A collage of video nasty film posters

The History Behind Great Britain’s Video Nasty Craze of the 1980s

I recently watched a British horror movie called Censor. The film follows a British censor named Enid during the video nasty era of 1980s Great Britain. Her job is to cut out violent scenes from horror films, and then approve the edited version for distribution. Enid is haunted by the strange disappearance of her sister when the two were children. Enid struggles to recall what happened to her younger sister. After viewing a film that resembles her sister’s disappearance, Enid obsessively attempts to solve the mystery. The film follows Enid’s gradual mental breakdown as she tries to solve the mystery of her sister’s disappearance. Outside of the main plot, the film explores the nature of violent horror films; do these films incite violent acts within the viewer? The film also pays tribute to video nasty films. The visual style of Censor resembles several films from the era.

But what exactly was the video nasty era? What criteria were used to judge violent horror films? And what were some famous examples of video nasty films? All of these questions will be answered below.

Defining Video Nasties

In short, a video nasty is a film, usually a horror film, that includes scenes of extreme violence. The violence depicted usually includes extreme blood and gore, torture, and graphic sexual violence, like rape. Other video nasties contain explicit nudity and sex scenes. Overall, any film considered overly violent or obscene was deemed a video nasty.

A contemporary headline from a British newspaper claiming video nasties caused a violent crime.
Moral groups in Great Britain feared violent films inspired violent acts in real life. Source: Pinterest

Video nasties were generally cheaply made and were designed as money-making films. The majority were made quickly on a shoe string budget. Popular genres for video nasty films were horror, action, and other exploitation films. The filmmakers looked to capitalize off its violent and graphic content. As a result, many filmmakers touted their films as the most violent, brutal movie ever made. Others highlighted the fact that several countries banned the film.  They knew that the appeal of their films was the controversy surrounding the film and its content. Therefore, audiences were drawn into watching the gory violence or depraved sex scenes.

History

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, films in Great Britain were regulated and passed by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC). This board censored or banned any film deemed unsuitable for audiences, whether it be a result of violent, overly sexual, or other disturbing content. However, there was no governing body or legislation regulating home videos. This problem became evident in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when home video recorders became popular in Great Britain.

At first, major film distributors were wary of home video for fear of piracy. As a result, independent filmmakers and distributors took advantage of this new market and flooded it with cheaply made exploitation films. These often contained explicit content, such as gore, nudity, and sexual violence. Many of the films distributed on home video were previously banned by the BBFC. However, because of the lack of home video regulations, these films found new life on video.

National Outrage

The video nasty problem became a major issue when UK distributing company Vipco released the 1979 splatter film The Driller Killer on video. The video’s cover depicted the Driller Killer using his drill to kill a man through the forehead. The cover caused an uproar with parents and religious groups. However, only a few months later, another distributor called Go Video distributed the infamous 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust. To garner more publicity for their video’s release, Go Video wrote a letter to Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association complaining about their own film.

The poster for The Driller Killer.
The release of The Driller Killer on home video kicked off the video nasty craze. Source: ScienceFiction.com

As a result, an outraged Whitehouse began a campaign against films she deemed “video nasties”. Soon British newspapers The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times brought the issue to a national audience. Now more and more people have expressed their outrage against video nasties, and many more joined the crusade to ban these films. The main concern of this outraged demographic was the fear that children would watch these graphic films. Some feared the video nasties had the power to inspire violence in young, impressionable people.

New Laws

The outrage surrounding video nasties led to a new law called the Video Recordings Act 1984. Under this new act, the BBFC was renamed the British Board of Film Classification. The revamped board could now regulate and certify both cinema and video releases. The new BBFC stated that all videos released after September 1 1985 had to comply with the Act and pass certification by the BBFC. Once the Act came into effect, censors began to edit out explicit scenes from low-budget horror and exploitation films. If the censors felt a film should not be distributed, it was placed on a banned film list. In addition, any of the films listed on the banned list could be prosecuted on obscenity charges. In total, 72 films made it on to the video nasty list.

