Mondo Cane, released in 1962, came to define an entire movie genre – the Mondo Movie, also referrred to as ‘shockumentaries’, was a genre that specialised in documentary (or at least pseudo-documentary) studies of the word and wonderful, scattershot views of strange rituals, lifestyles and behaviours from around the globe. At a time when the world was a much bigger place, and international travel was for the wealthy Jetset alone, these films offered a fascinating and hard to disprove look at the curious habits of other nations. The Mondo movie rarely discriminated between first, second and third worlds – all was grist to the mill, and if anything, the films were less mocking of tribal life in Africa than they were of Western indulgences and lifestyles.
The Mondo movie had a jaundiced view of the world – the best of the films worked not only because of the variety of footage and the skill involved in editing this material together in a way that made some sort of sense (to suggest that Mondo movies simply threw up a collection of random footage is to do the genre a disservice), but also because of the cynical, mocking narration. The basis of the classic Mondo movie is one of gentle mockery, pointed barbs and emotive condemnation – not for these filmmakers the cold detachment of the observer.
The Mondo Movie evolved slowly, from sensationalist and staged documentaries that were prevalent in the 1930s and beyond – films like Ingagi, which purported to show tribal women kidnapped by gorillas (actually Hollywood starlets and men in ape suits), and which spawned an entire genre of jungle documentaries, mostly from filmmakers who never left Los Angeles. A couple of decades later, the Mondo spirit was at large in 1955 film Mau Mau, on the surface a reasonably serious documentary about the Mau Mau cult of Kenya, which existed to rid the country of the white colonialists who had taken over. The film looks at the historical reasons behind the rise of this cult, and the British governments efforts to stamp it out in a surprisingly even-handed, and, at times, progressive way. But any worthy intentions are at odds with both the outrageous ad campaign – aimed squarely at the exploitation market – and one sequence inserted into the film. A Mau Mau attack on a village is recorded, and spliced into this are shots of topless black girls being “raped and murdered” in an all-too-obvious studio setting. It’s a moment of audacious sleaze that stands out like a sore thumb. The following footage of burned and mutilated bodies discovered the next day are, however, quite real.
The other films that fed into the Mondo Movie were the World By Night series, originated by Mondo Cane director Gualtiero Jacopetti in 1960. These films, and others like them, were a globe-trotting look at nightclub acts and striptease performers around the world – both elements would become staples of the Mondo genre, offering as they did both titillation and glamour.
Two years after World By Night, Jacopetti – alongside Franco Prosperi and Paulo Cavara – made the film that opened the Mondo floodgates, with a stunning document of the sick side of life, circa 1962, displaying a skill and eye for juxtaposition that left his rivals standing. Mondo Cane‘s opening credits roll over a shot of a dog being dragged reluctantly to a pound, finally being thrown in to meet a pack of barking, snapping canines – hence the title, which translates as ‘It’s A Dog’s Life’, rather than the more literal translation of ‘Dog World’.
Following this, the film unveils a series of eye-popping scenes. In a village in Southern Italy, would-be Valentinos pose at a ceremony to commemorate the area’s most famous son. Each wishes to be discovered as his heir (interestingly, many prints are missing this section). A New Guinea tribe indulge in an orgy of pig killing, and a giant feast following it; this event only takes place every five years, and for the rest of the time, the tribe go hungry. There’s a pet cemetery in America, juxtaposed with a restaurant serving dog meat in Formosa. In Tokyo, calves are tenderly massaged by young women, in order to give their meat more flavour. This contrasts with the brides of the Bismark Archipelago, who are fattened in order to appeal to local men, who like their women big. Two restaurants are compared – in Hong Kong, crocodiles and snakes are the delicacy, while in New York, ants and butterflies are the chosen meal. In Italy, religious cultists lacerate their legs with broken glass as part of a Good Friday ceremony. In Sydney, pretty female lifeguards find no shortage of male volunteers to practise their life-saving techniques on. On Bikini beach, turtles affected by atomic radiation stumble blindly on the sand, robbed of their sense of direction. In Malaysia, fishermen maimed by sharks take their revenge by stuffing poisonous sea urchins into their attackers’ mouths, leaving them to a slow and painful death. In a Rome cemetery, children happily polish skulls in a crypt. The people of Hamburg drink, fight, vomit and pass out. We visit a Japanese hotel for male rejuvenation, where businessmen are tended by bikini-clad girls, and in Singapore, we see the House of Death, a place where the old are left to die. In America, a scrap yard acts as a graveyard for the automobile, while in Honolulu, overweight American tourists are quietly mocked by locals as they attempt to learn native dances. British officers watch Gurkha troops ritually slaughter a bull (ironically one of the scenes which caused the film to be banned in the UK), while in Portugal, the ritual of ‘running the bull’ takes place, with the out-of-control animal charging crowds of out-of-control people. The film ends with one of its best remembered scenes, the ‘Cargo Cult’ of New Guinea. These primitive tribes believe that the cargo planes that pass overhead are Gods from paradise, and have constructed a dummy runway with a dummy plane, in the forlorn hope that it will tempt one of these silvery deities to land.
