Death Videos

published in People Magazine, Sydney, May 1988
Faces Of Death (1979)

“Only in America”. There's a saying you've heard many times. Witnessing the decline of western civilisation by satellite TV, it might seem plausible to bemoan the ills of society (as many concerned people do). But let's face it - we might be a bit crazy here and there but we're certainly not near the edge of destruction. The media reporting of the Hoddle Street Massacre and the Russell Street Bombing tried its damnedest to convince us that here (finally!) was something real, but I'm sure many people simply got bored with it all. We had already seen it done better on American TV and in Hollywood films. (“Only in America” could also mean “if only in Australia”.)

Is this the result of being desensitised by the news media? Moralists, sociologists and psychologists warn us that such a state is bad, and that we're becoming dehumanised. Hogwash. It's the way most people deal with media bombardment. Academics and other prudes think people are foole by the media - when in fact most people can see very clearly how pathetic the news reportage is. Furthermore, many people probably watch the news for not only the facts but for all the crap is well.

Of course when concerned people start bemoaning the ills of society, scapegoat-hunting begins in earnest. A very popular scapegoat at the moment is the home video market. First the X-certificate goes, then the censorship board starts making pretty stupid decisions all round. Worse still, things can get so hysterical that some videos are treated as if they are banned when they are perfectly legal.

Such is the case of Faces Of Death. Some news reports leaked out a few months back about the police viewing these death videos in connection with the Queen Street massacre. Yeah, you've heard it before - the killer watched these videos and immediately went out and shot people. While the simplicity of that explanation for his actions is largely dismissed by sensible people, it didn't stop many video stores taking the video off their racks themselves. In one store I checked out, I bent over to look behind the booking desk and saw a sign that said "do not under any circumstance lets Faces Of Death go out". Censorship is questionable enough, but self-imposed censorship is inexplicable.

Faces Of Death he's now mysteriously available in a number of stores again. The crazy thing is that if you ever actually seen Faces Of Death, you would very quickly realise that it is absolute garbage and every bit as pathetic as the nightly news reports. People had been claiming that real death scenes appear in the video. If only!

Faces Of Death is part of a whole batch of films and videos called shockumentaries which have a long and colourful history. The first and most famous shockumentary was Mondo Cane in 1961. Made by the cunning Italian team of Jacopetti& Prosperi, the title translates as “brutal world” and is just that: a fantastic mix of freakshow images and tacky anthropological observation. By today's standards it's all quiet time, but it instigated a whole slew of films with Mondo in their titles.

All those 60s shockumentaries were pretty much the same, covering weird religious rituals; crazed obsessive fanatics with equally crazy hobbies; people doing not-so-nice things to their bodies and loving it; and cuisines made up of things you really didn't want to know about. (Sounds like People magazine!) The whole idea was to both to titilate and repulse by showing just how strange, sick and incredible human behaviour could be. And that's why people loved them.

Most of them were obviously faked, but this was nothing new. Freak shows have been around for over 100 years, and for every true oddity there is a fake one. Ever since the start of the cinema there have been freak movies and African ritual documentaries - most of which were faked in a Hollywood backlot. People expect that and enjoy both been tricked and exposing the trick. The only people who are really fooled are those who are generally shocked by such scenes and images: prudes.

Faces Of Death (made in 1979) was part of a new push to go further in the 60s shockumentaries. Narrated by an actor portraying a presumably real Dr Francis B. Gross, our narrator takes us on a tour of death, showing lots of scenes of animals killing men, men killing animals, animals killing animals, and men killing men. It sort of blurs after awhile (which was good enough for the makers - Scott and LeCilaire - to come up with Faces Of Death II a few years later). The only truly revolting scenes are the real autopsy operations during the films credit sequence. The rest of the film is badly staged - especially the people at a restaurant who smash open a monkeys head to eat it's fresh raw brains! As for the real electrocution at the end, Crimestoppers are more convincing.

The electric chair is also used for the finale to Bizarre Graffiti (1980) but it too is cheaply faked. This film was originally titled This Is America II and is a sequel to This Is America. Between them there isn't much actual footage, but together they make for great entertainment, after which you can truly say “only in America”. Best bits: a Californian cults who worship a retarded teenager; a shock therapy for preventing people getting fat; tramps living under the New York subway living off rats; nuns learning judo; chickens grown for fast food chains who eat food made from their own excrement; and heaps more!

If you want graphic reality, go for Shocking Asia (1983). The sex change operations in that definitely aren't faked: you see everything and it's much gorier then Faces Of Deaths’ autopsies. Forget Shocking Asia II - The Last Taboo (1984) because it's mainly made up of outtakes from the first film. Let Me Die A Woman is a deliberately sensationalist documentary about sex change operations (made in 1972) and it has some unintentionally funny sections. It's like watching a dreadful school documentary on venereal disease where real people are trying to say scripted lines. No graphic scenes in this one, though.

The makers of Mondo Cane, by the way, were not left out of the 80s resurgence of the shockumentary. While they quickly came up with Mondo Cane 2 and Mondo Cane 3 in 1962 and 1963, they basically late live in the 70s. After Faces Of Death caused a noticeable amount of controversy in America, the original Mondo Cane cameraman - Antonio Climati - decided to hit the road again. Or let's say he at least went back to the editing bench because the results was (at least) four films which are each differently edited versions of the same basic scenes and incidents. Only in Italy! Sweet & Savage; Savage Man Savage Beast; Brutes & Savages; and Violent World are all dated around 1983, but obviously contain footage from the meet 70s at least. My pic would be Savage Man Savage Beast - for the authentic home movie footage of the unbelievably stupid man who tries to feed lions by hand in a lion park. The lions eat his hand (and more) while his wife and kids scream and his best friend keeps on filming!

The 12 shockumentaries covered here are fairly similar in style and content. They all have (a) dreadful non-stop Muzak; (b) painfully deep and poetic narration about humanity; (c) over 50% staged acts and events; (d) mega-bad dubbed voices and sound effects; and (e) one or two really gross out scenes. In short, they're totally pathetic - but they can be heaps of fun if you watch them with a bunch of friends, mainly because they're so laughably bad. Yep - just like the news.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © F.O.D. Productions.