But these cheap exploitation films weren’t the only movies being examined by British censors. Mainstream movies, like The Exorcists and Straw Dogs, containing explicit content were heavily cut for home video release.

The Video Recordings Act also created an underground market for banned films. The new law made the supply of banned videos a criminal offense, as well as selling these videos to under-aged people. Because of this, people had to use other methods to obtain banned videos. Some video stores stored banned videos in the back room or under the counter, which they then loaned out to people. Other times, independent filmmakers sold their banned videos themselves.

Relaxation of the Laws

The Video Recordings Act remained in place well into the 1990s. However, the public started to see through the justifications for the Act. The main reason for the Act was to prevent copycat crimes inspired by explicit films. Some groups genuinely believed violent exploitation films directly influenced real-life crimes. But the general public soon realized there was no correlation between the two. By the 2000s, the public demanded the relaxation of film censorship. The BBFC began to loosen its restrictions at the 18 age level. Soon, films like The Exoricist and other video nasties were released in their original uncut form. Despite the loosening of censorship restrictions, a few video nasty films are still hard to locate, while others are still missing content.

Video Nasty Films

The following is a list of video nasty films. The films on this list are the most notable movies to have been banned or condemned by the BBFC. Some of the following films even remain controversial to this day. We’ll kick off the list with arguably the most controversial film in history.

Cannibal Holocaust: 1980

The poster for Cannibal Holocaust.
Cannibal Holocaust is arguably the most violent film on the video nasty list. Source: IMDb

Directed by Rugerro Deodato, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most disturbing, violent, and controversial films of all time. The plot centers around a New York professor on a mission to the Amazon jungle. His objective is to discover the fate of a missing documentary film crew. The professor soon stumbles upon a cannibal tribe. He discovers the tribe have a film cannister belonging to the missing film crew. Upon returning to New York, the professor watches the film. He witnesses the film crew commit various atrocities towards the native population and wildlife. Soon, the tribe turns on the crew. The professor is left horrified at what he has witnessed.

There are many reasons why Cannibal Holocaust is controversial. First, the film features genuine animal violence. Some scenes actually show animals being killed in gruesome ways. This sparked outrage from animal rights groups and remains a point of contention to this day. The second reason is the film’s graphic and realistic violence. Some examples of this include dismemberment and sexual assault. The violence was so realistic that Deodato was accused of murdering members of his cast. He was saved only when the cast members appeared in court to prove they were alive.

Banned

As a result of its content, Cannibal Holocaust was banned in several countries. The film initially escaped any censorship in Great Britain, but its distribution was pulled after the Video Recordings Act passed. The film was successfully prosecuted and banned in the country. For years, heavily edited versions of Cannibal Holocaust were the only available copies of the film. In 2011, the BBFC approved a new version of the film, this time with only 15 seconds of cut footage.

While some countries have released Cannibal Holocaust largely unedited, many countries prohibit the film; it is banned in over 50 countries. The film’s depiction of sexual violence, animal cruelty, and graphic brutality continues to garner widespread controversy.Cannibal Holocaust also played a part in igniting the video nasty craze in Great Britain.

Blood Feast: 1963

The film poster for Blood Feast. The poster has no color except for bright blood red.
Blood Feast is considered the original splatter film. Source: Roger Ebert

Blood Feast is the oldest film to appear on the video nasty list. The film is directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, who many consider the founder of splatter horror films. During the 1960s, Lewis directed several films that contained gore, violence, and plenty of bright red blood. While his films may look outdated today, at the time they were extremely controversial. Audiences were not used to seeing such bloody violence on the screen. And many certainly were not prepared for Blood Feast.

