Beyond Documentary: Mondo Movies and Shockumentaries
Article by Aaron AuBuchon
Television means one of two things these days: episodic, long form (usually cable) dramas- the high water mark of narrative motion media storytelling, and on the other end, the nadir, are 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. 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 air over the last decade or so. While this may be true of television, moviegoers 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’ movie.
The term mondo refers to a documentary-style feature that attempts to show the audience something it has never seen before, usually by titillating or nauseating 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 this context, the term ‘shockumenatry’ becomes virtually interchangeable with the term ‘mondo’Â. The actual word ‘mondo’ wasn’t coined until after the huge success of 1963’s Mondo Cane (English: A Dog’s World), the first of the actual mondo movies. 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 that would later become the mondo movie.
Although there may be an earlier example, it seems that both genres were born in 1920 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, and led to many other films about strange customs in far off lands (which is what almost all mondo movies were about until the late 1970’s).
Perhaps the greatest contribution to the feel of the proto-mondo films was contributed by the husband and wife team of Martin and Osa Johnson, whose beautifully lensed, yet tawdry and racially insensitive films captured the imaginations of millions of westerners who yearned to visit far away lands 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 snide 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 automobiles. 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.
The genre had to weather 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 foray into the ethnographic film genre of its time, Africa Speaks (1930). This film is widely available through public domain sources (I watched it via one of many similar public domain channels on Roku), and is a fascinating voyage through several types of chagrin for the modern viewer. Condescension is the narrator’s primary tone, laughing at the ‘tiny negroes’ that purportedly ported the film crew’s gear, and cracking jokes about the hairstyles of the native women. A common experience is stumbling onto 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 scenes of a white guy pouring salt into his hand and explaining that the pygmies “love it like a child loves candy” while the pygmy hunter approaches and begins shoveling handfuls of the white salt into his greedy maw may be about to redeem themselves. But keep watching, because before they finish the sentence telling you that their tribal friends are so smart, they also say that intelligence is uncommon amongst ‘the negroes’, and that most are really quite stupid.
You can also watch it yourself on YouTube:
Once again, the factual accuracy is questionable in this feature, as MGM decided to pad the film with footage secretly shot in Mexico to round out the authentic footage from Africa- you’ll know it when you see it. Trust me. (Incidentally, Futter sold the rights to scenes from his movies for years after, and much of Africa Speaks wound up spliced into RKO’s Tarzan features.) Futter cashed in on Martin and Osa Johnson’s ‘great white hunter’ type for his next film, a sensationalistic work titled India Speaks (methinks there be a trend afoot). This would really be the one to set the imaginations of future mondo movie makers on fire, due to the introduction of the Hindu fakirs, holy men who employ austerities to themselves harsh enough to make many a present day ‘modern primitive’ cringe. It was in this film that the western world was introduced to the bed of nails and a skewed sense of yoga. Futter went to the P.T. Barnum School of movie advertisement, suggesting that theaters place a homemade bed of nails in the lobby with the effigy of a Hindu undergoing self torture. This will make a sensational attention getter. Sensitivity to the cultures they were portraying was never the forte of early ethnographers.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 bit, but after the war, production began again. For the most part, these early postwar ventures were a forgettable lot, 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 when no one was looking. 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 movie had was the dubious distinction of being the first of its genre to cash in on the fact that many native cultures don’t 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 about quite vigorously must have been quite shocking at the time. (Bad joke alert-) Talk about titillating!
This brings us into the 1960’s, and the birth of the actual mondo movie. 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 women 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 geo-centered 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 center on a destination, this new style of globe hopping in search of the most bizarre or intriguing footage would become the norm rather than the exception. And 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 in the genre for almost the next twenty years. And Jacopetti wasn’t done yet. The following year he released the enormously successful sequel Mondo Cane 2 with more gratuitous fun, from insect eating to cops 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 native 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 little 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 hateful little 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, a grunt task for its makers, and it seems filled with all the vitriol they could muster.
After the success of Mondo Cane, directors were no longer concerned with the exotic nature of the locale or the locals, as long as they could make them 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, bucketloads of animals being killed, gross birth defects, and virgin sacrifice. Most notorious of all, this is the first film to show the practice of trephination in action. American 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 treat, with the blood, ash, urine, and milk cocktail gulped by its writhing participants being enough to put audiences off their popcorn.
The 1960’s also saw the birth of the sexual revolution, which helped out quite a bit at the movies when mondo sub-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 till 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 dough on losers like The Secret Society, Mondo Freudo, Hollywood’s World of Flesh, and the plagiarized 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 this country as Ecco (1965). Filled with Creese and Frost’s usual bag of deception and canned T&A schlock, this may be the mondo of the poorest taste. Scene after scene of obviously staged garbage (an Arab slave market looks suspiciously like the Lower East Side) are paraded out to copy the effect of the more artistically successful Ecco. The shame of this is that Mondo Bizarro was one of Olympic International’s most successful ventures.
Ecco itself 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 lens at.
Well, not always insensitive.
The ethnographic mondo movie 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. The first hybrid of the bunch, Shocking Asia combines the most titillating aspects of all its predecessors into one strange and wonderful 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 squeamish pals late at night (I have a great story of one of my hard drinking Scottish bar fighting tough guy friends losing the contents of his stomach because of the aforementioned scientific gender-bend). 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, our narrator remains blissfully neutral. We can finally feel OK about watching this sort of thing without feeling the guilt. Mondo Magic may have been the crowning glory of all the ethnographic mondo films.
Crowning glory. Yep
By the late 1970’s, the native peoples of the world held little interest for jaded American audiences. Sexploitation was eclipsed by hardcore pornography, and audiences yearned for something bigger and more ‘out there’Â 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 movie, and help create the market for reality-based programming. Chances are that if you’ve seen only one of the films named in this article, it’s this one. Because although the majority of it was faked, Faces of Death remains the most successful mondo movie 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 animals attacking, executions, restaurant patrons dining on fresh monkey brains, suicides, and assorted scenes from the coroner’s office, all narrated by our friendly pathologist, Dr. Francis B. Gross (Get it?!?! Do you get that joke? His name??? Get it?) played by Michael Carr.
Seriously?!?! Do you get that his name is Francis Be Gross? Whew. Good times
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 of the first. The best example of a FOD-type film would be Nick Bougas’ 1989 and 1992 efforts, Death Scenes I & II. These are really the cream of the crop, being gross, vile, disgusting, and fascinating in the same way that car wrecks are fascinating and the signs of aborted fetuses that pro-lifers hold up at rallies are so 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 torque, these two take the cake. Nobody else comes close.
R. Budd Dwyer, whose worst crime was being the inspiration for that “Hey Man Nice Shot” song from the 90’s.
The 90’s saw the near extinction of the true mondo movie, with more ‘serious’ documentary styles being used to document the bizarre and absurd. Often, the films that were made after 1990 document American 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-cum culture vulture 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 Flanagen, Supermassochist.) 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 likely fare as well with American audiences as Muhammed coloring books would fare with Saudi ones. 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, I think I hear the drums beating in the jungle.