Britain acquired its own unique movie sub-genre at the start of the eighties and all thanks to those killjoy hand-wringers. The early eighties were a fragile time for the country. Miners, CND activists and tax detractors were protesting, troops were fighting in the Falklands, the economy was teetering on a precipice. The beacon of social hope that Maggie Thatcher and her Conservative party once stood for was quickly fading. With an election looming the party needed to grasp any opportunity to reel in voters. One of their new campaigns was the fight against a new filmic threat on society, the "Video Nasty”. The Daily Mail famously cried "Ban this sick filth” but it was the Sunday Times who were the first to kick up a stink in May 1982 describing how "high street horror is invading the home”. The torch was lit and many do-gooders, from Mary Whitehouse to numerous MPs, staunchly held it aloft. Videos were a new phenomena at the time. Expensive and hard to come by they were seen as a niche interest, so niche the BBFC weren't called upon to regulate them. As such, films that were banned from cinema were free to wallow on home video. Without anyone noticing, a market of hardcore horror films grew, much to the delight of fans. But once the press took a closer look at the likes of Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
and SS Experiment Camp (1976)
, which were available for anyone to rent regardless of age, they damn near shit their pants. What followed was a farcical witch-hunt. Though humorous to look back on today, at the time it was far from amusing for those trying to carve out a living in the new video rental industry. Many were levied with ludicrous fines, while some more unfortunate individuals served time in prison for stocking prohibited films. What most rental outlets wanted was clear guidance from the authorities. But the government were absurdly unhelpful. Their first course of action was for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to charge movies under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 (usually reserved for pornographic movies). To aid them they compiled a list of films (what became the Video Nasties list) that were either in the process of being prosecuted or had been prosecuted under the Act. The list was ever changing though so provided only vague guidance. Eventually the Video Recordings Act 1984 was passed and the BBFC were given the responsibility of classifying video releases alongside cinematic features. But the hallowed list was set in stone, featuring seventy two movies over the course of its life. Of those that gave Maggie and Mary the willies here are the best ten.
- ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979)
Depending on your location you might know this previously banned epic by a different name. Caught up in the post Dawn of the Dead (1978) zombie boom a mélange of undead imitators and fake sequels cropped up. The result was a cinematic spaghetti junction as fans puzzled over what movie preceded which and whether spin-offs were canon or not. Romero’s Dawn was re-titled Zombi for Italian audiences and to cash in on its success this Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) was called Zombi 2. It had nothing to do with Romero’s movie though, apart from a similar predilection for zombies and gore. To complicate matters further the film was bestowed with various other monikers in other markets (Zombie Island, Woodoo, and Island of the Living Dead among others) and subsequent instalments received different numbering dependent upon the country of release. But complicated back story aside, Fulci’s film remains the best post Dawn scavenger thanks to the director’s creative talents. The director had been plugging away in Italy since 1959 and had amassed a large back catalogue before Zombie Flesh Eaters made him a horror superstar. Years of honing his craft and style helped separate his movie from the army of undead features clamouring for success. The story follows Anne (Tisa Farrow) who travels to the tropical island Matool to investigate the work of her late father. Anne and her companions soon discover that the island is a haven for zombies, and a struggle ensues to leave for the safety of New York. So far, so standard zombie. But presented in startling fashion by Fulci the gore was spectacular and wonderfully photographed, and the action scenes utterly audacious. The two stand-outs are an underwater scene where a zombie takes on a large shark (amazingly captured by a stuntman in zombie dress grappling with an actual shark) and the character Paola suffering an eyeball spearing courtesy of a large splinter of wood.
Tasty Morsel – The script for Flesh Easters was written before Dawn of the Dead, but to link the film to Romero’s bookend scenes in New York were added.
- THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)
Despite the assumption that the films featured on the video nasty list were nothing but contemptible and exploitative, with the benefit of hindsight there is much to herald about a number of the seventy two. Cannibal Holocaust (1979) despite being a strong test for the stomach was perhaps the first example of a "found footage” movie, something The Blair Witch Project (1999) cashed in on twenty years later. The Last House on the Left (1972), with its twisted take on The Virgin Spring (1960), and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) were controversial but sparked much debate on feminism and depictions of on screen violence. But at the time of the video nasty brouhaha most commentators were unable to see past the lurid video covers. One of most shocking jackets belonged to Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979). It showed a bearded man screaming through a face full of claret as a power drill bored a hole in his forehead. "The blood runs in rivers…and the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone” the cover proudly declared. The truth was slightly less sensational and gore-hounds who rushed home from their local video outlet eager to witness a slew of starlets Black and Deckered into oblivion were disappointed. The film follows a New York artist called Reno (Ferrara himself) who slowly loses his grip on reality. His sanity slipping and struggling to pay his bills Reno takes to the streets of New York with a power drill. The fact that the murders may be taking place in Reno’s head rather than in real life did not appease the DPP and the movie was one of the thirty nine successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Ferrara could care less though and he took his grubby film style on to create such classics as King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992).
