1978’s Faces of Death is a controversial cult horror, but its use of “real” footage makes the news that the mockumentary is being remade shocking.
1978’s infamous cult “horror” mockumentary Faces of Death is set to get a remake from the creators of Cam, but why was the original movie so controversial and what does this mean for the remake? Released in 1978, Faces of Death was a seminal mockumentary that earned a place in horror history despite its amateurish production due to its shocking content. The movie is now set to receive a contemporary remake, prompting some horror fans to wonder what the original Faces of Death controversy centered on.
Essentially plotless, Faces of Death is a pseudo-documentary in which a fictional (and unsubtly named) pathologist “Francis B Gross” presents “real-life“ footage of human and animal deaths, fatal accidents, and gruesome rituals. Faces of Death is a mondo movie, an exploitative documentary sub-genre that was something of a progenitor to the found footage craze, with what’s real and what’s fake being left to viewer’s imaginations. Popular during the sixties and seventies, mondo movies waned from relevance in the ’80s.
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A massive hit during the VHS era, Faces of Death was a quintessential Mondo movie alongside the earlier, less staged Mondo Cane and the more racially-charged Africa Addio. Every Mondo movie featured some real violence and some staged events, although Faces of Death was notable for featuring more staged violence than real occurrences. According to David Kerekes and David Slater’s “Killing for Culture,” footage of a fatal cycling accident featured in Faces of Death is real and culled from unused newsreel; however, a Looper article claims that only footage of a drowned man’s corpse on a Californian beach is authentic and un-simulated. Regardless, the broadly-held belief that the original Faces of Death was created specifically to profit from publicly displaying actual dead animals and humans caused a scandal at the time of the movie’s release, landing the movie on Britain’s infamous video nasties list. Now, the movie’s morally complicated cultural legacy may harm the prospects of its upcoming remake.
The original Faces of Death featured some ingenious methods of faking its footage, such as using cauliflower and a trained monkey to fake a banquet wherein attendants supposedly ate a live monkey’s brain from its skull, and creative editing turning two playing pups into a vicious dogfight. However, the movie spawned sequels and rip-offs such as the soundalike Traces of Death series that featured real, unstimulated onscreen death like the unedited televised suicide of R Budd Dwyer, a decision that was at best ethically questionable and at worst outright illegal. Much of what made Faces of Death noteworthy was the impossibility, pre-the Internet, of debunking its claim to authenticity, with many urban legends positing that the film was a real snuff film, rather than a compilation of staged events and opportunistically acquired newsreel footage that television stations deemed too gruesome to air.
According to the creators of the remake, the directors of 2018’s Cam, the new movie’s plot will follow a heroine who recently suffered a trauma working as a moderator for a YouTube-style site. Her job of flagging and removing potentially offensive content takes a dark turn when she encounters a group recreating the deaths featured in the original Faces of Death — but are the killings real or simulated? It is a clever, meta take on the material that will likely look more akin to the mainstream, web-based psychosocial horrors Unfriended: Dark Web or Megan Is Missing (also a mockumentary) than a mondo movie, but the remake’s association with a brand famous for claiming to profit off real-life death may prove problematic for the movie. Since the advent of the Internet, the proliferation of shock sites makes the Faces of Death controversy seem tame in comparison, but a conventional mainstream remake of this distinctly counter-cultural mondo movie will likely struggle to recreate the original’s outsized cultural impact and may prove unable to escape the morally dubious shadow of its predecessor.
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