A mondo film (from the Italian word for ‘world’) is an exploitation documentary film, sometimes resembling a pseudo-documentary, usually depicting sensational topics, scenes, and situations. Common traits of mondo films include emphasis on taboo subjects such as death and sex, portrayals of foreign cultures that have received accusations of racism and staged sequences presented as genuine documentary footage. Over time, the films placed more and more emphasis on footage of the dead and dying, both real and fake. The term “shockumentary” has also been used to describe the genre. [from Wikipedia]
I was first introduced to the genre as a youngster hearing my friends talk about “Faces of Death” and occasionally seeing the VHS copies on videostore racks. The “Faces” film series began in the late 70s and promised audiences footage of real death. However most of it was fake, but this didn’t prevent the traumatization of many a pre-teen. When I was older I rented “Death Scenes” (1989) with my girlfriend and witnessed the apex of mondo cinema. By this time the genre had focused exclusively on death and no longer tried to fool the audience with fake footage; “Death Scenes” only used the real stuff.
The original mondo films were, as the wikipedia excerpt explains, rooted in taboo footage of the “primitive” world. Early mondo films often had a few different names and were re-cut and passed on by a variety of people and theaters.
There is a fascinating (and relatively dense) book that covers mondo films called Killing For Culture. It contains a thorough history of mondo cinema and the myth of the underground snuff film. I highly recommend it if you are interested in the subject.