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Remembering Faces of Death

Remembering Faces of Death

4/8/2016 at 3:35 p.m.


So, I was watching this Top Ten List  last night and I found myself feeling uneasy.  It isn’t the most graphic or gruesome deaths that are on the interwebs these days, but there was something more viserceal about this.  I heard the stuntman screaming into his helmet when his grip released and he fell to his death.  There was no doubting the authenticity.  This was the unmistakable peal of another human being as he acknowdlges his life is about to come an instantaneous and violent death.  This was no ‘Wilhelm scream’,  it was the real deal.


I didn’t have a warm fuzzy after viewing this.  It was the opposite, and left me thinking, “Why the fuck did I just watch this?” More over, there was a vaguely familiar sensation that I couldn’t quite pinpoint somewhere in the pit of my stomach.   Later, in the shower of course; where one gets all the best ideas, I honed in on where I felt this gut instinct before.  Jump in a time machine, and lets go back to 80s and the Faces of Death films.

Mom and pop video rental stores were the absolute shit.  I could spend hours in the store wandering around each aisle and looking at every single box cover.  The stores were divided into sections based on interest, and all of the new releases would be grouped together as well. There was also a room in the back of the store that was restricted and it seemed only old men went in and out from under the black cloth that concealed it’s contents.   As a young boy, I was most intrigued by the box covers on the horror and action films.  They looked the coolest.  Then I saw something that stood out…

Faces of Death IV box cover
Faces of Death IV box cover.

Sure, not that much different from many of the 80s horror VHS boxes, but take a closer look at the red warning label.

Warning: If the brutal and explicit depiction of actual death is upsetting to you, please do not view these programs.

Ok, that pretty much guaranteed two things…. 1.  I absolutely had to rent this movie*.   ….and 2.  There was no way in hell my parents were going to let that happen.  It would take a few years of scheming and planning to get that accomplished.   It would require access to a VCR, absence of parental supervision, and a video store clerk who would willingly rent a graphic horror documentary to an underage patron.   It’s all kind of humorous to think about now in the day and age of video on demand.

* ‘Renting a movie’, meant you paid a few dollars to borrow the movie and then you had to return it to the store. Leave comments about getting hit with ‘rewind fees’ below.

Faces of Death III VHS Box cover
Faces of Death II VHS Box cover

Eventually all the planned puzzle pieces were in place, and I popped the VHS cassette in, settled down into my bean bag chair and prepared to watch Faces of Death IV.  I didn’t know what to expected, but I expected my young mind to be totally blown.  Right off the bat I knew something was up.  These deaths were fake.  I had been duped!  The video wasn’t showing actual scenes of death, but reenactments.  WTF!?

But wait,  the footage suddenly became unpolished.  Gritty looking street cops and overweight paramedics were ‘bagging and tagging‘ dead bodies on the subways and river fronts.  Brain matter was oozing out of a demolished skull from a suicide jumper who landed on a luxury car.  It was at night and adverse weather conditions crept in.  This wasn’t fake at all.  These videos were graphic aftermaths from actual deaths, and even at the dawn of cable TV you didn’t see stuff like this.

Mind blown.  Holy fucking shit.  That’s what Faces of Death looks like.

It’s almost impossible to believe that there would be a time when almost everyone would carry around a mini portable video camera.   Even in the 80s, when home video recording equipment was just becoming mainstream, these shocking videos were few and far between.   Now, with the advent of mobile technology, we are overwhelmed with non stop video literally shared within seconds of a tragic event happening.   I don’t need to list them here, you know which ones you’ve looked at.

Looking back at the Faces of Death, some of the skits are actually pretty damn funny, like Alligator vs. Man.

Or mutated giant blood sucking leeches…


But the one scene I remember most was the suicide of Robert Budd Dwyer.   He was an American politician in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He served from 1971 to 1981 as a Republican member of the Pennsylvania State Senate representing the state’s 50th district. He served as the 30th Treasurer of Pennsylvania from January 20, 1981 to January 22, 1987. On that day, Dwyer called a news conference in the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg where he killed himself in front of the gathered reporters with a .357 caliber revolver. Dwyer’s suicide was broadcast later that day to a wide television audience across the state of Pennsylvania.

Warning: Extremely Graphic


Without waxing nostalgic about ‘the good ol’ days’, Faces of Death represents a transitional time in our culture.  Especially the the later volumes released in 90s, when a sanitized or censored version of the world was quickly disappearing.  (Girls Gone Wild infomercials anyone?) These controversial films have been shared and discussed around the world, and many countries even banned them.  Now, nearly four decades later they are freely available in their entirety at the click of button.  Does material that seemed shocking back then even phase the junior high students now?   The answer is simply, yes.  If the sight of R. Budd Dwyer splattering his brains out with a .357 magnum on live television doesn’t send even the slightest twinge into your neck, then I fear for what level shock value that generations that follow will need to sustain their interest.

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