From the start, Mondo Cane split critics, who were unsure if the film was a serious study, or simply sensationalism, never once stopping to think that it might well be both. The film’s power stems from Jacopetti’s skilled editing, and powerful narration that knows when to mock, when to gently tease, and when to condemn. Unlike some of the films that followed, Mondo Cane has little animal abuse, and what there is can be justified. When the British censor banned the film, perhaps he should instead have thought about letting the public know what the Gurkhas, under British command, did to bulls. Similarly, there is little sexual content, and no nudity, though the film is often classed as being sexploitation.
The music is also important, and would be so throughout the genre. Riz Ortolani’s score is used to signal the emotional points of the film – haunting, mocking, jaunty and sober by turn. His theme tune More was nominated for best song at the Oscars in 1963, won a Grammy, and was a hit single, and Ortolani would be the composer of choice for the genre from then on.
The film quickly spawned a sequel, alternatively called Mondo Pazzo or Mondo Cane No. 2, which was just as good as the first film. As before, the viewer is taken on a whirlwind tour of the world’s strangest activities, with the perfectly cynical (anonymous) narrator guiding us along the way. The film opens with footage of dogs having their vocal chords cut by vivisectionists in London, while the narrator informs us that the first Mondo Cane was banned in Britain for its scenes of animal cruelty. “We humbly bow before the judgement of the British censor”, sneers the narrator, going on to explain that this sequence is one of the few in the follow-up to show animal abuse, and adding that it has been placed at the opening of the film so that the censor can – if he wishes – cut it as efficiently as the vivisectors cut the dogs screams. It’s an audacious moment, which cleverly baits the censors and points out the hypocrisy that will allow these acts to take place, but ban them from being shown. The remainder of the film follows the format of the original – there are modern artists to ridicule, models posing for sex ‘n’ gore paperback covers, Mexicans eating live insects, the celebrations of the Day of the Dead (again in Mexico), weird religious rites, strippers, New York cops dressing as women to trap sex fiends, and more. The most serious sequences in the film include children who have been crippled by slavers, in order to make them more effective as beggers, and scenes shot in Vietnam, including the well-known shot of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire as a form of protest.
The same year saw another Jacopetti / Prosperi / Cavara film, Women of the World – essentially cobbled together from material left over from the other films, with some newly shot footage to fill it out, it discards the cruelty on the whole, and instead offers a rather more lightweight look at the world. Here we encounter the Papuan tribe where the women must do all the work, while the entirely homosexual men preen and pout, while in Malaya, men have both sympathetic labour pains and ‘suckle’ babies using a cocoanut shell. The vanity of women is examined: Bedouin women smear camel dung over their skin as a beauty cream, while in Europe, rich women have the skin literally burned from their face, in the vain hope that the fresh layer beneath will be wrinkle-free and more youthful looking. Up to twenty per cent of those who have this treatment will have their faces permanently scarred. There’s street prostitution in Hong Kong and Hamburg, lesbian nightclubs, female soldiers in the Israeli army, bikini clad babes on beaches and other sensationalist moments. Among the more serious moments are scenes showing mothers with their thalidomide-deformed children, and natives smearing their bodies with white mud, in order to resemble the ‘white sisters’ of the nearby nunnery. Despite the presence of Peter Ustinov as narrator, Women of the World is in many ways a snack between the meaty meals of Mondo Cane and Mondo Pazzo, but still shines out as a superior entry into the genre.
