Feature by: David Carter
Posted on: 17 July 2004
Grindhouse: the Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris is very well done and contains a chapter on Mondo
Both volumes of Michael Weldon’s “Psychotronic Guides” have entries for Mondo
For info on the “Faces of Death” series and its imitators, check out www.losman.com
One of the primary missions of this site, and one of my own personal missions, is to expose the public to films and genres that they otherwise would not come into contact with. A good and efficient way to present the largest amount of material is in a generalized format, giving short glimpses into many titles. Thus the “Not Coming Genre Guide” was born. In this and future editions myself or a fellow staff member will present a particular genre, timeperiod, actor, director, etc., and basically give a quick and dirty guide to the films encompassed by that theme. The goal is to pique at least one reader’s interest enough to give something a look that they might have ignored previously. Let’s begin, shall we?
Since the dawn of filmmaking, the documentary has been a consistant source of groundbreaking cinema. This type of “non-fiction film” while not commercially as successful as standard fare is often much more powerful than its fictional counterparts. While the subjects of documentaries range from baseball to the life of Christ to agrarian economics in 16th century Britian, I’m going to focus on one particular sub-genre within documentaries. Although called “the unblinking eye”, “exploitation documentaries”, “Shock-umentaries”, or in some cases even “pornography”, the range of documentaries that focus on the more obscure and often brutal or taboo parts of humanity has a name: Mondo. The name is derived from what is arguably the most famous film of the genre, the 1962 Italian feature Mondo Cane. Mondo Cane was a huge hit on the drive-in circuit. The posters described its content much better than I could: “THE WITH-IT SEX HIGHS! SEE THE CHICKEN THAT SMOKES! NAKED WITCHCRAFT MURDERS! THE MOST SENSASTIONAL EXPOSE OF THE FREAK SIDE OF LIFE!” Its name when translated from Italian oddly means “Dog World.” Despite a silly name, the impact of this film without a doubt cannot be underestimated. Like Deep Throat would later become, it was one of the first films that EVERYONE, regardless of age or moral inclination, went to see, whether they admitted it or not. More so than the often gross scenes, the real show was the underlying black comedy of this film. Despite the snide, cynical narraration (which would become a trademark of the genre) the subjects of the film aren’t judged. The information is presented very even handedly in a way which does not overly exploit the subjects.
Imititation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Cane did more than spawn imitators. It practically created the technique of “cinema voyeur”, glimpses into lives and customs that would never been seen in any other medium. The heyday of the “mondo” genre was in the mid to late sixties, which may have been the secret to their box office success. At the time, nudity was still strictly taboo except for the X-rated circuit. The “mondo” films used an racist double standard to circumvent this roadblock. At the time though nude caucasians were considered “pornography,” nude Asians and Africans were still considered “anthropology.” The loophole that Mondo Cane had walked through was increasingly widened by future “mondo” films, to the point where the nudity and depictions of sexual taboos quickly became the sole focus of most of the films. That’s not to say that all of the films were merely nudies desguised as science. Some of the better mondo’s kept the focus on the outlandish behavior, but quite often nudity happened to be a large part of these. For these reasons, the majority of this first wave of mondo was regulated to the “Adults-Only” or late night drive-in circuits. They walked the thin grey line between profane and the sacred and therefore, pushed the cultural moral envelope the way few other styles of film have.
One spliter of the mondo genre went into slightly tamer territory. As with any groundbreaking cultural event, the Mondo Cane formula was watered down, repackaged, and sold to mainstream America. Late Sixties teen culture became the subject of many mondo films. Most were cheaply slapped together footage of dancing teenagers with rock music in the background, which was then hyped as “SHOCKING!” Some however drifted into Reefer Madness territory. These films were often intended as warnings (usually more to parents than teens) about the dangers of the rising drug culture. Bad trips on LSD and stoned teens getting into trouble made up the largest chunk of these films.
By the late 1970’s the gas was starting to run out of the Mondo genre. In 1978 all of that changed and the Mondo genre was reborn with a much darker face. Faces of Death was first an international then an even bigger hit in the states on the new medium, home video. The basic framework established by Mondo Cane was present; the documentary format, the (often phony) “Doctor” narrarator, and the footage of wild scenes most from outside the USA. However the humor was gone. The fun and often innocent views into other cultures were replaced with death and gore. Additionally, a large part of the film was fake, made by the Make-up Effects Lab of Hollywood. No one really minded that most of it and subsequent sequels were faked, in fact, most people didn’t notice. To this day, 23 years after it was made many people still swear that everything in Faces of Death is 100% real. In the series’ defence, it has been reported that numbers II and IV have more authentic footage than the others, but I really couldn’t tell the difference either. The Faces of Death series goes up to about #5 or #6, but many of the later are actually re-used footage from earlier sequels. Like Mondo Cane, Faces of Death inspired its own crop of imitators. The lamentably titled Traces of Death has as much in common with Cane as it does Faces since some of the dark humor is retained. Death Scenes is mostly crime footage from the 30’s and 40’s but it is hosted by Church of Satan founder Anton La Vey. In the 1990’s films with titles such as Facez of Death and Tracez of Death (note the important “z”) and others were so scares than they were only available through mail order from the back of magazines like “Fangoria.”
“Mondo” films aren’t for everyone. Many of the scenes depicted in even the tamer entries are too strong for the faint of heart. However, these films shouldn’t be viewed as oddities. They have a long pedigree. In 1903 Thomas Edison made the films Electrocution of an Elephant and An Execution by Hanging, an acutal snuff film! These films have now become useful historical records of times and people that have long since vanished. While not viewed in the same light as a Gone with the Wind or even a Star Wars it should be know that Mondo films are an important chapter in the history of film and moreover, the history of society. Look around at modern society. “Cops”, “Jerry Springer”, “Girls Gone Wild”, and countless others have taken the mondo formula into the 21st century. Mondo has moved from the fringes of film to be an accepted aspect of modern culture.
Mondo Films of Note:
How to find Mondo Films: Depending on your location, you may be able to find some of these or other Mondo titles in your local video store. Un-edited copies of the Faces of Death series should be in almost every Blockbuster or Movie Gallery nationwide. For the older films, try the internet or mail-order.