Faces of Death

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Faces of Death
Faces of Death alt.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Alan Schwartz
Written byJohn Alan Schwartz
Produced by
  • William B. James
  • Herbie Lee
  • Rosilyn T. Scott
StarringMichael Carr
CinematographyMichael Golden
Edited byJames Roy
Music byGene Kauer Sloter
Distributed byAquarius Releasing
Release date
  • November 10, 1978 (1978-11-10) (United States)
Running time
105 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$35 million[2]

Faces of Death (later re-released as The Original Faces of Death) is a 1978 American mondo horror film written and directed by John Alan Schwartz, credited under the pseudonyms "Conan Le Cilaire" and "Alan Black" respectively.[3]

The film, shown in a documentary-like style, centers on pathologist Francis B. Gröss, played by actor Michael Carr. The narrator presents the viewer with a variety of footage showing different gruesome ways of dying from a variety of sources. Some of the most iconic scenes were faked for the film, while most of the film is preexisting video footage of real deaths or aftermath of death.

Faces of Death received generally negative reviews, but was a huge success at the box office, reportedly grossing over $35 million worldwide. It gained a cult following, was eventually deemed artistically significant to film and also spawned several sequels, the first of which, Faces of Death II, was released in 1981. All of the following sequels either contained less or no fake footage.


On an operating table, an unnamed patient undergoes open heart surgery. The titles run over footage of fresh and rotten cadavers, and footage of a complete organ harvesting where a patient received the heart. After cleaning himself up, pathologist Francis B. Gröss states to the viewer that he has become interested with the transitional periods of life and death thanks to a recurring dream. He describes the dream as one that featured grotesque deaths, but wasn't a nightmare as his experience as a surgeon allowed him to accept the events as they are. He has accrued footage either himself or from several parts of the world in an effort to better understand and study the many "faces of death".

An examination in natural and unnatural animal death takes place, footage of a chicken being beheaded at a farm and graphic slaughterhouse footage is shown. In Mexico, Gröss has captured the mummified corpses of the deceased inhabitants of Guanajuato, as well as footage of a dog fight between two pit bulls. He next examines the natural predators of the Amazon rainforest and the ways in which they kill their prey. Footage of a monkey being killed and its brain being eaten by guests of a banquet is also shown. A man is killed by an alligator, an act that Gröss calls a "violent retaliation from a creature who has suffered continued abuse from mankind".

Gröss next narrates over recordings of human deaths, namely assassinations, stating that homo sapiens are the only species to kill for greed. Assassin François Jordan is interviewed, admitting that he kills solely for payment, not for "political" or "social value". Next, Gröss introduces "another type of killer", "the one who kills for no apparent reason". A gunfight ensues between a SWAT team and an armed murderer who is shot, after which the team enters the killer's house to find his family stabbed to death; Gröss questions whether the man's actions were caused by society. Soon after, Gröss shows footage of criminal Larry DeSilva being executed by electric chair.

One sequence involves cryogenic patient Samuel Berkowitz, who was frozen in July 1978 and stored in northern California. Graphic images and brief footage of the cryogenic process of replacing bodily fluids with a liquid with a low freezing point, to prevent freezer burn on the corpse. Gröss goes on to explain the purpose of this process is to preserve the body for future sciences to revive him, asking "imagine what it would be like to die in 1980, and wake up hundreds of years into the future".

The next segment displays war and atrocities in history, including the Holocaust. Horrific acts during said period are displayed and analyzed in full detail, and how desperate Adolf Hitler became during the latter years of the war. The segment ends with Nazis being obliterated in battle by land and sea, with Gröss adding, "Hitler soon lost control not only of his army, but of his mind".

Footage of several more tragic accidents is shown, both animal and human, culminating in a segment focusing on vehicle accidents, including a vehicle stunt for a film gone wrong, a cyclist having her head crushed by a semi truck, and a scene in which a wing walker attempts a parachute jump from his plane but dies after the parachute fails to open properly. Gröss disputes the notion that this death was quick and painless, as the jumper would have been conscious and aware for the entire fall to the ground. The segment ends with photographs, footage and air traffic control audio from the crash of PSA Flight 182 and its grisly aftermath of scattered mutilated body parts and numerous destroyed houses. Gröss states that to this day (at the time of the film's release), the neighborhood smells like "rotting bodies and jet fuel", and claims that a mutilated body with only its torso and right hand "is the worst face of death".

