Drills, Kills, and Cannibal Holocausts: A Beginner's Guide to Video Nasties

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Drills, Kills, and <i>Cannibal Holocaust</i>s: A Beginner's Guide to Video Nasties

In Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut Censor, out today, the Welsh filmmaker looks back at the notorious Video Nasty Era of British censorship, a fascinating and understudied chapter in recent film history.

With video cassettes newly popular in the early ‘80s, luridly disreputable horror titles took advantage of the U.K.’s then-unregulated home video market, pushing boundaries with their extreme and often sexualized violence. Due to a loophole in film classification laws, these films had been permitted to bypass a typical review process by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), and moral panic set in as authorities questioned what exposure to such explicit content would do to the general public. Following a campaign by various members of the press, social commentariat and religious organizations (including the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, led by influential activist Mary Whitehouse), the then-director of public prosecutions released a list of “video nasties” deemed in violation of obscenity laws, and police began the process of seizing tapes and prosecuting those involved in distributing them.

In 1984, fittingly enough, this era intensified with Parliament’s passage of the Video Recordings Act, which expanded the BBFC’s jurisdiction to include all home video releases. Censor, set in 1985, centers on a film censor named Enid (Niamh Algar), who screens the most violent and depraved horror flicks ‘80s Britain has to offer. Meticulously noting where filmmakers must chop and change their nasties in order to be passed, she sees censorship as a matter of protecting the public health. But when Enid screens a new exploitation title by an enigmatic director, some scenes bear a shocking resemblance to her own formative trauma, leading her down a psychological rabbit hole as she begins to explore long-repressed childhood memories and the more frightening realities they conceal.

But for those diving into this peculiar era of British film history for the first time in real life, an introduction might be in order. What were the video nasties? Typically, the films were low-budget horror fare from either the U.S. or Italy, but titles ran the gamut from stomach-churning exploitation (1977’s Gestapo’s Last Orgy and The Beast in Heat both belonged to the ill-advised but short-lived Naziploitation subgenre) to surprisingly artistic, high-brow explorations of taboo topics like trauma and childhood abuse (Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea, for example, is now streaming on the Criterion Channel).

In full, 72 titles were branded as “video nasties,” though only 39 of those titles were successfully prosecuted. With Censor out this week, here are ten of those originally listed films that are currently streaming for those interested in adding some color and controversy to their horror-history knowledge.

The Driller Killer (1979)

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Watch on Criterion Channel

This scuzzy second effort from Abel Ferrara (and first non-pornographic one, after the gloriously titled 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy) ran afoul of censors almost entirely on the basis of its explicitly violent cover, which depicted a man being drilled through the forehead by the killer and included the perhaps overly descriptive tagline: “As the drill finds its victim…the blood runs in rivers…and the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone.” But far from an emptily excessive gorefest, Ferrara’s film (predating his better-known provocations like Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant) can be seen as a skeleton key to the rest of the New York gutter poet’s filmography. Rough around the edges and subversive in its slapdash mixture of exploitation and black comedy, The Driller Killer works drug addiction, Catholic guilt, economic despair and moral deterioration into its story of a struggling artist’s descent into madness. What makes The Driller Killer a particularly ironic victim of the video nasties craze—and it was reportedly a key film in that period, pushing Parliament toward the Video Recordings Act—is that its main character (played by Ferrara) experiences psychosis brought on by his contempt for the seediness of 1970s New York. Overreacting to what he sees as the decay of the day, he picks up a drill and gets to bloody work, becoming a more immediate danger to the public than any of the institutions or epidemics he’d feared. This irony was apparently lost on the BBFC, as the film was not released uncut in the U.K. until 2002.


The Beyond (1981)

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Watch on Shudder

The crowning achievement of Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci, this hypnotic burst of midnight madness (the second in a trilogy that also included City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery) focuses on a young woman (Catriona MacColl) who inherits a hotel in rural Louisiana, only to discover that it conceals a gateway to hell. A hallucinatory fever dream rendered even more atmospheric by composer Fabio Frizzi’s nauseous, belching synths, The Beyond is Grand Guignol horror at its most unmoored, bathing the audience in an orgiastic display of crucifixions, impaled eyeballs, ravenous tarantulas, demon dogs, shambling zombies and flesh-dissolving acid. Censors did not appreciate Fulci’s go-for-broke gore and surrealism, and the sadism of The Beyond’s kills led to a full two minutes of cuts, though the film still became a success with ‘80s midnight audiences. The BBFC eventually passed the film uncut in 2001 and an uncensored version was rereleased stateside in part thanks to the efforts of Quentin Tarantino, via his Rolling Thunder production company.


Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

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Watch on Shudder

Italian provocateur Ruggero Deodato is credited with elevating Italian cannibal horror to a new level of global notoriety with Cannibal Holocaust, one of the most controversial titles to earn the “video nasty” distinction. Eventually released with six minutes of mandated cuts in 2001, this influential early entry in the found footage subgenre reveals the grisly fate of a camera crew that disappeared into the Amazon rainforest after setting out to document the region’s indigenous tribes. Deodato was inspired to make the film after noting the sensationalistic quality of news reports in Italy, and his commentary on that “if it bleeds, it leads” style of journalism involved subjecting audiences to a frenzy of murders, torture, sexual assaults and real animal killings. The fuzzy, degraded quality of the film only heightened its claims to guerrilla-style realism, which Deodato and his producers leaned into. Cannibal Holocaust didn’t only vex authorities in the U.K. Ten days after its premiere in Milan, the film was confiscated on the orders of a local magistrate, and when a magazine suggested that certain actors had actually been killed on set—sacrificed to the film’s story—Deodato was arrested on obscenity and murder charges. (He beat the latter, proving that Cannibal Holocaust was not in fact a snuff film by getting his allegedly murdered actors to appear on an Italian television program; that said, he was convicted of the former charge.)


The Evil Dead (1981)

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Watch on Hulu

It’s now regarded as a screw-loose horror classic, but Sam Raimi’s splatter-filled sensation (made by a 13-person crew in Tennessee), initially turned plenty of heads across the U.K., becoming a best-selling home video release and earning the wrath of moral crusader Mary Whitehouse (founder of the conservative National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, which led the charge against video nasties), who dubbed it the “number one nasty.” A cabin-in-the-woods cheapie that transcended its no-budget origins with gleefully over-the-top violence, tongue-in-lacerated-cheek humor and imaginative camerawork, The Evil Dead was particularly notorious upon its release for a scene in which a demonically possessed tree raped one of the college students who’d inadvertently unleashed an army of supernatural forces. Its poster, in which a demonic hand shot up through the ground to seize a scantily clad young woman by the neck, didn’t exactly win over censors, who saddled the film with an X-rating and attempted to prosecute Palace Video for distributing it. It wasn’t until 1985 that The Evil Dead, which some argued was out to satirize excessive horror rather than indulge in it earnestly, was removed from the video nasty list and re-released with cuts from the BBFC. It took until 2001 for the film to finally pass uncut.


The Burning (1981)

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Watch on Tubi

In this early ‘80s slasher, a horribly disfigured summer camp caretaker named Cropsy sets out to slaughter the latest group of camp counselors. Dark, slow-burning and mean-spirited, The Burning is an oddity among slashers of the period, not least of all thanks to a stacked cast featuring Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter. The film’s remembered fondly by horror hounds for its shockingly violent lake sequence, in which Cropsy uses garden shears to lay an entire raft of unsuspecting teenagers to waste. Though British video label Thorn EMI was approved to release a trimmed version of the film, it inadvertently released The Burning uncut in error, which led authorities to round up VHS copies and deem the film a video nasty. This one didn’t struggle as much as others to earn a release after that point; 30 seconds were trimmed in a 1992 release, but a fully uncut version passed by 2001.


A Bay of Blood (1971)

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This influential outing from one of Italy’s greatest horror maestros (who’d previously delivered such ‘60s giallo classics as Black Sunday, The Whip and the Body and Blood and Black Lace) found Mario Bava submerged in a surreally stylized fog somewhere between the macabre mysteries of his past and the more fitfully gory slashers that swept into American horror throughout the ‘70s. Wickedly funny and visually striking, A Bay of Blood opens as a wealthy countess is murdered by her dastardly husband, after which point the local area descends into a slaughterhouse as various ne’er-do-wells endeavor to claim her fortune. One of the more highly regarded films to be labeled a video nasty by British censors, its graphic violence was intense even for Bava; one particularly lurid scene found a couple in the throes of ecstasy abruptly interrupted by a spear being driven through both their backs and into the floor. Released with minor edits in 1994, A Bay of Blood didn’t receive a fully uncut release in the U.K. until 2010.


