Traces of Death I-V (1993)

While obviously inspired by Mondo classic Faces of Death, the difference is that the original included a lot of staged footage and very few actual deaths. In Traces, allegedly, none of the footage is faked: whether that makes things better of worse, is a matter of opinion, I guess. Certainly, there’s something here to upset just about anyone: even Chris, notoriously hardcore and tough to offend (hell, she married me!) uttered a couple of involuntary syllables during the embalming sequence. Must confess, I’m intrigued by the process involved in obtaining rights to the footage: is it considered “public domain”? Some of the incidents, I have seen before, for example on the Banned From Television tape reviewed in TC22. Interestingly, a Brain Damage logo sits in the top left throughout, marking their “ownership”.

It’s a notorious series, that remains banned in the UK, where our beloved censors wrote it, “raises serious concerns about possible breach of the Obscene Publications Act… given the potential… to deaden the sensitivity of viewers to pain and suffering and to impair the moral development of younger viewers in particular.” I think that’s giving the film more credit than it probably deserves, and I’d argue that sanitized, cinematic violence would be likelier to deaden sensitivity than the icky, real version shown here, where people who get shot, fall over and die. Yet, the series also gives the lie to the theory that cinematic violence desensitizes you: after 20 years and somewhere north of 2,000 films (most not made by Disney, shall we say), I’m pleased to report, real violence remains more disturbing to me than anything KNB or Tom Savini can show us.

Traces of Death I

The most irritating thing here was the lack of context for the footage. While there is some commentary, it rarely provides any useful insight. For example, what surgical procedures are being carried out in the lengthy medical footage? Why are people turning blowtorches on live pigs for long, long spells? [Maybe they’re shaved dogs. It was hard to tell. Either way, it gets my vote as the most repellent footage in this volume] Who is that man blowing his brains out at a live press conference (right)? Actually, I know the answer to that one: R. Budd Dwyer, Pennsylvania state treasurer. But not everyone is as, er, well-informed, and background about what was going on, and why, would likely often have added impact and interest. Of course, it isn’t necessary in every case: race-cars ploughing into the crowd needs little explanation.

That might also have improved the chance of it getting past the BBFC. Even the post-Furman, kindler, gentler censors rejected it – not for the first time – in June 2005, saying: “The work presents no journalistic, educational or other justifying context for the images shown. Rather, the work presents a barrage of sensationalist clips, for what appears to be the underlying purpose of providing prurient entertainment.” It’s hard to argue with that, whether or not you reckon it’s sufficient justification for an outright ban. Actually, it’s probably more honest that the pseudo-philosophical ruminations to be found in Faces; the “one man and his primitive synthesizer” soundtrack may count as more offensive, personally speaking…

High point: Dwyer’s suicide. Really, when someone calls a press conference to blow their own brains out, it’s hard to feel much guilt about watching it.

Traces of Death II

The major switch is the change in soundtrack from bleeping synth to death metal. Now, if you’d asked me at the end of part one, I’d have said anything would be an improvement there. But…the jury is still out on that. Sometimes it works very well, but at others is an unwelcome distraction. There’s a lengthy lead-in text scroller, which states very clearly that none of the footage here is faked, but there were definitely some scenes here that were dubious. For example, it supposedly shows a bomb disposal officer getting blown up. However, it seems to be “borrowed” footage – complete with Dutch subtitles! – from Faces of Death. A judicial penis-severing is also a bit lame, and the sequence where a man gets his arm pulled off by getting tied between two jeeps…unconvincing. Shouldn’t there be more blood?

There is some stuff, however, that’s just nasty: the man jumping from a burning building is grim [I remember we saw this playing in the Los Angeles Museum of Death], and Brain Damage will be pleased to hear that Chris had to avert her eyes during the female-to-male sex-change. Hey, turnabout’s fair play: I was uncomfortable with the male-to-female footage in volume one. And the footage of the captured African tribesman being dismembered was hard to watch, especially when they chop his dick off and a little fountain of blood gushes out. Yet there’s also a curious, almost beautiful, time-lapse sequence of a mouse being consumed by maggots; the narrator veers from his usual 12-year old level, waxing near-philosophical about how death is just the beginning. Or something like that. But it does have undeniable poignancy.

High point: During a bullfight, a matador almost gets gored, but blames his assistant. The two get into what can only be described as a bench-clearing brawl, and the bull is entirely forgotten. Deadly? No. But we laughed like drains…

Traces of Death III

This time, we get an introduction by Brain Damage himself, the icon of the label [I’ve met him, out of character; genuinely nice guy, with a wife and son he loves very much. There: another illusion shattered!] and the death-metal music provided sufficient to justify a soundtrack CD, featuring cuts by the likes of Pungent Stench, Kataklysm, Meshuggah and Merzbow. If you know who most these bands are, you’re more knowledgeable than I, since I’ve heard only of Merzbow, but their label, Relapse Records was apparently big on the scene a decade ago, when this was made. I’ve read reports that much of the footage here was taken from – or, at least, previously seen in – other mondos. I can’t say whether or not this is accurate, since I’m not exactly a devotee of the genre, but some of the footage did look familiar.

