From cargo cults to cliff divers, the first Mondo films displayed an unrelenting fascination for strange human rituals and behavioral extremes.
By the mid-sixties, these "exploitation documentaries" were more commonly known in the trade as "See! See! See!" pictures, because of the midway-reminiscent pitches used to sell them. And many of them crossed over, from the grindhouse to first-run theaters and drive-ins.
Joseph E. Levine, the drive-in theater magnate turned producer, was the man responsible for importing Mondo Cane and making it such a big hit. He followed it with another lurid goona-goona type film The Sky Above, The Mud Below, which was doubly shocking to sixties audiences due to the full frontal nudity of some of the natives. (The old double standard was still firmly in place, even as a new civil rights bill was enacted throughout the land.) Levine, the man who started his producing career with Hercules and its countless clones, was once quoted as saying "I've never seen a bad movie."
Because of their penetration into legitimate venues, and the money these pictures raked in, name actors such as Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and George Sanders were soon providing the worldly, resigned narration that was de rigeur for all Mondos. More exotic escapades and forbidden practices were showcased in Macabro, Mondo Infame, Ecco, and Taboos of the World. Other off-beat hobbies and habits were brought to light in "worlds" that were described (in the less-than-fluent Italian) as "rocky," "exotic," or "obscene."
Mondo movies soon lost all journalistic pretense, as stateside producers started cranking out their own product, issuing such deviant offspring as Mondo Keyhole, Mondo Depravados, Mondo Teeno, Mondo Mod, and Mondo Topless (Russ Meyer's personal take on the broadening trend). Bob Cresse's Olympic International Films released the most outlandishly titled picture of the bunch, Mondo Freudo. This multicultural extravaganza featured not only "immigrant black masses" in Manhattan, but a "decadent exhibition of degradation" performed - as only they can - by the "lady mud wrestlers of Berlin."
And proving that these productions never lost their timeliness or journalistic edge, the picture also documented "Freudian rites of American teenagers in search of love" thereby putting Biff and Suzy on equal footing with the Balinese goona-goona smokers who started it all back in the early 1930s.
A vital component of Mondos was the element of the purportedly "hidden camera." All over the globe you could find crews practicing the new Mondo technique cinema voyeur: hanging around Spanish brothels until customers spilled out; probing around Pigalle in Paris spying on hookers and their tricks; patiently waiting for a fight to erupt in a Hamburg bar; filming marine biologists throwing live animals into the water to attract sharks.
Mondo Freudo claimed to be "full of intimate, close-up scenes filmed without the subject's knowledge." And, indeed, how could they have known, when the pressbook asserts that some shots were taken "from as far as a mile away with the aid of a seventeen hundred millimeter telescopic lens."
In fact, plenty of this footage, particularly what was lensed stateside, was outright fakery. The bogus "hidden camera" claim was often camouflage for poorly lighted, badly shot footage of the producer's friends staging an ersatz Satanic mass in which topless women were ritualistically flogged.
The black humor of Jacopetti's original rapidly evaporated under the crush of sensational spectale, some of it real, most of it not. Mondo films soon became single-subject documentaries such as Prostitution and Pornography in the Orient, or the mostly phony Witchcraft '70. There was even a Mondo-type film called Manson, claiming to be an exposť of life within the infamous cult. The Mondo ante was upped again in the 1970s, with the creation, and success, of a series of videotapes entitled Faces of Death, which brought gruesomeness and real-life bloodletting right into your home, courtesy of the VCR.
Of all grindhouse genres, Mondo movies have proven to be the most prescient and durable. Jacopetti's world, so exotic in 1962, is commonplace on television today - minus the irony and sarcasm. You can make your own Mondo movie by randomly running through the cable channels: Cops, infomercials, porn stations, wild-eyed evangelists, America's Funniest Home Videos, Jerry Springer, Rikki Lake, and The Nightly News. The internet has speeded the process even further. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with a Vincent Price narration. Mondo Cane had it right, and so did Mondo Pazzo: the world is crazy and it's gone to the dogs.