Tasty Morsel – The film remained banned in the UK until 1999 when the then head of the BBFC James Ferman finally retired. Movie fans rejoiced, untold previously banned classics were released and Britain did not disappear down a pit of depravity.
- INFERNO (1980)
Most people’s perception of a video nasty is a movie that depicts god awful things happening to scantily clad women, axes through the nether regions, machetes up the bum, that sort of thing. What actually got a number of movies onto the DPP’s list was violence against animals, mostly due to the fact that the footage used was not fake. Stock footage of alligators, turtles and other creatures being slaughtered certainly got Cannibal Holocaust (1979) and Faces of Death (1979) into trouble. But while those films featured many other graphic atrocities, the only thing deemed wrong with Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) was a scene of a cat eating a mouse. Why the DPP thought this everyday occurrence would bring about the fall of Western civilisation beggars belief. We’d been watching Tom and Jerry go at it for years. Inferno was Argento’s sequel to his horror masterwork Suspiria (1977) and it stands as the most highbrow film on the DPP’s list. Mouse murder aside, the film is beautiful example of Argento’s work, another horror fairytale and the second part of his Three Mothers Trilogy (completed with The Mother of Tears (2007)). As always with Argento’s work the visual was paramount and the look of Inferno topped even Suspiria’s startling appearance. Top of the astounding set pieces second time round was an eerie underwater sequence that an ill Argento was assisted with by fellow countryman and horror director Mario Bava. The story, a man investigating the disappearance of his sister in a New York apartment block, almost takes a back seat to what is an horrific treat for the eyes.
Tasty Morsel – The rats used in the film were Chinese Fighting rats specifically ordered by Argento. Unfortunately a number got loose and breeding with the local rats they plagued the studio for years to come.
- THE BOOGEY MAN (1980) / REVENGE OF THE BOOGEY MAN (1983)
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) had a long reach. Well into the eighties, some years after Michael Myers first lolloped around Haddonfield, slasher films were still pulling in big bucks. But whilst high in number most slice and dice movies were low in quality. A few classics did avoid the lazy option of filming some boob and kill scenes, and attempted to move the genre forward. In 1980 the German director Ulli Lommel journeyed to Los Angeles to inject some Euro horror sensibility into the slasher formula. Written by Lommel, the German director might have taken titular inspiration from Laurie Strode’s babysitting charge Tommy Jarvis and his constant whining about "the boogey man”. But rather than create another masked knife wielder Lommel turned a household object into his lead protagonist, an ordinary living room mirror. Hardly the stuff of nightmares you might think, but this twist on the slasher film was just enough to place The Boogey Man (1980) in front of the chasing pack. The spirit of a murdered lover inhabits the mirror in question, and leads to numerous off screen killings by a "mystery force”. This unknown quantity creates some genuine creeps as the dead Romeo pursues the children who were responsible for his premature demise. Broken shards of the mirror causing death by levitating object had a nice Argento-esque feel, as did the artful cinematography employed throughout. A pitch fork through one unfortunate woman’s breasts landed the film in trouble with the DPP, but it didn't stop Lommel making a sequel three years later. It was demanded guilty by association but its Hollywood set story of producers creating a movie of the first film’s events made for a refreshing part two.
Tasty Morsel – A third film, Return of the Boogey Man (1994), went straight to video in the early nineties. Lommel had no input.
