A brief guide to 'video nasties'

James Oliver 2 September 2021

The 1980s saw the advent of VHS and with it the era of 'video nasties'; lurid horror movies that bypassed censor checks

You'll no doubt have heard about this new film Censor, and if you haven't you should, because it's really rather good. It's a horror film, all about a traumatised young woman working as a film censor in the days of the great video nasties panic and—

“Hold on!” you cry. “This 'great video nasties panic'. What in heaven's name was that?”

A fair question, and one we shall do our best to answer. Let's go back to the start of the 1980s, when VHS first started to take off in this country. Although films-in-the-cinema needed the censor's OK before being screened, films-on-video didn't. That meant anything could be found in suburban video libraries, including a variety of lurid horror movies.

The fear that impressionable young children were watching these lurid horror movies led the Daily Mail (and others) to campaign to ban this sick filth, which were dubbed “Video Nasties”. As we'll see, however, this was something of an exaggeration (if you want to call it “a good old fashioned moral panic” you just go right ahead).

We're going to look at a few video nasties here to get you in the mood for Censor, most of them readily available and most of them very far from their tabloid reputations.

Zombie Flesh Eaters

Just stand back for a moment and admire that title. You don't need a synopsis after that, do you? Everything you need to know, right there in the title.

A relatively tame film—at least by the standards of its director Lucio Fulci—it seems likely that it was that title which attracted the attentions of the censorious. If they'd called it “Zombie” (as it was known in the US), it might have stayed on the shelves of our nation’s video stores for longer. But while it was there, at least it burned brightly.

Bay of Blood

Talking of titles, this film has had more “monikers” that any other. “Chain Reaction”, “Twitch of a Death Nerve”, “Last House on the Left Part II” (???), “Carnage”, “Blood Bath”... all of them one and the same movie. And whatever you call it, it's extremely good, a brilliant black comedy-whodunnit where it turns out the murderer is... well, everyone, basically.

It's not noticeably more gory that today's TV detective dramas but for someone obviously found it beyond the pale as it was slapped with a ban. Which makes you wonder what they were playing at...

The Driller Killer

Another title that tells you all you need to know. Or does it?

Anyone rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of being depraved and/ or corrupted by this movie would be sorely disappointed. It's a study of urban alienation; the real comparison is to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver rather than anything else on this list.

The suspicion is that it was banned not for its content but for its title, and the video box art which showed one of the few moments of bloodshed. It seems likely that the authorities didn't actually bother to watch any of these film but instead just picked on the ones which had the best pictures on the cover. Which, to be fair, was how everyone else selected videos back in the day.

Flesh for Frankenstein

Unlike most of the films on this list, Flesh For Frankenstein comes with a pedigree. It was produced by no less than Andy Warhol, and even features one of his Factory-workers, “Little” Joe Dallesandro (as mentioned in “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed).

Not that America's most public post-war artist had a great deal to do with the film; it was directed by Paul Morrissey and it is he who controls the rights and makes it difficult to see (not the censor). Still, it's all part of the Warhol mythology even if, sadly, it didn't start a trend: just imagine David Hockney's And Now The Screaming Starts! or Lucien Freud's The Blood on Satan's Claw. We've missed out.

Blood Feast

In the early 1960s, when America was still a clean, agreeable place where people drank soda pop and said “swell”, producer David Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis had an idea. They'd been making (self-explanatory) “nudie” films, but so was everyone else. Casting around for a fresh gimmick to draw the crowds, they came up with a cracker: extreme gore!

Blood Feast was the first of these efforts but its pioneering status is about all it does have going for it. It's boring, silly and the so-called “gore” effects are risible. So the fact it made it on to the banned list suggests two possibilities: (1) that the censors were delicate little flowers who still slept with the light on or (2) no one bothered to watch it. Neither is a terribly good look.

Possession

A real oddity among other video nasties; where most were unmitigated trash, this one played film festivals and found favour with the critics. It's set in divided Berlin, where Sam Neill plays a man who thinks his wife is having an affair. And so she is, with—er—a big tentacled blob.

Made at the intersection of the grind house and the art house, Possession is a peculiarity, and not an entirely successful one either. It didn't deserve all the awards it won. But it certainly didn't deserve to be banned.

The Evil Dead

Now here's an interesting one. Like so many of the films branded as video nasties, the distributors of The Evil Dead trimmed the bits which gave the censors conniptions and released it in a toned- down edition. Only it didn't quite work.

As directed by a young man called Sam Raimi—he'd go on to make the Tobey Maguire Spiderman films—Evil Dead was as much slapstick as splatter. But by blunting the excess, the cuts made it far more intense than Raimi intended, turning it into a very different thing indeed, one that probably far more disturbing than the un-touched original.

Contamination

Contamination is one of the most likeable of the nasties, a cheerful rip-off of Ridley Scott's Alien (but set on earth). These days, you can pick it up on blu-ray in a lavishly appointed special edition. It's rated 15; the same film that was deemed so dangerous back in the day is now suitable for people still at school. Few things demonstrate the sheer stupidity of censorship better than that.

The Bogey Man

One of the consequences of the way these films were banned is that all of them gained instant cult appeal. Fans sought them out, ticking them off their own “to watch” list, like trainspotters. As times have changed, these films have been given deluxe releases on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Very few of them actually deserve it, especially not The Bogey Man which is badly paced, silly and incredibly dull. But thanks to the cachet of once being banned, it gets the full treatment while other, much better, films gather dust on the shelves.

Do you think this was actually part of a cunning plan? That those who disliked horror films decided to annoy those of us who do by deliberately creating a situation where we'd have to waste our time watching all manner of dross? It's possible. Meanwhile, it's a great shame films can't be banned for being boring.

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