John Alan Schwartz was on a California beach, trying to capture something life-affirming on camera. Or something that at least would contrast with death.
He had a woman and a baby in a hot tub. This was going to be the final scene of his 1978 movie Faces of Death—a low-budget stunt project that would end up shifting the whole culture. The closing credits, in fact. By doing nothing more than living, on camera, they would serve as the bookend for an hour and a half of gory onscreen pretend death.
"It was the evolution of life. How the end is just the beginning," he says now. "We were filming it, and then there was a scream about 50 yards up the beach."
It was the sound of genuine horror.
"A dead surfer just washed up," Schwartz says. "A bloated individual still in jeans, with one sneaker on. A real surfer type."
Consider it a message from above. Or below. Wherever. The actual face of death. The mom and child were fine. But a total stranger, someone totally unrelated to the fake-snuff-film project, was dead.
Schwartz went back to work. On a thin budget and thinner expectations, he would end up changing the way the world looked at mortality, with a serious-seeming gimmick, delivered mostly on VHS tapes to a few traumatized but thrilled young viewers at a time.
With a narrator in the guise of a doctor, the film brought the audience a string of vignettes of death, both real and fake ones. The device allowed the film to easily introduce footage too shocking for a normal movie. It wasn't every day that a movie went into an operating room to show heart surgery in which the heart started beating. Or captured a motorcyclist getting broken down to limb pieces by a tractor trailer.
Some of the footage—napalm in Vietnam, seals being clubbed—was real. The media had shown death, after all. Schwartz says about half of the material was his own fabrication, though: faked images of death to haunt the living.
It's hard to appreciate the impact now, at a time when death porn, like porn-porn, has become so easily made and even more easily procured. Mobile phones give everyone a device to capture humanity in its last stages; surveillance cameras watch store clerks being gunned down. You can pull up beheading videos on a laptop.
That Schwartz anticipated this was remarkable. Even more remarkable, in retrospect, is the outrage he drew from a world that hadn't seen it coming.
"There was an innocence about this back then," he says.
In the credits, he was listed as "Alan Black." Schwartz is one of few involved—those among the living—who are willing to embrace the film as part of their oeuvre. His then-boss's son, who collaborated with him, "doesn't want it as part of his legacy," says Schwartz. To this day, he honors the others' wishes that their names not be mentioned in connection with the film that changed his life.
Despite the nom de plume, his own real name is out there. So is he. And where he is today, in part, is doing YouTube movie reviews with his wife Joan. It's called "Two Jews On Film." When you watch it, you'd think he was goofy, not morbid or creepy. It's just your everyday couple that likes to get in front of a camera and disagree about the movies they watch together. The guy who made Faces of Death and the woman who married him are just like us!
He was more than happy to discuss the project. Insightful. Open book. Seinfeldian vocally. Born in Manhattan. Raised in Mount Vernon, by way of a boarding school in Storm King Mountain. Off to Cal Arts where he studied in the theater department, the only undergrad studying direction.
His roommate was an actor named David Hasselhoff. Schwartz is not a gossip, so all he'll say is that the Hoff was and is a great guy, and that his roommate did join him for the screening of Faces of Death at the Fox Theater in L.A.
Schwartz figured he'd "come to Hollywood and make a fortune." He was a runner. He was a production assistant on In Search Of, the Leonard Nimoy-hosted investigation of the paranormal. He did all sorts of episodic work. Shows called Scandals, Made in the USA, Fantasies of the Stars.
In the late '70s, Schwartz was working for an entertainment company owned by the family whose name he politely declines to divulge. He was editing an animal documentary when a Japanese crew came in. They wanted to make a movie about death.
"Society doesn't like to look at death," Schwartz says. The Japanese, he says, "are totally fascinated with death and the macabre. Not the way we are. We take a look and then turn away."
Schwartz didn't see this as an opportunity to build a career. He never intended it to be that. "It was just an incredible adventure to go around the world and tell a story about death," he says.
He brainstormed and got to thinking about The Hellstrom Chronicle, a 1971 film that had presented an imaginary insect takeover of the world as documentary fact. Influenced by the Hellstrom structure, with its fictitious scientist narrator, he came up with the narrative construct of a doctor discussing "real" cases. That was the money thought. The doctor would enable the movie to bounce from death to death in a conceivably realistic framework.
"The muse inside took me over when I wrote the narrative," Schwartz says. "Of all the things I've written, the most organic was Faces of Death. It was the creation of the doctor as a mouthpiece to say whatever I wanted to say, with nobody censoring me. We were our own censors, but we didn't censor anything. The darker we got, the more excited we were.
"Part of the challenge creatively was how to make it look like real life, to actually fool people. We were way ahead of ourselves on that ground. It was a subject nobody was doing anything like this then, the odyssey of death. What is this reality we live in for a finite amount of time and then, all of a sudden, we're a memory? I still feel haunted by the images."
The monkey didn't die.
Of all the images—the napalm bombing, the clubbing of the seals—the scene that's always stuck with me is the one with the monkey's brains. The one where there are three people sitting around a table and, apparently, breaking open a captive monkey's head to dine on the insides.
"Cauliflower for the brains," Schwartz says. "Theater blood for the blood."
I was still in grammar school when I saw that monkey. I can't remember exactly which friend's older brother passed it down the line to mangle our minds. But that monkey, oh that monkey.