- THE BURNING (1981)
When it comes to horror movies no matter how bad a film you can always find someone that will defend it, a lone fan that will champion it as a misunderstood masterpiece. Every one of the seventy two films on the video nasty list has aficionados that will slobber with enthusiasm over their particular favourite. Truth be told though, a good number of the films on the list were absolute rubbish. Some were stupid enough to fall into the so-bad-they’re-good category, Killer Nun (1983), Pranks (1981). Others were wise enough to steal from other more successful horror films, such was the case with this Tony Maylam directed effort. The Burning (1981) was one of the first movies from new production company Miramax, started by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and eager to kick start their enterprise with a successful venture they took copious notes from recent megahit Friday The 13th (1980). Landing in a similar summer camp setting The Burning concocted a Jason Vorhees-esque mythical killer storyline (very loosely based on the actual "Cropsey" urban legend from New York state). Camp caretaker Cropsy (so called because of his fondness for garden shears; you can see where this is going) is burnt alive as a result of a prank gone wrong. Five years later he returns for a revenge induced killing spree. The story was not very inspired but Maylam had some interesting support to elevate his movie above the flood of fellow slasher flicks. Effects maestro Tom Savini turned down Friday The 13th Part 2 (1981) to work on the film. His superb work elevates the films graphic scenes, most notably the log raft massacre in which Cropsy offs five vacuous teens and lops off one unfortunates fingers with a swift snip of his shears. On the aural front the film had former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman whipping up a musical storm. All combined it made for an entertaining slice and dice feature in the traditional mould most slasher fans craved.
Tasty Morsel – Keep your eyes peeled for a young Holly Hunter in a blink and you’ll miss role.
- THE BEYOND (1981) / HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)
Italian horror films are held in high regard by fans of the genre. Groundbreaking, taboo busting, artful and unique, horror lovers bow down to the greats of Argento, Bava with fevour and passion. Rightly so, the Italian horror maestros have provided many a masterpiece. But what a lot of fans refuse to acknowledge is that a greater number of them produced unintelligible drivel. For a film to be entertaining the viewer at least has to understand what the hell is going on, and for many Italian horror films the who, where and why is simply lost in translation or it some cases not bothered with in the first place. It took a great director to toy with this notion of confusion to beneficial affect. Lucio Fulci was just such a man and three of his very best offerings found their way onto the video nasty inventory. Zombie Flesh Eaters (1980) introduced many to the director and ravenous for more of his unique filmmaking fans snapped up two of his more successful subsequent outings. The Beyond (1981) was the second part of what fans called Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy (the first part being City of the Living Dead (1980)) and concerned a New York woman that inherits an old hotel in the sticks. The hotel sits on a portal to hell and when her renovation work disturbs the gateway all hell, quite literally, breaks loose. The House By The Cemetery (1981) completed the unofficial three part story and told a similar tale, with a New England house concealing a portal to hell in its basement. In both films, Fulci treated western audiences to further prime cuts of his unparalleled vision, once again assisted by the expert cinematographer Sergio Salvati. Scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti was also on hand again to help contribute more mystifying plot twists and two more confounding story conclusions that took the madness of bewildering horror to its very limits.
Tasty Morsel – In The Beyond’s final scene, the bodies lying on the floor were street tramps that Fulci convinced to take part in the scene when he was short of extras. They were allegedly paid in alcohol.
- THE FUNHOUSE (1981)
When the police swooped on video rental outlets to seize "illegal” cassettes there was never any logic as to what films would be nabbed. Some officers looked for titles that had keywords such as "chainsaw”, "cannibal” or "don’t”, while others would just grab any horror film that came to hand. Others went further and confiscated any title that appeared horrific or rude, famously leading to one nitwit officer impounding a copy of Samuel Fuller’s classy war film The Big Red One (1980) believing its title referred to something much less savoury. One can only hope that his fellow officers ripped the piss out of him for weeks afterward. In the end it seemed that any horror movie might fall foul of the DPP’s list, whether there were worse films on the market or not. Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981) was one such movie. The director’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was highly controversial at the time (though it was never on the video nasty list as most people make the mistake of thinking) and to the police Hooper’s name sullied most of his subsequent pictures. His Death Trap (1977) (aka. Eaten Alive) had already been dumped on the DPP’s list, and the same fate befell The Funhouse. The movie was the first big budget horror film from Universal in some time and the feature had plenty of the studios old thriller magic. We follow four friends who, on a dare, decide to spend the night in a fairground funhouse. The rides assistant, Gunther, is a deformed psychopath and the quartet witness him killing a prostitute who mocks him for premature ejaculation. Together with his father Gunther then hunts down the group of teens to hide his crime. Early eighties slasher fun coupled with colourful Universal traditions ensue.
Tasty Morsel – Horror writer Dean R. Koontz wrote the film’s novelisation under the pseudonym Owen West. He added a lot of back story to the characters to make it a full length novel, and due to delays in production the book came out before the film.