The Last House on the Left (1972)

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Watch on Hulu

Wes Craven is remembered as the granddaddy of slasher cinema, responsible for creating Freddy Krueger of the influential Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, then skewering the genre with Scream 12 years later. But his first film, this early ‘70s shocker, drew equal inspiration from rape-revenge films and Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, following the parents of a murdered girl who seek revenge on her psychotic, drug-addled killers. Viscerally disturbing but brutally effective, the film announced Craven’s place as a horror filmmaker to watch, even if some of its performances don’t hold up to much critical scrutiny. After being initially refused a certificate in 1974, the film was released uncut on home video in the U.K., running afoul of censors during the video nasty craze and ending up banned throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. It took until 2008, by which point British film critics including Mark Kermode had spent over a decade advocating for its artistic merit and historical value, for the BBFC to classify the uncut film for a video release.


The Funhouse (1981)

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Available to rent.

In his excellent new book Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, film critic Scout Tafoya makes the case for the Texas Chain Saw Massacre director as an essential American filmmaker beyond that influential 1974 slasher classic. Seven years after Texas, Hooper delivered another standout horror with The Funhouse, which Tafoya calls “the purest expression of his artistic and thematic interests,” about teenagers who attend a local carnival only to be hunted by a grotesque killer and nefarious carnival barker. Affectionately playing with Universal’s catalog of classic monsters as it twists a knife into the then-ubiquitous slasher genre, The Funhouse was one of the tamer films to be labeled a video nasty. Though it made the DPP’s initial list, the film was never prosecuted and had been released uncut by 1987. Some have suggested that the film’s inclusion was a mistake to begin with, given that the more shockingly violent Last House on Dead End Street had previously been released under the title The Fun House and somehow escaped inclusion.


Tenebrae (1982)

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Watch on Shudder

What list of video nasties would be complete without an entry from Dario Argento, reigning prince of giallo? Bearing plenty of similarities to his sadistically seductive Deep Red and following several of his more famous works, like 1977’s Suspiria and 1980’s Inferno, Tenebrae stands as one of Argento’s late-career highlights due to its vivid lighting and striking architecture. It’s also one of the director’s most relentlessly violent films. Opening as the murderer’s gloved hands hold a book bearing the film’s title up to flame, lamenting that he cannot resist the impulse to kill, Tenebrae then turns a horror novelist’s trip to Rome into a visually resplendent bloodbath. Self-referential, philosophically minded and filled with some of Argento’s most dementedly gorgeous kills (averaging one every ten minutes), Tenebrae is a towering achievement. But it arrived at the wrong moment in British film history; successfully prosecuted as a video nasty, it was banned from sale until 1999, at which point a version of the film missing six seconds was released. The BBFC later reclassified and passed the film in 2003 without any cuts.


Possession (1981)

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Though the majority of the entries on the list are streaming, other video nasties have been less accessible over the years. Possession is such a film, but its artistic merits speak particularly well to the arbitrary classifications authorities at the time used to put together their list of allegedly obscene films. Otherworldly and mesmerizing in its depiction of a marriage in agonized dissolution, this visceral freak-out from director Andrzej Zulawski follows the efforts of husband Mark (Sam Neill) to understand the abrupt change of heart that has led wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani, in a performance of startling primality and contortion that’s considered among the best ever committed to celluloid) to hide herself away in her Berlin apartment. What Mark uncovers during his investigation brings the film into lineage with waking chthonic nightmares like David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, though Possession also warrants comparison to Roman Polanski’s unmoored horror and the sophisticated, chilly marital dramas of Ingmar Bergman. After a brief theatrical run in the U.K., it was spuriously branded a video nasty and banned, thereafter earning acclaim as a cult classic. So butchered was the film for its initial U.S. release that it was short a third of its runtime and virtually unrecognizable. In 1999, the full-length 118-minute director’s cut was passed by the BBFC, after which point Possession became more widely seen and regarded as a lost masterpiece.


Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.