"The whole intent of our film was to have red in every scene," says Darrin Ramage, co-producer of Traces of Death, a grisly compilation of actual murders, suicides and fatal accidents culled from unedited TV news footage, home videos and medical film archives. Perhaps best appreciated (if at all) with one finger on the remote control's fast-forward button, the low-budget gross-a-thon is the only film in memory in which the electrocution of a bear entangled in high-voltage power lines qualifies as comic relief.
"That bear scene was kind of a throwaway," admits co-producer Damon Fox, who also wrote and narrated the video, the initial offering from Mesa's Dead Alive Productions. "Most of the film is way over the top in terms of graphic gore."
To say the least.
In one scene captured by home-movie cameras, an ill-fated tourist visiting a drive-through wild-animal preserve makes the mistake of getting out of his car; almost instantly, he is reduced to human cat food by a pack of bloodthirsty lions. In another segment, a deranged husband shoots his wife in full view of a TV news crew. And in what is unquestionably the video's most jaw-dropping sequence, former Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer sticks a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger, sending a bullet through his brain in the midst of a packed press conference.
"Whether they want to admit it or not, people have an inner flame that draws them to real carnage," contends 33-year-old Fox, arguing that his visceral video is merely the next step in a logical progression that for mainstream audiences currently ends with such reality-based TV fare as Rescue 911 and Cops. "Why do you think everyone slows down when they drive past a car wreck? No matter how strait-laced they appear, most people really do want to see something they know they're never going to see anywhere else."
Because of the extremely graphic nature of the tape, one place that people will probably not see a trace of Traces is on the shelves of large national and regional video-rental chains such as Blockbuster Video and Tower Records and Video. However, smaller chains (such as the local, five-outlet Valley Video), mom-and-pop video operations and private collectors have reportedly purchased more than 5,000 copies of the $59.95 tape in a month's time, already exceeding the producers' expectations for a product of such specialized appeal.
Fox and Ramage readily admit that their own 87-minute fatal attraction owes a big (if decidedly left-handed) debt of gratitude to the similarly titled Faces of Death films, a series that continues to rent steadily nearly a decade after first appearing on video-store shelves.
"We sat down and watched a bunch of these 'mondo' movies--Faces of Death, Shocking Asia, Death Scenes--with a real critical eye," explains Ramage. "The bottom line was, 'Whatever these guys are doing, we're not doing.' Most of the mondo stuff out there is just crap." The pair's biggest gripe? In order to see each film's big payoff sequence (Death Scenes 2, for instance, featured rare police footage of Sharon Tate's home in the aftermath of the Manson massacre, as well as autopsy photos of the actress's body), viewers generally had to suffer through a glut of patently staged sequences and what the Fox-Ramage team calls "filler"--photos of war victims, 1930s morgue mug shots, African animal slaughter and "anything in black and white."
Determined to breathe new life into the death genre, the pair conducted an unscientific market study among its target audience--mondo-oriented males, ages 15 to 25. "We asked them, 'What is it that you don't like about these films?'" says Ramage. "The thing we heard over and over again is that the scenes were too damn long. Nobody's interested in these long setups and introductions where some 'doctor' explains what you're about to see. The only reason all these guys are watching these films is to see gore."
Fortunately, life (or at least life as it is lost in Traces of Death) came cheap for the fledgling filmmakers. A lifelong gore hound who also operates a mail-order horror-memorabilia business, Fox already had easy access to many of the freaky death scenes that appear in the movie. "Most of the material that wound up in the film was from my own collection," he explains. "This kind of stuff sort of floats around out there. If there's a tape with anything of any interest at all to people like myself, copies of that tape get around."
To flesh out their video blood bath, the producers also employed a variety of other far-ranging sources, including contacts overseas and a camera-wielding paramedic in New York City who contributed the grisly shot of a half-eaten corpse recovered from the polar-bear pen at the Bronx Zoo.
Although it's hard to believe, Fox reports that Traces of Death was originally even more sensational than the version now available on video. Fearing that video-store operators in conservative areas of the country might object to the inclusion of borderline porn, the producers pruned several sexually oriented sequences from the movie, including a "mind-boggling" S&M sequence in which a dominatrix nails a client to a stepladder. Fox reports that the excised footage may be restored to the film for a proposed "director's cut" that he hopes to screen theatrically on the midnight-movie circuit or book into nightclubs as a touring cult attraction.
In the meantime, the duo is busy unearthing material to be used in the inevitable sequel. But how do you possibly follow R. Budd Dwyer? "Apparently, there are now people who are taping their own suicides," answers Fox. "We're waiting to see some stuff on a guy who set up a video camera, then shot himself in the head while dressed in a clown costume. I just hope the tape quality is up to snuff." @pq:"Whether they want to admit it or not, people have an inner flame that draws them to real carnage.