The film guides viewers through explicit scenes depicting a variety of ways to die and violent acts.
The movie was written by John Alan Schwartz (credited as "Alan Black" for writing) and directed by Conan LeCilaire (also John Alan Schwartz). Schwartz also took credit as second unit director, this time as "Johnny Getyerkokov". He also appears in one of the segments of this movie, as the leader of the alleged flesh eating cult in San Francisco and has brief appearances in several other movies of this series. This movie features Michael Carr as the narrator, and 'creative consultant' called "Dr. Francis B. Gröss". 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.
The movie is often billed as Banned in 40+ Countries, but actually it has only been banned (at least temporarily) in Australia, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Although several of the human death scenes and one depicting a monkey being killed are obvious fakes (with Allan A. Apone, make-up and special effects artists for the movie saying that about 40% of it is fake), some of the footage is genuine. 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."
In 2008, the film was re-released in DVD format, accompanied by an extensive interview with the movie's editor Glenn Turner (credited as "James Roy"). Turner explains how they used numerous techniques and tricks to make the fake footage appear real. Gorgon Video released the movie in Blu-ray Disc format on October 7, 2008. A brand new high definition transfer was made with new material and a 5.1 digital soundtrack. In 2014, a region 2 DVD was released by Spinal Cord Filmz, using the 2008 HD transfer, including several extras, such as a trailer, a deleted scene, outtakes, two featurettes and a commentary track.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that Faces of Death received very poor reviews, accounting for 18% of 11 surveyed critics; the average rating was 2.6/10.
Joshua Siebalt of Dread Central said, "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."
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."
It was ranked #50 on Entertainment Weekly's "Top 50 Cult Films of All Time" in 2003.
A number of sequels were made. Faces of Death II, III, and 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 V and VI were released in the mid-90s, and are compilations made up entirely of highlights from the first four movies, with no new footage at all, 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 entitled Faces of Death part 7 was released as an online file sometime during the late 1990s.
In 1993, copycat film Traces of Death was released. This movie contained significantly more real footage of actual deaths, including footage of the televised suicide of R. Budd Dwyer.
The rock music group Sonic Youth featured film clips from the electric chair and morgue scenes in the music video for the song "Mote" from their 1990 album Goo.
American singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer references the movie in her 2008 song "Guitar Hero" with the lyric "I'd rather pick up right where we left/ Making out to Faces of Death."
Rock group Cymbals Eat Guitars reference the movie in their 2014 song "XR" with the lyric "Here I am again at Ben's MySpace grave / And then out of nowhere the smell of his basement / Where we watched Faces of Death, and we regretted it".