The film’s story follows an Egyptian caterer killing and dismembering women to revive a dormant Egyptian goddess. As the body count rises, a detective tries to track the killer down. The plot is very thin and the acting questionable as the film focuses on the gore. Various body parts are extracted from the victims, such as limbs, a brain, and even a tongue. While the gore effects are outdated, audiences in 1963 must have been extremely shocked by what they saw.

Blood Feast was prosecuted and banned with several other video nasty films. Like many others, the copies of the film only existed in their heavily cut version. In 2001, BBFC released Blood Feast with 23 seconds cut out. In 2005, the uncut version was finally released in Great Britain. Even though the effects may seem tame by today’s standards, Blood Feast paved the way for the splatter genre. Its bloody content confirmed the film’s place on the video nasty list.

Fight For Your Life: 1977

A still from Fight For Your Life. The main villain is holding the family captive.
Fight For Your Life was banned for the racist language of the main villain. Source: IMDb

Described as “a mean trashy exploitation picture“, Fight For Your Life depicts three convicts escaping from jail and hiding out at the home of a black minister. The three convicts terrorize the family in various ways. Eventually, the minister and his family must rise up and dispose of the violent criminals.

Unlike the other video nasty films, Fight For Your Life was banned due to the racism of the main villain. The racial epithets shocked and offended many groups. Like the other video nasties, Fight For Your Life was outlawed in 1984. To this day, the film is unavailable in Great Britain. However, distributors Blue Undergorund released the film in the U.S. British film fans can only hope this will happen in their country in the near future.

The Evil Dead: 1981

The film poster for the Evil Dead. A woman is being dragged into the ground by a deformed arm.
The Evil Dead was regarded as the most gory film of its time. Source: IMDb

Before he directed big budget films, Sami Rami made a name for himself in the horror genre. In 1981, he released his directorial debut, The Evil Dead. The film focuses on a group of young adults who stay at a remote cabin in the woods. There they discover an audio tape. When they play the tape, it releases a legion of demons determined to destroy the group. One by one, members of the group are possessed until only Ash Williams (played by Bruce Cambell) remains to defeat the demonic horde. Rami made the film without any regard for ratings or censorship. Therefore, he made the film as gruesome as possible. The Evil Dead is known for its copious amount of blood, gore, and other forms of violence. The ending sequence, in particular, includes copious amounts of blood and gore. As a result, the film received an X rating upon release.

The Evil Dead was extremely popular on home video. In Great Britain, the film was the most popular video release. The film also attracted notoriety and controversy for its gruesome material. Before long, the film attracted the attention of the BBFC. Expectedly, censors took issue with the film’s content. They also regarded the film as one of the most violent films of the time. All of this controversy only increased the popularity of the films. As a result people called the film the number one nasty. Several countries banned The Evil Dead. However, the BBFC did not ban or prosecute the film for obscenity.

The Evil Dead Legacy

Sami Rami directed two sequels to The Evil Dead. He also went on to a successful career directing big budget movies like The Amazing Spiderman in 2002. While Rami has largely left the horror genre behind, he will always be known for making The Evil Dead. And in Great Britain, the film will always be remembered as the number one video nasty.

Conclusion

The film poster for Cesnor. The main character appears on a 1980s television screen. Two hands hold the set. In the background there is a close up shot of someones eye.
Censor celebrates video nasty films and the culture of the video nasty era. Source: Metacritic.

The video nasty craze marked an era of film censorship in Great Britain. During this era, films containing graphic violence were either heavily edited before release or banned outright. Famous examples include Cannibal Holocaust and The Driller Killer. The video nasty era ended when audiences demanded relaxation on film censorship. Eventually, previously banned films were released uncut on DVD and Blu-ray. For the first time, audiences could watch these films in their original form.

In recent years, several films celebrated video nasties, most notably Censor in 2021. These films recreate the visual style of video nasty films. They also celebrate the culture of the video nasty era. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that more attention will be brought to video nasties. More people will get to watch those films in all their blood-drenched glory.

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