LESS SURGERY, MORE FAKED FOOTAGE: TRACES OF DEATH II

TRACES OF DEATH II

Pros: Doesn’t overload on surgeries and autopsies

Cons: Faked footage! Terrible Audio! Grade-F Video!

NOTE: Traces of Death is a shock video series, containing actual documentary and newsreel footage of human carnage and destruction. It would not be suitable for many (or perhaps, any) viewers. Please don’t read my review if this subject matter would be upsetting to you.

Picking up more or less where part one of the no-budget, made-for-video “shockumentary” series left off, Traces of Death II in ways is a better entry in the genre of death video. Gone is the first film’s focus on surgeries and autopsies, which in my mind is a massive improvement. Unfortunately, for a series that claims to present only genuine footage of atrocity, Traces of Death II includes some obvious, blatantly faked footage. Many of the more eye-opening scenes in Traces II are taken directly from Sweet and SavageSavage Zone, and Addio Ultimo Uomo – Italian-produced shock documentaries from the late 1970’s and early ‘80s that were notorious for simulating various violent footage, then passing off the results as being authentic. Perhaps the first rule of making a shock video that only uses “real” footage is that any of the Italian mondo films should be avoided at all costs: too much of the footage in these films has been simulated or at the very least, manipulated by their unscrupulous creators.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Traces I and Traces II however is the addition of a loud music soundtrack of aggressive death metal. These tunes are heard through the entire film and to an extent, compliment the disquieting, unsettling mood inherent in a production like this. While I’m not necessarily opposed to this kind of music and could almost agree that the tunes add another level of brutality to the piece, the sound quality during this program is horrendous. Levels of either the music soundtrack or the actual, native audio present in the footage utilized here go up and down randomly and regularly. At times, the volume levels completely drop out, and the whole thing seems amateurish. Narrator Damon Fox (whose cheesy, tasteless commentary is -thankfully- fairly restrained throughout the program) talks through distortion box, making it very difficult to even understand what he’s saying, and some sound effects are overblown to the point of being ear-splitting. If the audio inconsistency wasn’t bad enough, the picture quality is also shoddy. Some of the footage utilized during the program has foreign language subtitles burned into it (having been ripped directly out of another film), and the images seen onscreen are very soft, unstable, and frequently choppy. I certainly understand that the Traces of Death series was a cheapjack (essentially, bootleg) compilation obviously made by hooking up two VCRs and dubbing tapes back and forth, but there seems to have been no basic competency involved with this process.

In ways, the trash quality of the visuals adds to the effect this film has on a viewer – that we’re often left looking at washed out, grainy images of graphic violence actually makes things worse (after all, it’s the imagination that typically can concoct worse scenarios that anything that can be seen or heard). A viewer entering this video is presented with nonstop carnage, although I’d have to say that this entry is somewhat less positively disgusting than the first volume. For a long stretch of time during the middle part of Traces II, the program screens a seemingly endless stretch of footage showing drag, motorcycle, and auto racing accidents, stunts gone wrong, and plane crashes. While I was able to recognize several of the fatal racing accidents (including the untimely death of legendary Formula 1 driver Gilles Villeneuve), many of these scenes appear to be non-fatal. One especially questionable bit of footage shows a large transformer-like robot malfunctioning, yet we’re supposed to believe that it caused an (unseen) fatal explosion. Considering the already iffy narration, I somehow doubt that this happened exactly as described, and generally, it’s often impossible to determine if any of the narration is accurately describing what a viewer is seeing.

Along the same lines of the sometimes terrible, but not fatal accidents listed above, I’m not particularly sure what the point is of a lengthy sequence of fist fights and riots seen towards the beginning of this program. Watching two television presenters slug it out is somewhat amusing, but is this footage that really should be included in a program that claims to be the hardest, most extreme death video ever made – and tries to convince the viewer of this fact time and again?

Though the “reality death enthusiast” this program is supposedly marketed towards will likely scoff at some of the accident footage (and certainly at the obviously non-fatal fist fights) various police shootouts, a child molester being shot point blank by the father of a victim, people escaping raging high rise fires by jumping to their deaths, and tightrope walker Karl Wallenda’s last act all feature very real human destruction. Among the most gruesome newsreel type footage is a sequence dealing with a shark attack and one showing a so-called “sky burial” (in which the bodies of dead tribesmen are hacked up and left for hungry vultures and dogs to devour). After the male-to-female sex change operation featured in the first Traces, here we get the wonderful sight of a woman being changed into a man; a somewhat less squirm-inducing, yet still eye-opening wonder of modern medicine. While most animal slaughter is left out of this volume, there is a gasp-inducing time lapse video showing a dead mouse being consumed by maggots and decomposing – it’s actually kind of neat in a scientific way, though pretty darn gross.

Indisputably though, the highlight footage in Traces of Death II – lifted directly out of the aforementioned trio of Italian mondo documentaries – is most certainly fake. These sequences include a pair of castration scenes (the professional camerawork giving away the sequences as being fabrications), a scene in which a rifleman situated in a helicopter trains his sights on natives for apparently no reason whatsoever, and the film’s most memorable sequence involving a man being drawn and quartered that’s positioned as the finale. During this scene, the victim is strung up between two trucks, one of which quickly pulls away, thus ripping the man’s arm clean off. Although this would be a difficult stunt to pull off (particularly since the victim is dragged for quite a while behind the vehicle), it does in fact seem like some sort of trickery and simulation was used – and the fact that there’s several cameras filming the event doesn’t do much to confirm its authenticity. Simply put, if this was a real event, one would think there would be only one camera filming it from a more or less stationary position.

Ultimately, Traces of Death II suffers many of the problems inherent in a marginal genre of documentary in which the line between truth and fiction is almost always elusive. I did appreciate that Traces II didn’t bog down in an overload of surgery and autopsy footage, relying more on actual newsreel sequences. Still, the fact that this video borrows footage rather liberally from sketchy Italian productions known for their fabrications really says all you need to know. One of the taglines of the first Traces video was that it contains “NO 1930’s Gangster Clips,” yet already by the second entry in the series, we’re provided with just that towards the end of the film. Traces of Death may be a little more reputable (is that even the right thing to say about a production of this nature?) than a piece like the original Faces of Death that brazenly incorporated simulated footage while claiming authenticity, but I still would prefer a more well-rounded, levelheaded type of program about the issues of death. Films like the 1972 production Of the Dead and 1995’s Executions, for instance, include graphic footage while making a bigger point, and the Many Taboos of Death series showcases gory newsreel clips without any pretentious narration or tastelessness. By comparison, Traces of Death II plays like the “MTV edit” of a death video or “shockumentary” – it’s explicit, fast-paced, and eye-opening, but also overblown, excessive, and mindless.

The “9th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” DVD of this title (from the aptly-named Brain Damage Films) has a full-screen presentation of this program that’s several steps below VHS quality. As extras, we have part two of an interview with the film’s producer, in which he discusses footage taken out of the film due to content issues (!), and roughly two minutes of “Bonus Footage.” Among other things, this bonus material includes footage of actor Vic Morrow’s tragic – and gruesome – death on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

19/10 : EXTREME violence; REAL human death and destruction, though perhaps not quite as gross as the first volume in this series.

4/10 : Minimal interjection from the narrator, though his comments are frequently beyond tasteless.

0/10 : Nein Nein Nein Nein Nein

10/10: The picture says it all.

“…now that’s what I call entertainment!”

Due to the nature of this program, I’m not linking any trailer or video. Proceed at your own risk…

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