Gröss introduces his next topic, the role that supernatural forces might play in death. He meets with architect Joseph Binder, whose wife and son both died under tragic circumstances. He confides to the viewer that he believes his deceased family remain as ghosts in his house and are attempting to communicate with him. Gröss enlists the services of parapsychologists to verify this, and the team later takes photographs of footprints and two apparitions. Binder then communicates with the spirits of his family through a medium, seemingly confirming the existence of life after death.

Gröss remarks that after studying Binder's case, he has concluded even "when we die, it isn't really the end" as "the soul in each of us remains a traveller forever". Gröss ends by questioning whether death is "the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end" and leaves the footage he has shown to the viewer's interpretation. Immediately after Gröss's final dialogue, the film ends with peaceful music, footage of a baby's birth and photos of the child growing up happily.


  • Michael Carr as Francis B. Gröss
  • Samuel Berkowitz as victim
  • Mary Ellen Brighton as suicide victim
  • Thomas Noguchi as Chief Medical Examiner Coroner


The movie was written and directed by John Alan Schwartz (credited as "Alan Black" for writing and as "Conan LeCilaire" for directing). Schwartz also took credit as second unit director, this time as "Johnny Getyerkokov". He also appears in one of the segments of the film, as the leader of the alleged flesh eating cult in San Francisco and has brief appearances in several other movies of this series. Schwartz wanted to depict very real death with "an analytical view, rather than a purely exploitive purpose", but the films inclusion of fake scenes have brought this to debate. The movie features Michael Carr as the narrator, and 'creative consultant' called "Dr. Francis B. Gröss", whose voice is reminiscent of Leonard Nimoy in the popular TV show In Search of.... John Alan Schwartz has said that this movie's budget was $450,000 and there are estimates that it has grossed more than $35 million worldwide in theatrical releases, not including rentals.[2]

Although several of the human death scenes and one depicting a monkey being killed are obvious fakes[4] (with Allan A. Apone, make-up and special effects artists for the movie saying that about 40% of it is fake), most of the remaining footage is genuine (approx. 60%). Most of the footage was bought from excised Germany.[clarification needed][5] In their book Killing for Culture, authors David Kerekes and David Slater note that the nadir of the movie is the inclusion of an extreme fatal accident; "the shattered remains of a cyclist are seen under a semi-tractor trailer. The camera pans long enough to capture paramedics scooping up blood clots, brain matter, and clumps of hair from the tarmac – this incident is authentic and culled from newsreels."[6] According to the DVD Commentary, the creators were eventually brought to light the victim was actually a man, not a woman as described in the film. Schwartz became aware of this after the victim's sister (unsure if she's featured) protested the use of this footage.

According to Schwartz, the scene in the film wherein a murderer is executed by electric chair was achieved with the use of a fake chair built in a friend's loft and toothpaste to emulate saliva. Electric "zapping" sounds were added in post-production. He was inspired to make the scene after reading about a recent execution by electric chair and was surprised to find it still in practice.[7]

The infamous Flight 182 crash happened no less than 2 weeks before the film's release, and graphic footage depicting the crash aftermath, destroyed houses and scattered body parts were included into the film near the climax. Still images and air traffic audio were used for the crash itself, because no actual footage is known to exist. According to Schwartz, the film was pretty much completed, but reworked immediately after the crash occurred.


Due to its graphic content, Faces of Death was banned and censored in many countries. The movie is often billed as "Banned in 46 Countries", but this claim is doubtful.[8] In the United Kingdom, the film was prosecuted and added to the "video nasty" list, as it was deemed to violate the Obscene Publications Act 1959.[9][10] In 2003, the film was allowed to be released on DVD in the UK, however cuts of 2 minutes and 19 seconds were required by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to remove scenes of "fighting dogs and [a] monkey being cruelly beaten to death in accordance with Cinematograph Films (Animals Act) 1937 and BBFC Guidelines."[11] In 1980, Faces of Death was refused classification by the Australian Classification Board. Despite the ban, several bootleg VHS tapes were released in the country, and the film was unbanned and released uncut on DVD in 2007. However, its sequels remain banned in the country.[12] The film was also banned in New Zealand in 1989.[12] In Germany, the film was edited for a VHS release, with the removal of some graphic scenes.[13]


