A Concise History Of Mondo Movies And Shockumentaries
Television means one of two things these days generally (or three if you include those mind numbingly boring soaps). Episodic, long run dramas, the high water mark of narrative film storytelling, and on the other end, are the so called ‘reality’ shows. We are bombarded by advertisements for shows about former celebrities doing strange things, people who desperately want to be celebrities, and normal people doing insane things for money and attention. It gets nauseating sometimes, and we like to think of this as being indicative of some new shortcoming in the moral or intellectual fabric of our times, as though the mere presence of these things points to a reduction in the cultural ideal of our society. A common misconception about these shows is that they’re a relatively new phenomenon and that they have originated out of virtual thin air over the last twenty years or so. However, while this may be true of television, film enthusiasts have had these types of entertainment available to them for almost as long as film has existed in the form of the so called ‘mondo’ films.
The term mondo refers to a documentary style feature film that attempts to show the audience something it has never seen before, usually by titillating, nauseating or shocking them. If there are unifying factors to the mondo subgenre, it is that the viewer is presented with real life (or death) events and places that are intended to shock or arouse in some way. In this context, the term ‘shockumenatry’ becomes virtually interchangeable with the term ‘mondo’. The actual word ‘mondo’ wasn’t coined until after the huge success of 1963’s Mondo Cane (English meaning is A Dog’s World), the first of the actual mondo films. While it may have been the first film to bear the mondo nomenclature, it certainly wasn’t the first film of this style. In fact, the documentary film was born out of the ethnographic studies decades before, that would later become the mondo films.
Although there may be an earlier example, it seems that both genres were born in the 1920's, when Robert Flaherty went to Alaska to film the Itivimuit tribe of Eskimos for the film Nanook of the North (1922), which was a big success in its day. This led to many other films about strange customs in far off lands, which is what almost all mondo films were about until the mid 1960's and 1970's.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to the feel of the proto-mondo films was by the husband and wife team of Martin and Osa Johnson, whose beautifully filmed, yet tawdry and racially insensitive films captured the imaginations of millions of westerners who yearned to visit far away places in the twenties and thirties. Probably the most important contribution of this couple was their narcissism, as either one or the other of them was always on camera making crude and offensive remarks about the ‘happy little savages’ that they were filming. The effect of this was to put the filmmaker into the film and set the ball rolling for the 'great white explorer’s' myth that would begin to define the genre for some time to come. Among their 'classic' films are Congorilla, Borneo, and the controversial Simba. It is Simba (1928) that stands to be questioned most ardently about the methods of these filmmakers and the way they went about capturing their images. In the film, lions are speared by actors playing tribesmen after being herded onto a plain by the Johnson’s vehicles. Osa is shown shooting an attacking lion, which is obviously a construct pieced together during editing. Simba (AKA: Simba: King of the Beasts) was the first proto-mondo that took a shot on the chin for being staged, and has forever tarnished the reputations of the Johnsons as documentarians and filmmakers.
The genre had to endure a decade or so of efforts similar to those of the Johnsons. Contemporary with them was Walter Futter, who produced some of the other 'classics' of the genre, also in the late twenties and through the following decade. In fact, he produced the most financially successful project in the ethnographic film genre of its time, Africa Speaks (1930). This film is widely available through public domain sources and is a fascinating voyage through several types of displeasure for the modern viewer. Condescension is the narrator’s primary tone, laughing at the ‘tiny negroes’ that carried the film crew’s gear and equipment and cracking jokes about the bushy hairstyles of the indigenous women. A common feature in this film is hearing what at first seems a semblance of cultural sensitivity, such as the point where the narrator begins telling the viewer of the extraordinary intelligence of the featured tribe. For a moment you think that the filmmakers may be about to redeem themselves, but not so. Before they finish the sentence telling you that their tribal friends are so intelligent, they also say that intelligence is uncommon amongst ‘the negroes’ and that most are really quite stupid. It is actually quite painful to watch.
