2009 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary since artistic freedom almost became extinct in the UK. The ‘video nasty’ witch-hunt, which saw moral watchdogs, tabloid newspapers and the police joining hand-in-hand on their clampdown against immortal and sick filth, would result in countless movies being outlawed for the next decade. The Video Recordings Act 1984, which eventually came into effect on September 1 1985, forced all distributors and filmmakers to submit their products for classification before being released onto home video. As the government and the Advertising Standards Agency went into a frenzy over the possibility that children would be able to view such atrocities as Cannibal Holocaust or Faces of Death, a list of main offenders was drafted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and those selected were removed from the shelves and refused a release.

The introduction of VHS and Betamax should have been cause for celebration, allowing viewers to watch movies in the comfort of their home whenever they desired. But the seventies had marked a drastic change in cinema, with many filmmakers taking the violence and sexuality within their work to the extreme. The genre was awash with images of disembowelment and cannibalism, whilst the rape/revenge film became commonplace following the success of Straw Dogs and The Last House on the Left. Some filmmakers, often Italian, would even invite controversy with some truly repugnant features produced during this era. Even the titles of some of these were enough to anger the censors. Thus, the likes of SS Experiment Camp and Killer Nun, films which otherwise would most likely have faded into obscurity, would become a target for the government.

killer nun

There were two films in particular which would become synonymous with the ‘video nasty.’ The first, and most reviled, was Sam Raimi’s low budget debut The Evil Dead, which would boast a scene in which one of the principal characters, a young woman, was raped by a tree. Despite later being cut from VHS releases, this sequence in particular succeeded in attracting the attention of the censors. When a full page poster of a man’s head being drilled for Abel Ferrara’s low budget art house slasher The Driller Killer was published by VIPCO, angry protests from parents resulted in the Advertising Standards Agency becoming aware of the growing trend of sick and perverted movies that were being produced.

One of the most instrumental in the fight against the video nasties was Mary Whitehouse, a moral decency spokeswoman who had launched a Clean Up TV campaign in the sixties and, disgusted after receiving an anonymous letter protesting against the barbaric nature of Cannibal Holocaust (which, it was later revealed, had actually been sent by its distributor), led the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in a fight against the new breed of pornography and smut that was being passed off as entertainment. It would be Whitehouse who would coin the term ‘video nasty,’ which would prompt the tabloids to follow suit and spark a nationwide panic, fuelled even further by an article printed in May 1982 in The Daily Mail entitled ‘How high street horror is invading the home.’


Their main target were slasher films and Italian exploitation, most notably zombie and cannibal flicks. There were several directors whose work was constantly singled out, including Joe D’Amato, Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato and, most notoriously, Lucio Fulci. The latter would appear on the DPP list three times, whilst all copies of his 1982 giallo Lo squartatore di New York (The New York Ripper) would be ordered out of the country. Slashers were another frequent cause for debate, resulting in several making their way onto the list after the controversy surrounding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years earlier. Amongst those singled out were The Dorm That Dripped Blood (under the alias Pranks), The Funhouse, Visiting Hours, Night School (aka Terror Eyes) and The Burning.

Overall, there would be seventy-four films that at one time or another would make their way onto the video nasty list, some appearing more than once. The courts successfully managed to prosecute an astonishing thirty-nine films in total, although many of them would later be released uncut on DVD. Some, such as Fight for Your Life and La Maldicion de la Bestia (The Werewolf and the Yeti), are still unavailable in Britain. One prosecution saw the distributor of Romano Scavolini’s Nightmare (renamed Nightmare in a Damaged Brain) jailed for eighteen months after releasing a version of the film that was one minute longer than the cut approved by the BBFC, although he would only serve six.


One famous incident in which the witch-hunt would reach ridiculous extremes was during a seize in Manchester when police confiscated a copy of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which was not an adult film as they had believed but was in fact a Dolly Parton/Burt Reynolds musical. Capitalising on the fear that these films had caused, tabloids such as The Daily Mail ran several front page stories declaring that these sick and demented movies were corrupting the young. By the end of the decade the term ‘video nasty’ was no longer used, though most of those that had been featured on the list would remain banned in the UK until after the resignation of BBFC director James Ferman in 1999. Twenty-five years on and many of these films are still unavailable uncut!


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8 Responses to “ VIDEO NASTY DATABASE vol. 1 ”

  1. I am always fascinated by this piece of horror history. I think Madhouse (1981) was banned, which I still to this day can’t figure out why. It’s always interesting, if not positive, when you get a group of people together to decide how things should work when it comes to art or entertainment.

    Nice piece Christian!


  3. Thanks Amanda! Yes it was a bizarre time. I remember so many movies that other countries took for granted were unavailable over here. I think that’s why I got into slasher and zombie films from such a young age as they were the most graphic films available (most cannibal films were banned). But I guess at least I got to discover many of the more obscure ones on the list when I was older.

  4. I have always found Video Nasties Era fascinating. That had to be a weird time for you guys. Here in the US we got a lot of cut versions, but not like there. After Friday the 13th the censors got a little crazy here as most of the slasher movies had cuts, many where very minor but in some cases namely “Intruder” was completely butchered with NO gore left. And most of Argento’s movies were hacked as well, “Phenomena” cut by 28 minutes “Tenebrae” missing 10 minutes while” Suspiria”, was uncut, “House by the Cemetery”, “The Gates of Hell” and say “Burial Ground” were virtually uncut albeit very dark prints. Damn you Vestron Video. The First time I saw “House by…” in a bright widescreen print it was a whole new movie.
    I think in some cases it was the video covers & sleeves that caught censors eyes.

    I wanted to mention an excellent book on the subject. Shock! Horror! Astounding Artwork from the Video Nasty Era. It has full page pics of all the covers, with info on each film that was looked at as well as the official banned list and more. Very cool and worth checking out to anyone interested in the subject.

  5. What Cathedral above said is true about the “Shock! Horror!” book, it’s definitely worth the buy. Also, I found a documentary entitled “Ban the Sadist Videos” that was done in Britain on this subject. I’ve always thought it would be fun to go into more detail about it as it seems so much needs to be detailed about it, especially looking back on it now.

    And yeah, while this was before my time (I was born in 1984), it has totally become a love of mine to both research and learn about the “Video Nasties” era, and also search out the films that made the list. Between finding the movies on DVD in stores or on Netflix, I’m trying to see just why some were banned.

  6. On the documentary “Ban the Sadist Videos” there’s an old clip of MP Graham Bright who says “I believe these films not only effect children…but dogs too” !? :D

    Sums up the whole “video nasty” backlash to me.

  7. um, one question: Is Killer Nun a slasher? if yes, how good of a slasher it is?

  8. Kaijinu – Yes Killer Nun is a bit of a slasher and no it is not very good. And that’s coming from an Italian film freak.

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