Despite the film's popularity, it was received relatively poorly by critics. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that Faces of Death received a 27% critical approval rating of 11 surveyed critics; the average rating was 4.3/10.[14] Writing for the Kansas City Kansan, reviewer Steve Crum denounced the film as "crude, tasteless exploitation footage. Filmed carnage." He ended his review urging the viewer to "be ashamed to watch this garbage."[15]

Joshua Siebalt of Dread Central had mixed feelings about the film: "as a curiosity piece, Faces of Death is well worth a look, especially if you've not seen it in a very long time. As for its place in horror cinema history, well, that remains to be seen. As I said it's not a film that holds up very well at all, but considering how groundbreaking it was for its time, I doubt anyone will ever forget it. And while it is nice to have all of the myths about Faces finally addressed by the people who created it, it also takes some of the fun out if it, too."[16]

Christopher Kulik of DVD Verdict wrote, "The YouTube generation will be unable to comprehend what purpose the film served thirty years ago, and thus it's difficult to ignore how hopelessly dated Faces of Death really is. In short, it's a cinematic experiment which has long outlived its effects, although it remains compelling for film and horror buffs viewing the film in the proper perspective. For the curious virgins, I say give it a shot only if you can handle what has been described up until this point; if you can get through Faces of Death, then you can get through just about anything. Feel free to judge for yourself."[17]

In his review, Screen Anarchy's Ard Vijn was dismissive of the film, remarking that "many of the segments have lost their ability to shock, or can easily be recognized as fake by today's more media-savvy audience. Interesting as a curious bit of film history, but nothing more."[18]

It was ranked #50 on Entertainment Weekly's "Top 50 Cult Films of All Time" in 2003.[19]


A number of straight to video sequels were made, containing far more real footage, some containing only real footage. Faces of Death II, Faces of Death III, and Faces of Death IV, as well as Faces of Death: Fact or Fiction? (a documentary on the making of the series) were written and at least partially directed by John Alan Schwartz. Faces of Death II contained real footage of Guerrilla death squads in El Salvador, napalm bombings in Vietnam, the drugging of a monkey, a dolphin slaughter, a train disaster in India, Cambodian lepers, a death museum, a driver high on PCP and a boxer going down for his “final” count. Much like the PSA Aircraft crash, the assassination attempt on President Ronald Regan occurred recently before the film's completion, and was included as well. Faces of Death V and Faces of Death VI were released in the mid-90s, and are compilations made up entirely of highlights from the first four movies, with no new footage, released in some countries where the original movies were banned. The first three featured Carr as "Dr. Gröss", although The Worst of Faces of Death (released between installments III and IV and consisting of highlights from the first three installments) instead featured Schwartz's brother, James Schwartz, as "Dr. Louis Flellis". Flellis explains that he accidentally killed "Dr. Gröss" while operating on him the prior week. However, in Faces of Death IV, Flellis explains the absence of Dr. Gröss by stating that he had killed himself, having been driven insane as a result of witnessing so much death.

Also released with the title Faces of Death VII, was a condensed version of Anton LaVey's 1989 film Death Scenes; and another assemblage of stock footage titled Faces of Death part 7 was released as an online file sometime during the late 1990s.[citation needed]

Faces of Death 8 followed soon after. Released only in Germany, and made by unknown individuals, it is a collection of mostly unrelated gore scenes from around the world, with no narration, and no on-screen credits, aside from its title.

In May 2021, it was reported that Legendary Entertainment had purchased the rights to the film, and a remake was in development, with filmmakers Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhauber attached to direct.[20]

Legal cases[edit]

In June 1985, mathematics teacher Bart Schwarz showed the film to his class at Escondido High School in Escondido, California. Two of his students, Diane Feese and Sherry Forget, claimed they were so traumatized by the film that they both "developed an unnatural fear of dying and suffered emotional distress." The families of the two girls sued the school district and received a combined $100,000 settlement ($57,500 for Feese and $42,500 for Forget). Schwarz was suspended from the school for 15 days without pay, but was not fired.[21]

In November 1986, Canton High 14-year-old Rod Matthews bludgeoned his classmate Shaun Ouilette to death with a baseball bat. Matthews claimed the idea to kill Ouilette was conceived after he viewed Faces of Death, as he was curious about what it would be like to actually kill someone. He had shown previous signs of mental illness.[22][3][23] Matthews was sentenced to life in prison, with parole eligibility after 15 years. In February 2022, he was denied parole for the fourth time.[24]

