Director: David Monaghan
By: David Monaghan, David Herman, & Arun Kumar
Reviewed in 1995 in Australia

WARNING: The film you are about to see contains explicit scenes of real executions. The footage is graphic and disturbing. Many of the images have been censored or suppressed, as governments continue to promote executions as instant, clinical, and humane.

This film is a legacy to those executed. Images of their death are used to educate the living. To suppress such imagery on the grounds of taste is the ultimate indecency.

These are the words that open this 1995 mondo-styled documentary. However, labeling EXECUTIONS as a straight up mondo film does the film a disservice. Mondo’s history as a cinematic form is one marred by instances of fraud, staged footage, and a penchant for the sensational as opposed to the realistic.

EXECUTIONS is different. While the mondo spirit is certainly alive and well in this documentary, our filmmakers clearly have a more meaningful agenda in mind than solely offering up footage of car accidents and birth defects.

As the title and opening quote would indicate, EXECUTIONS is a documentary devoted to looking at state sponsored and approved forms of capital punishment as well as numerous instances of ethnic cleansing and attempts at genocide.

Inspired by the absurdity of seeing the Gulf War as a video game and experiencing the taboo surrounding the portrayal of human death on film and television, David Monaghan and crew have made a documentary that explores the myth of humane execution, refusing to buy into the well-worn territory of killing as 'justice'.

Surrounded by controversy due to its availability in the UK and Australia, this film shows 31 government approved executions from around the world.

Herman, Kumar, and Monaghan assert that while the government may claim that capital punishment is a quick and humane way to punish those who’ve committed crimes against society, it’s really not - and the footage tends to support their thesis.

The film opens up with a re-creation of an experiment performed by a Dr. Berieux in France back in the early 1900’s. Berieux believed that victims of the guillotine lived on for a brief period after the decapitating blow.

To test this theory, he attended an execution, picked up a newly severed head, shouted the condemned man’s name at the head, and waited for any kind of response.

Berieux claimed that he saw definite signs of consciousness and awareness from the decapitated head - and that the head lived on for roughly 30 seconds before finally expiring.

The film addresses the major forms of execution - stoning, hanging, shooting, decapitation, gassing, lethal injection. Each method is explained and supported with footage - from grainy black and white newsreel from the turn of the century, through to modern day video. The result is an interesting and educational discussion about capital punishment that is continuously punctuated with some graphic images of how these supposedly ‘humane’ procedures leave their victims.

I can say with nearly 100% certainty that the inclusion of this death footage is what has entrenched EXECUTIONS firmly in the mondo field in many people’s minds. Still, unlike its death tape brethren, EXECUTIONS features a legitimate point - and is defined buy its lack of fake footage.

Viewers can expect to see a Haitian cop stoned to death, an African woman chased by a mob, stripped of her clothing, and stoned, Chinese officials shooting drug addicts in the back of the head, Nazi gas chambers, murdered Rwandans, dead Kurds in Iraq, Salvadoran death squads, and beheading. And while it’s all disturbing, the majority of it is presented in an unexpectedly tasteful way.

Despite charges of sensationalism, EXECUTIONS provides a strong argument against the death penalty: "When people are shown and can understand such horrors," said Monaghan, "they will come round to the right course."

If the standard death tape revels in its excess, EXECUTIONS is its opposite - a film that shows the atrocity, but also notes the inherent sadness in the things that people do to one another in the name of law and order or religion.

The filmmakers do save the most gruesome footage for last. The final scene is the execution of Mohamadine Salar at the hands of a Beirut firing squad. No one seems to know what Salar is being executed for, but he’s placed on the ground, and shot repeatedly with a machine gun.

Several bullets blast out the right side of his jaw, others puncture his torso, and yet Salar lives, gasping for breath through a broken face, for nearly one full minute. This final image provides chilling proof that most of these executions are neither quick, clean, nor humane.

In the end, EXECUTIONS is both a fascinating look at the history of capital punishment around the world, and a sobering look at how we mete out ‘justice’. And while it’s often labeled a mondo film, I’d not recommend it for the Faces of Death crowd.

The focus here is placed on intelligent commentary about capital punishment, not on titillating its audience with one gruesome scene after another.

EXECUTIONS caused front-page controveries all over Britain for its graphic portrayal of the history of the technology of the death penalty. It reveals that as doctors gave politicians more "humane" ways of killing, efficiency was increased and more people were killed. By focusing only on interviews with those who were about to be killed or their executioners, the film cuts through to the real effect of arguments for the validity of political and judicial murder. It was banned for sale at Britain's biggest retail film outlets after a newspaper campaign led by activists who support the death penalty.