Where Jacopetti and co lead, others quickly followed. World By Night 2 director Gianni Proia made Ecco (also known as This Shocking World) in 1963, and this fairly lavish effort – originally filmed (and sometimes sold) as part of the World By Night series – is one of the best films to follow immediately in the wake of Mondo Cane. There are the usual series of shocking eccentricities – The Berlin Wall, German students duelling with rapiers, Swedish teens on a thrill kick, the final performance of the Grand Guignol, a group of buttock fanciers in Paris, lesbian nightclubs, whale hunters of Portugal, body builders, artificial insemination (with the woman’s face hastily blacked out), strippers, Satanic rituals, and more, all narrated by a sneering George Sanders. Three sequences stand out: in the first, Japanese students undergo a frenzied initiation ritual, where hundreds of them form a massive crush, all trying to catch a stick thrown into the crowd. Sanders tells us that several will die in each ritual. Next, Frenchman Evon Evah forces small swords through his chest and side, then inserts another though his throat, in footage unequalled until Dances Sacred and Profane over twenty years later in its shock impact. The final highlight shows the rounding up of reindeer in Lapland, where, in order to create steers, the women will castrate the animals – with their teeth! Seeing a pretty young blonde smile as she takes the reindeer’s testicles in her mouth is a sight not too easily forgotten… Unlike many Mondo movies, Ecco delivers the goods, even for a viewer long since hardened to the excesses of the genre.
Outside these films, the Mondo phenomenon quickly spread across the globe. Mondo Balordo, narrated by Boris Karloff, offered the usual selection of curios – Japanese bondage photography, rockin’ dwarves, strippers, secret lesbian clubs, transvestites, etc. Some of the footage, such as a look behind the scenes of Hercules movies, is pretty mundane and seems like filler. A fair amount of the film deals with events in Naples, of all places. And of course, almost all the footage is staged. In the US, Bob Cresse and Lee Frost made the sexploitation shockers Mondo Freudo and Mondo Bizarro, while Arnold Louis Miller in the UK made the impressively trashy London in the Raw and Primitive London (where strippers and cabarets acts were interspersed with slaughterhouses and girls shrinking their jeans in the bath). From France came Paris in the Raw and Secret Paris, offering such delights as baby birth, prostitution, plastic surgery, female spaghetti eaters(!), murder-suicide by a scorned wife (staged, of course), and a stripper atop the Eiffel tower.
From Italy came Taboos of the World, narrated by Vincent Price, offering Buddhism, lepers, American tourists, Japanese Yakuzas cutting off their fingers, Laplanders, naturists, opium dens, cemetery sex, child prostitution, near fatal tattooing, Indian gurus, Japanese public baths, Swedish juvenile delinquents, and more material which by now was becoming overly familiar to regular Mondo viewers. At least this was a solid effort. Antonio Margheriti’s Go, Go, Go, World, however,is a lesson in how not to make a Mondo Movie. This should be good; it has all the right elements to it. The obligatory strippers, prostitutes, odd native customs, women in ‘unusual’ jobs (road-builders, racing drivers), strange Italian religious rites, and so on. Unfortunately, the film is edited in a distinctly haphazard manner, as if no thought has been put into the production. Scenes chop and change with such frequency that the viewer is simply left bewildered, rather than entertained and informed. Worse still, Stephen Garret’s narration is appalling. While a healthy dose of cynicism is essential for these films, Garret is a mean minded misanthrope who hates everything. His whining, sneering voice cracks unfunny jokes about everything shown in the film, and irritates rather than amuses.
By the second half of the 1960s, the genre was suffering from overkill – almost every aspect of human eccentricity seemed to have been captured on (or, often, invented for) film, while the ‘Mondo’ name was now being attached to all manner of movie, from Russ Meyer‘s Mondo Topless to youth documentaries like Mondo Mod. Meanwhile, the Mondo approach had spawned a plethora of sensationalist documentaries that took a more specialised approach, concentrating on hippies, sexual liberation, jungle adventures and more, effectively breaking up the Mondo formula into more focused pieces.
But as censorship began to crumble, so the Mondo Movie began to toughen up. Jacopetti and Prosperi led the way in 1966 with the visceral, political and controversial Africa Addio, which followed the struggle for independence in that continent. Brutal and uncompromising, the film has often been misunderstood, unfairly condemned as racist when in fact its sympathies lie with the Africans rather than the European colonisers. False claims that the filmmakers arranged for an execution to take place for the cameras also did little to help the film’s reputation, and both directors have had to live with that accusation presented as fact for decades. But Africa Addio represented a new, savage approach to the Mondo movie – there was no room for frivolity here. In the 1970s, the genre would become more extreme and challenging than ever, as it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on-screen. But that’s a story for another day…