- DEAD AND BURIED (1981)
Most of the films on the nasties list were cheaply made, exploitation pictures. Made on a shoestring budget by filmmakers whose only aim was to reap a quick buck, its little surprise that a lot of them look low-rent and are about as entertaining as a punch to the groin. And while the government’s video crackdown relied solely on sensationalism and fraudulent investigations to gain momentum, video producers didn’t help matters. Most companies relied on overly graphic adverts and front covers to lure in the punters, efforts that deliberately courted controversy. But not all of the video nasties went for the explicit approach. Some, such as Dead and Buried (1981), had genuine pedigree but were swept up in the "stomach churning gore will turn your kids into killers” hysteria. This Gary Sherman directed picture proudly boasted scriber Dan O’Bannon as a scriptwriter, fresh off of the success of Alien (1979) and Stan Winston on special effects duties. But a lofty crew and a BBFC certified cinema release did nothing to save it from the wrath of the DPP, especially when there was a hypodermic needle in the eye scene to contend with. Punctured eyeballs were only a tiny part of what was an effective paranoid horror tale. Taking cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) our on screen emissary is Dan Gillis, the Sheriff of Potters Bluff. The coastal town hides a secret that Gillis must unravel to solve a spate of murders, but the more he digs the more he wishes he left well alone. A particularly pleasing final twist rewards a patient build up. One of the most traditionally cinematic films of all the video nasties, Sherman’s film is more likely to appeal to everyday movie fans than most of the seventy two.
Tasty Morsel – The infamous eye in the needle shot was created with the help of Winston who created an incredibly life-like doll especially for the scene.
- THE EVIL DEAD (1982)
There were a great deal of laughs to be found on the DDP’s horror catalogue, most of them unintentional. Whether it was the fake severed limbs fashioned by slapping pig entrails on to the end of a mannequin arm, or the dodgy over-dubbing of an Italian produced epic, the video nasties harvested just as many chuckles as they did frights. The American movie Delirium (1979) unwittingly utilised the theme tune to UK quiz show Mastermind for its musical score, making it a riotous hoot for British viewers. The nasty that best married laughs and scares, intentionally so, was the Godfather of video nasty The Evil Dead (1982). Mary Whitehouse labelled it "the number one nasty” (despite not having watched it), a crown that the film wears proudly to this day. Sam Raimi’s movie had a fearsome reputation in many countries (partly due to one notorious scene where the character Cheryl is raped by a tree) but it eventually got cleared in Britain by cooler heads that finally saw it for the horror masterpiece it clearly was. On a shoestring budget Raimi and his fellow film student compatriots crafted a genuinely original viewing experience. Five students spend a weekend away at a deserted cabin in the woods. When they play a tape recording of the Book of the Dead found in the basement they unknowingly unleash demons that possess them one by one. The story was cliché but the off the wall filming methods Raimi utilised were far from ordinary, employing bizarre camera angles, peculiar sound effects, and guerrilla techniques previously unheard of. The over the top gore was just one example of the black humour that also ran throughout, best encapsulated by a tour de force performance by Raimi’s long time friend, actor Bruce Campbell. An even zanier sequel and loose remake followed, Evil Dead 2 (1987), with the story capped off by the slightly disappointing Army of Darkness (1992).
Tasty Morsel – The startling point-of-view shots when the demons are floating through the woodland were achieved by simply nailing a camera to a plank of wood and running along with it.
- NIGHTMARE MAKER (1982)
Of the seventy two films that were on the DPP’s hit-list, thirty nine were successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 while the remaining thirty three were acquitted. Ironically, this archaic censoring helped the discerning viewer pick out the quality video nasties from the twaddle. Most of the nasties that were worth watching fell into the exonerated category, while drivel such as Snuff (1976) and The Devil Hunter (1980) were mercifully kept off limits. One of the best movies to fall foul of the DPP’s crusade was William Asher’s Nightmare Maker (1982). Titled Night Warning, The Evil Protégé and Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker in other markets, it is hard to find anything in the movie that might have unravelled the social fabric of the British Isles. The most controversial aspect is the implied incestuous relationship between the film’s central character Billy and his aunt Cheryl (something that was much more of an issue in the nasty Island of Death (1976), where one its many unpleasant scenes depicted a brother and sister having sex in a phonebox and calling their mother to listen in). Billy has been framed for murder by a local homophobic policeman, implying a gay love triangle in the process. But the real killer is Billy’s aunt Cheryl and her obsession with her nephew leads to a night of terror. The film was artfully shot by Asher and the director crafted an intriguing movie from a potentially exploitative story. In particular, the opening car crash that offs Billy’s parents was a spectacular scene, co-directed by a young Jan De Bont, who went on to direct such blockbusters as Speed (1994) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003).
Tasty Morsel – Keep your eyes peeled for a young Bill Paxton, here credited as William Paxton, in the role of Eddie.