Despite the cover to Part II above, it’s this one where the subtitle is Dead and Buried: the first is, needless to say, more accurate than the latter. By coincidence, this was watched the same week as a police chase here in Phoenix, which ended live on TV, with the pursuee crashing head-on into another car, killing both him and the other driver. That footage is probably more disturbing than most of the stuff here, which is mostly corpse footage, as if the camera-crew turned up late to the party, with the carnage largely already happened. Animals also come in for their share of punishment, with dog- and bull-fighting, scorpion-eating, a mass slaughter of dolphins and a camel being killed and dismembered. This would likely have affected me more, had I not just polished off a very nice piece of roast beef.

High point: I’m glad I’m not an African tribesperson. We start with dental work by chisel, move on to ritual scarification with a razor-blade, then a couple of dozen circumcisions (let’s just say, post-operative care appears to consist of a clothespeg) and finish off with a clitorectomy. Anaesthetics: no. Have a stick to bite down on instead. The viewer might just need one too. I think this all came from Shocking Africa?

Traces of Death IV

This one starts with a ferocious assault of atrocities, beginning with the victims of a couple of Central American death squads, who have had their throats slit, and follows up with a religious ritual in which the zealots drive long needles right through their stomachs. It then roars along into some birth defects, including one which looked like certain to win the ‘High Point’ award. It’s pretty indescribable: it’s more like a fish than a baby, with bulging red eyes and lips that resemble a sucker. I was just thinking “It’s merciful this didn’t survive,” when I noticed it was breathing. Ok, I will admit, at this point, I was definitely contemplating leaving this one until after I’d had my lunch, and perhaps for the first time since Budd Dwyer in the first entry, I felt it lived up to its reputation. Fortunately, the content then eased up, taking its foot of my throat for a bit, as we had a lengthy section on genital piercing – for both sexes. It’s kinda odd, especially when taken to extremes, but after what we saw in part three, hardly causes a flinch.

This is followed by what can only be described as padding, in the shape of minor scrapes from motorcycle events which Spike TV would probably reject as boring. On the other hand, some of the execution footage is intense: I’ll remember the one where the victim just won’t die, even after getting shot in the face. For some reason, there’s also a clip of midget wrestling – fine by us, but I’ve not idea what it’s doing here. Oddly, the DVD comes to a sudden end in what looks like the middle of a scene. The extra features include an interview with Brain Damage, which is more thoughtful than you’d probably expect, discussing things like the impact of reality TV on the series. While still pretty heavy, the music here is also a bit more varied, and overall, this is…well, if I hesitate to use “best,” let’s go with, the most memorable entry in the series.

High point: A native man sits on a boulder. At least, you think it’s a boulder, until he stands up and you see its actually his balls. I thought elephantiasis was a disease of the past, but apparently not. Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles is a) not an exaggeration and b) nowhere near as funny as it was before I watched this.

Traces of Death V

Ok, Brain Damage: you win. There were at least three sequences here which had me covering my eyes and regretting dinner choices made at the Golden Corral buffet shortly before watching. Two of these were extended sequences of road-accident victims, who not only have suffered what can only be described as ‘serious head trauma’, they may well also re-write your definition of “serious”. One of them apparently flew off his bike and managed to get what was left of his head jammed between a lamp-pole and the fence: watching the cops try to prise the remnants out… Not much fun for anyone involved. I think it’s maybe from Thailand? I’ll save the third for later…

While the longest of the series, there is still too much padding, here in the shape of an extended sequence involving body piercing and suspension. While not uninteresting in itself, it seems out of place here. Even less worthy of inclusion is some backyard wrestling footage: teenagers throwing each other around on mattresses is not what I was looking for, though it was amusing to see some early work from HIW, whom we covered previously. To some extent, Traces was merely ahead of its time, with backyard wrestling DVDs and police chase footage compilation now staple fodder in any moderately-disreputable DVD store. That said, the freeway shotgun suicide of Daniel Jones from 1998, still packs a wallop – one can only imagine the impact on the kids who watched live, when their after-school cartoons were interrupted for coverage.

That he also appears, briefly in the “Happiness is a Warm Gun” section of Bowling for Columbine perhaps indicates how far things have changed since the series started. Much of what’s contained here is now commonly seen on cable TV or even regular television; the goalposts have shifted, and as a result, Traces is no longer as shocking, overall, as it might once have been. However, there are still moments…

High point: I don’t know how to describe this with any literary bent, so I’ll just plough in. A Japanese man and woman sit at a restaurant table. She lowers her pants, squats and drops a sloppy deuce on a paper-plate. She then gives it to the guy, who eats it up with obvious relish. This could have been faked – there are enough cuts to make it possible. However, the horrified expression on the woman’s face suggests otherwise. Somewhere, John Waters is applauding.