Where to begin with video nasties

Holding your hand as you explore the gnarly world of the so-called video nasties, which sent shock waves through the UK in the early 1980s

9 August 2021

By Lindsay Hallam

Tenebrae (1982)

Why this might not seem so easy

In the early 1980s Britain was besieged by a moral panic, with the coming of VHS leading to previously unclassified films flooding the market. That these videos were available unrestricted for all ages was seized upon by press and parliament alike, who saw in them the potential corruption of the young. 

These films were termed ‘video nasties’, with the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) creating an ever-changing list of films that were to be charged under the Obscene Publications Act. Seventy-two videos in total appeared on the list, with 39 of them successfully prosecuted.

Therefore, no film was actually made with the intention of being branded a nasty. The list of films is rather arbitrary – these are not quantifiably “the nastiest films ever made” – but simply what came under scrutiny at the time. There is a wide variety of films included, in subject matter, style, tone, budget, origin and quality. Some have since become genre classics, while others have faded into obscurity. Some make strong political statements, while others are cynical exercises in exploitation.      

The best place to start – The Evil Dead

Written and directed by Sam Raimi when he was just 20 years old, The Evil Dead (1981) is the quintessential ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ horror movie. Now considered to be a bona-fide cult classic, it spawned two sequels, a spin-off television series, video games, comic books and a 2013 remake. Featuring a rare example of a ‘final boy’, lead actor Bruce Campbell has become a cultural icon, although the Ash of the first film is not quite yet the wisecracking asskicker he blossoms into. 

The Evil Dead (1981)

The violence is graphic, with its fair share of decapitations, eye-gouging and axe-wielding, but all of it is played with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The story is stripped down and the action moves at a fast pace, much like its signature tracking shots through the woods. The slapstick elements come to the fore in the film’s final scenes of gory violence (subsequently pushed even further in the sequels), with Raimi citing The Three Stooges as a key influence. This influence is absent though in the infamous scene of ‘tree rape’, a moment that even Raimi now admits was a step too far. 

Sexual violence is pervasive throughout most of the video nasty list, in some cases gratuitous, while in others the act of rape is central to the narrative, as in I Spit on Your Grave (1978), a film that some argue is a feminist text.

What to watch next

If you can handle The Evil Dead, then it’s time to move onto stronger stuff. While there is plenty of American fare on the DPP list, there were just as many films from Italy, which had a thriving horror and exploitation film industry. No subject was taboo, with cannibal films, gore-ridden zombie films and even ‘Naziploitation’ films having moments of popularity. 

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

None were more notorious than Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which was surrounded by controversy and banned in many countries due its scenes of rape, murder and animal cruelty. Deodato found himself not only charged with obscenity in Italy, but was also accused of making a snuff film, with rumours that actors were really killed on camera.  
The film follows a group of filmmakers who travel to the Amazon to film an Indigenous tribe. The crew end up missing; later their footage is found, revealing the filmmakers to have been much more savage than the supposed cannibals they were there to document. The film is thus one of the earliest examples of the found footage format, conveying a realism that was almost too convincing.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

 At the heart of the film, though, is a damning commentary on the exploitation of Indigenous people, the plundering of the natural world, and the questionable ethics of journalists and documentary filmmakers of the time (Deodato was initially inspired by media coverage of the Red Brigades). 

Similar examination on the effects of violence on the viewer can also be found in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1981), when a horror novelist finds that his books have become the inspiration for a series of copycat murders – exactly the situation that moral crusaders at the time believed the nasties would incite. Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders (1975) riffs on another entry on the list, The Last House on the Left (1972), but eschews the uncomfortable comedic elements of Craven’s film with a blistering critique on class and the lingering remains of Italy’s fascist past. 

Argento, along with other contemporaries such as Mario Bava (whose proto-slasher A Bay of Blood (1971) is also on the DPP list), and Lucio Fulci – appearing three times with Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), The Beyond (1981) and The House by the Cemetery (1981) – have since been venerated as auteurs, their films now released uncut and remastered in deluxe Blu-ray editions. 

The Beyond (1981)

Where not to start 

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) is a devastating portrait of a failing marriage, a demented descent into sexual transgression and Lovecraftian horror, and a showcase for one of the most incredible performances ever committed to film. Isabelle Adjani won best actress at Cannes and the Cesar Award for her role in this film, as a woman retreating from her duties as wife and mother, surrendering instead to darker desires that manifest in inhuman ways. 

Possession (1981)

To watch this film in the context of the video nasty scandal demonstrates the haphazard and random nature of the films selected, but an example of a ‘typical’ nasty it is not. Zulawski’s film sits more comfortably alongside the films of Bergman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder than the likes of Visiting Hours (1982) or Gestapo’s Last Orgy (1977).  

The female psyche and experience are laid bare in Possession, just as they are in another unlikely entry on the DPP list, The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976). Exploring the trauma of sexual abuse, the film has us sympathise with protagonist Molly’s plight, as her memories unravel and her violent fantasies become a reality.

Further reading

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