and makeup effects put to rest any questions about how the film was put together. There’s a sense of a gleeful pulling back of the curtains, almost a relief that after all this time the filmmakers can finally expose all the secrets that helped make the film such a success and such a magnet for controversy.

The Original Faces of Death: 30th Anniversary Edition was released by Gorgon Video on October 7th on DVD and Blu-ray. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and features a feature-length commentary track with director “Conan LeCilaire,” “Choice Cuts” featurette with editor Glenn Turner, “The Death Makers” featurette with the film’s special effects creators Allan A. Apone and Douglas J. White, outtakes, original trailer, and a deleted scene.

Jason Coffman is a freelance film critic living in Chicago.

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