Home media[edit]

Faces of Death and its sequels were released in boxset form on DVD by MPI Home Video in July 2002.[25] Australian distributor Umbrella Entertainment released the film on DVD in 2007.[12] In 2008, Gorgon Video released the movie on DVD and Blu-ray for its 30th anniversary. A brand new high definition transfer was made with new material and a 5.1 digital soundtrack.[25][26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Faces of Death (RC)". Australian Classification Board. November 1, 1983. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c "Faces of Death: How the 'gore porn' sensation became the original viral video and gripped the world". The Independent. August 17, 2018. Archived from the original on May 17, 2019. Retrieved December 27, 2019.
  3. ^ a b "'Banned in 46 countries' – is Faces of kingsley and raymond Death the most shocking film ever?". The Guardian. October 1, 2018. Archived from the original on February 7, 2019. Retrieved October 1, 2018.
  4. ^ Carter, David Ray (2010). "It's Only A Movie? Reality as Transgression in Exploitation Cinema". In Cline, John; Weiner, Robert J. (eds.). From the Arthouse to the Grindhouse: Highbrow and Lowbrow Transgression in Cinema's First Century. Scarecrow Press. p. 307. ISBN 9780810876552.
  5. ^ "Two Insiders Uncover the Not-so-real Faces of Death". AMC. Archived from the original on June 6, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-22.
  6. ^ Kerekes, David; Slater, David (1994). Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff. Creation Books. ISBN 1-871592-20-8.
  7. ^ "Does Snuff Exist?". The Dark Side of Porn. Season 2. April 18, 2006. Channel 4.
  8. ^ Fecile, John (October 1, 2018). "Banned in 46 countries' – is Faces of Death the most shocking film ever?". The Guardian. Retrieved August 26, 2022. The film’s VHS packaging certainly didn’t sell it short. “BANNED in 46 countries!” it shrieked. In fact, Faces of Death may have only been banned in a few countries.
  9. ^ "Video nasties". Melon Farmers. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  10. ^ "Video Nasties". British Board of Film Classification. October 5, 2011. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
  11. ^ "Faces of Death (18)". British Board of Film Classification. August 22, 2003. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  12. ^ a b c "Films: Faces of Death Series - Censor". Refused-Classification.com. Archived from the original on February 11, 2018. Retrieved February 18, 2018.
  13. ^ "Faces of Death Tape Comparsion [sic?]" (in German). Schnittberichte. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  14. ^ "Faces of Death (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on May 7, 2016. Retrieved May 25, 2022.
  15. ^ Crum, Steve (October 14, 2004). "Faces of Death Review". Kansas City Kansan.
  16. ^ Siebalt, Joshua (October 2, 2008). "Faces of Death". Dread Central. Archived from the original on January 2, 2014. Retrieved May 1, 2011.
  17. ^ Kulik, Christopher (March 22, 2016). "Faces of Death". DVD Verdict. Archived from the original on March 22, 2016. Retrieved May 1, 2011.
  18. ^ Vijn, Ard (November 18, 2008). "FACES OF DEATH 30TH ANNIVERSARY DVD Review". Screen Anarchy. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  19. ^ "Top 50 Cult Films of All Time", Entertainment Weekly, no. 711, May 23, 2003
  20. ^ Kit, Borys (May 7, 2021). "Cult Horror Movie 'Faces of Death' Getting 21st Century Reimagining Via Legendary (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 11, 2021.
  21. ^ "Girls get settlement; endured death film". The Arizona Republic. Associated Press. January 17, 1987. p. 42.
  22. ^ "Murder for Thrill Described at a Trial". The New York Times. Associated Press. March 4, 1988. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  23. ^ "YOUTH, 15, SENTENCED TO LIFE FOR MURDERING CLASSMATE". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 12, 2022.
  24. ^ McColgan, Flint (February 19, 2022). "Rod Matthews, convicted of 1986 murder of classmate Shaun Ouillette, denied parole for fourth time". Bostonherald.com. Retrieved June 12, 2022.
  25. ^ a b "Faces of Death (1978) | Releases". AllMovie. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  26. ^ Piepenburg, Eric (September 11, 2014). "Gorgon Video Taps Nostalgia for Horror-Film Cover Art". The New York Times. Retrieved February 19, 2020.

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