Once again, the factual accuracy is questionable in this film, as MGM decided to pad the film with footage secretly shot in Mexico to round out the authentic footage from Africa, quiet obvious when you see it. Incidentally, Futter sold the rights to scenes from his films for years after, and much of Africa Speaks wound up spliced into RKO’s Tarzan films. Futter cashed in on Martin and Osa Johnson’s ‘great white hunter’ type for his next film, a sensationalistic work titled India Speaks. This would really be the one to set the standard of future mondo film makers in later years due to the introduction of the Hindu fakirs, holy men who employ austerities to themselves harsh enough to make many a present day viewer cringe in discomfort. It was in this film that the western world was introduced to the 'bed of nails' and a skewed sense of the yogi. Futter went to the P.T. Barnum School of film advertisement, suggesting that cinemas place a homemade bed of nails in the lobby with the effigy of a Hindu undergoing self torture. Sensitivity to the cultures they were portraying was never the forte of early ethnographers and filmmakers. The newsreels of the wartime era were enough ‘reality base’ film for the public of the time and the demand for this type of entertainment waned for a few years, but after the war production began again. For the most part, these early postwar ventures were forgettable, mostly comprised of outtakes from earlier efforts spliced back together, (a curse of this genre that plagues it to this day), or obviously faked film done on studio backlots. It wasn’t until 1957’s Naked Africa that new and exciting forays into the strange and foreign cultures of the world began anew. The one claim to fame this film had was the dubious distinction of being the first of its genre to cash in on the fact that many native cultures do not restrict themselves to being quite as fully dressed as does our own. The ‘Dance of the Virgins’ segment with all of its footage of bare breasted young women undulating and wobbling about quite vigorously must have been shocking at the time. You could say rather titillating!
This brings us into the 1960’s, and the birth of the actual mondo film. Filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti put together what was, up to that time, the strangest collection of scenes ever assembled to create the seminal Mondo Cane. From pet cemeteries in Bel Air to New Guinean woman suckling a piglet after the death of her own child, the film rises (some might say sinks) to new levels in order to shock the audience with something totally different. Instead of the usual travelogue theme, we now have a loose association of shots from around the world, a style that would influence the most lurid of the mondo films later in the mid to late 1970’s. Although there would still be plenty of mondo films that centre on a destination, this new style of sensational filmmaking in search of the most bizarre or intriguing footage would become the norm rather than the exception. As mentioned before, it was Mondo Cane and it’s huge success that inspired the use of the term ‘mondo’ in most of the titles of the genre for almost the next twenty years. And Jacopetti wasn’t finished there. The following year he released the enormously successful sequel Mondo Cane 2 with more gratuitous fun, from insect eating to policemen in drag.
Then in 1966 he came out with his most gut churning film of all, the gore soaked Africa Addio (in some releases it was titled Africa, Blood and Guts). Here we have it all. Animals tortured for sport, Mau-Mau massacres, political executions and the bloodbath of native uprisings. Jacopetti must have studied the methods of his predecessors in detail, especially the Johnsons and Walter Futter. His films are not only of questionable content like the previous ones, but they also have similar disparaging ideas about the indigenous peoples portrayed in the films. The message we are given as an audience is that ours is such a superior culture that we should consider ourselves the masters of these silly savages with their terrible ways. This is a
stereotype that has plagued these films from nearly the start, and has only recently begun to subside, with examples of similar sentiments through the 1980’s efforts of the genre. In fact, the producers of Mondo Cane stipulated that two films be made simultaneously when Cane was shot, and Jacopetti, whose heart was really in his first movie, just clipped together some outtakes to create perhaps the most misogynistic and homophobic mondo of them all, 1963’s Women of the World. Once again we have the set-ups, the created scenes, the silly mean spirited narration, this time taken to a new degree. This movie was an afterthought, nothing more than contractual task for its makers, and it seems filled with all the malice they could muster.
After the success of Mondo Cane, directors were no longer concerned with the exotic nature of the locality or the inhabitants, as long as they could make the 'participants' do something successively more bizarre each time. While many of these things were shot in the 1960’s, one of the more dubious examples is Miki Carter’s gut wrenching 1964 offering, Kwaheri. Here we have tribesmen downing glasses of human blood, animals being killed for the sake of the film, birth defects, and virgin sacrifice. Most notorious of all, this is the first film to show the practice of trephination in action. Audiences in the early 60’s must have ran for the toilets when they witnessed the witch doctor begin sawing into the skull of his patient to release the demons inside. Also the Suk dancing ceremony is a real eye opener, with the blood, ash, urine, and milk cocktail gulped by its writhing participants being enough to put audiences off their popcorn and lemonade.
The 1960’s also saw the birth of the sexual revolution, which helped out quite a bit at the cinema when the mondo subgenre morphed into the sexploitation genre. Heading the pack for this subgenre was Olympic International Pictures, with the producer/director team of Robert Creese and Lee Frost, who, from 1964 to 1968 cranked out some of the more odious pieces of celluloid to ever make it to the big screen. With suggestive titles and lurid advertising they managed to rake in the quids on films like The Secret Society, Mondo Freudo, Hollywood’s World of Flesh, and the plagiarised 1965 effort Mondo Bizarro. Of all these, Mondo Bizarro stands out as the most terrible, being a scene-for-scene rip off of 1964’s classic mondo offering, Il Mondo di Notte No. 3 released in the UK as Ecco (1965). Filled with Creese and Frost’s usual bag of deception and canned narrative schlock, this may be the mondo of the poorest taste. Scene after scene of obviously staged atrocities. The irony of this is that Mondo Bizarro was one of Olympic International’s most successful financial ventures.