Schwartz doesn't remember the monkey's name. He doesn't remember the trainer's, either, only that the guy was dressed in Middle Eastern garb. They made a special table to restrain the monkey, then hit it in the head with Styrofoam mallets. "Him going so crazy was just perfect," he says. "When we cut away, we put a prosthetic head there. Cut back to a wide shot. Open the skull."
Six years later, Steven Spielberg was serving up monkey brains to PG audiences in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Once the Japanese indicated what they wanted, he outlined a treatment and sent it off to a company called Shoshoku. They liked it. They liked it enough to commission Schwartz and the company for which he worked to go ahead and make it.
So they did, culling footage of fatalities from film libraries around the world, from independent stringers and collectors, too, then producing their own.
To be sure, there was the need to do some eyes-on research. Even doing a movie mixing faux death with the real thing, there are things one needed to see.
Schwartz says he went to the L.A. County Morgue. Seven autopsies were going on simultaneously. The smell sticks with him decades later—-the odor of a "bad deli," he says.
"Everything gave me the chills," he says. "It was just a matter of blocking out emotion. But, I remember seeing those multiple body parts from a motorcycle accident. One person with rope still around his neck. A baby autopsied at 6 or 7 months old."
All that, though, paled in comparison with something more mundane.
"We were going through the hospital in Manhattan, East 69th Street, and passed the dialysis area. An elderly woman looked at us and waved. I got so dizzy to see her blood all around her. It was all so surreal."
The rights to the movie were eventually sold off to brothers out of Chicago who set up Gorgon Video and released it. Schwartz thought his career was on the ropes once the movie came out. Asked when he knew he'd done something memorable, Schwartz says:
"When I saw a Dan Rather report about a movie being banned in 48 countries because it tells the real story of death. The papers in my hand fell to the floor. My first thought was 'I'd never work in Hollywood.'
"There was such negative criticism because everybody thought it was real, the sheer magnitude of scope."
Truth: It was banned because it had never been done before, and because it showed death.
Fiction: Never work in Hollywood again? Not quite. "That quickly became, 'Everybody wants to talk to me,'" he says, noting that Jon Stewart paid homage during a chance encounter.
"We did a good job fooling people, blending fantasy with reality," he says.
Timing, it seems, was everything. The movie went on to gross $40 million, on a $450,000 budget. There would eventually be four full-length Faces of Death films and a mini-feature. The success didn't exactly yield him a personal fortune. Schwartz estimates he made "thousands" off the first movie; $15,000 is a safe guess. The sequels weren't all that profitable for him, either. "The companies that reap the benefits had nothing to do with making the movie," he says.
Yet the original Faces of Death made his career via other means. His check-me-out list includes six movies (co-writer on House of the Rising Sun, Black Ice, and Quiet Rage) and involvement with a slew of television shows (including Knight Rider, Dragnet, The Fall Guy, Santa Barbara, and a pilot for something called The Atomic Outpost Avengers.)
"The gods of the medium were on our side when we did this," he says. "Every door opened. We'd done something nobody else thought to do. Now, everything's reality based. Everybody who has a story can get on YouTube, maybe get picked up by the network. We live in a world that's dominated by reality TV. It's also cost effective to produce."
Besides "Two Jews on Film," Schwartz says he spends much of his time doing "something cathartic," writing the memoirs of his Faces of Death days. Twenty-five chapters outlined, eight done. "The way it's broken down now: Graphic moments. How we did it, the process, beginning to end," he says.
"I've found that, when dealing with death, you have to have humor to protect their souls. Twisted humor that only people who deal in the macabre can identify with," he says.
He had an idea for a show called New American Prophet that would delve deeply into the world's religions. He still wants to do it.
"It goes to find true light in life. In dealing with religions from around the world, no matter what it might be, we need a new way of looking at religion. In turn, we'd be gaining a better perspective on our end. But in this country, sponsors are leery of supporting this. It's too much of a hot button for sponsors in America. All religions have something that touches heart, touches soul."
He takes pride in the fact that some of his footage proved to be the "first to expose animal cruelty, among other things, to an innocent public." But there's a flip side to that.
"One thing that made this notorious was that, once a kid saw it, a bit of innocence was taken away," he says. "When young, you're immortal. That's easily forgotten."
So, there is a tinge of regret, then?
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda. I'm not a big believer in living in the past. Assimilation of many life experiences. Too heavy. Too cumbersome. All you have is the moment you're living in."
Schwartz is most surprised at how the film has not only endured, but positioned him as a character of wonderment to the public at large. He says he's available to lecture about it all, if you're interested in such things (you can contact him through his YouTube page).
"I'm amazed by the notoriety it still has. People ask all the time about how create a cult classic. I've lectured at universities. It's been quoted by everybody up to The Sopranos. Jon Stewart bowed to me, 'I can't believe you made Faces of Death,'" he says.
"It's been passed on generation to generation. Older brother forcing a younger sibling to watch. I was just focusing on the realities of this planet. How we respond is an individual experience. We knew that if it touched us, it would touch other people.
"I don't know if it's a source of pride. I'm sitting on something extremely volatile to this day. Until we collectively, as a collective humanity, figure out what death is, I know it's always on a shelf somewhere."