1963's Ecco, directed by Giovanni Proia remains one of the finest films in the genre because it is one of the weirdest. Women castrate reindeer with their teeth to prove their marriage worthiness. We see the Grand Guignol. We see female nudity. We see a human pincushion. These films intend to shock, and somehow Ecco succeeds in being shocking and turning the stomach without being desperately insensitive to the people it aims the camera at.
The ethnographic mondo film reached its zenith in the mid 70’s with the release of two of the genre’s finest examples. First was 1974’s classic Shocking Asia. Shocking Asia combines the most aspects of all its predecessors into one strange and curious package. From the ascetics of India’s painful Thaipusam ritual (where steel skewers are driven through participants flesh) to the sex clubs of Bangkok, all the way to the coupe de grace, a sex change operation performed in all its leg crossing glory, this is not one for the faint of heart. The whimsical score and slightly bemused intonation of the narrator make this one a delight to watch with a squeamish and unsuspecting audience. But perhaps an even bigger achievement is 1975’s fantastic Mondo Magic, a straightforward investigation into the murky practices of native peoples regarding their most sacred beliefs. While showing many of the exploitative components familiar to the genre, this one is different than previous attempts, as it doesn’t attempt to denigrate or belittle the people or their customs, no matter how strange they get. The narrator never passes judgment. Whether it be a scene of a Dinka herdsman blowing into a cows vagina during a fertility ritual, or the virginity examination of a young Muslim girl, the narrator remains neutral in his narrative. We can finally feel more at ease about watching this sort of film, without feeling the guilt. Mondo Magic may have been the crowning glory of all the ethnographic mondo films, from its roots in the 1920's to the present day.
By the late 1970’s, the native peoples of the world held little interest for jaded mondo audiences. Sexploitation was eclipsed by hardcore pornography and audiences yearned for something bigger and more extreme than they had ever seen. In 1978 they got it with the release of a film that would forever change the dimensions, style, themes, and even the feel of the mondo film, and help create the market for reality based programming. Chances are that if you’ve seen only one of the films named here, it’s this one. Because although the majority of it was faked, Faces of Death remains the most successful mondo film of all time, and also perhaps the most vicious simply because it was first, not the first mondo film obviously, but the first one to concentrate on nothing but death. The film is packed with scenes of people and animals meeting particularly grisly ends. We have animal attacks, executions, restaurant patrons dining on fresh monkey brains, suicides, and assorted scenes from the coroner’s office, all narrated by pathologist, Dr. Francis B.
Faces of Death would spawn five sequels and a best of compilation, as well as inspire countless other imitators, most of which would include actual death scenes rather than the fakery displayed in the first. The best example of a FOD type film would be Nick Bougas’ 1989 and 1992 contribution to the genre, Death Scenes I and II. These are really the cream of the crop, being real, vile, disgusting, and fascinating in the same way that car accidents are fascinating and compelling. The first one is actually narrated by the late founder of the Church of Satan, Dr. Anton LaVey, and is basically a slideshow of crime scene photos from the early part of the 20th century, while the second is a FOD style offering with some of the more gruesome footage ever captured, including morgue shots of the Manson Family victims, executions, and the infamous on air suicide of Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, one of the most grisly spectacles to become an early viral video, commonly traded on VHS in the 80’s and 90’s. As far as pure gut churning material, these two take the biscuit. Nobody else comes close, yet.....
The 90’s saw the near extinction of the true mondo film, with more ‘serious’ documentary styles being used to document the bizarre and absurd. Often, the films that were made after 1990 document societies fringe groups, in part thanks to 1980’s Bizarre Rituals: Dances Sacred and Profane, a study of the (then) new body piercing movement as documented by anthropologist Charles Gatewood, or individuals within those fringe groups. See 1994’s sublime Hated: GG Allin and The Murder Junkies or 1998’s equally compelling Sick: The Life and Times of Bob Flanagan, Super Masochists. But for the most part, the genre has been relegated to a tamer format on television. Instead of being culturally insensitive, we are now culturally hyper sensitive, and the straight mondo genre would not likely fair too well in early 21st century culture. But perhaps if we are lucky, some intrepid filmmakers will step up to the challenge of producing a mondo film for the next generation. Somebody pop the corn, and pour the cola, I think I hear the drums beating in the jungle. But it's definitely not Carry On Up The Jungle!
We dare to tread where others fear to walk.