The Evil Dead and
Video Nasties

First published in The Guardian.

When The Evil Dead is re-released in cinemas later this month, there will be no ‘lost’ sequences added, no digital enhancements or 30 minutes of extra footage. The splatter classic’s 20th anniversary print comes complete with… well, complete with nothing, but complete at least. Raimi’s original vision is to remain exactly that – untouched. But what connoisseurs will get is the very first opportunity to watch The Evil Dead on the big screen on UK soil. With no cuts.

For fans, it’s big news. If The Wicker Man is the Citizen Kane of horror movies, then The Evil Dead is surely its Star Wars: a trilogy boasting an ever-increasing fanbase, a vocabulary that’s passed into the nerd lexicon (“Groovy!” “Come Get Some!”), action figures and videogames. Its iconography has been used, appropriated and spoofed everywhere, from TV’s Spaced to videogames like Duke Nukem. You either gets its mix of OTT gore, humour and kinetic, cavalier camerawork, or you don’t. Those who do have ensured its place as one of the best-loved horror films ever made.

It wasn’t always so. When the BBFC came to certify The Evil Dead last month it was not the first time they had been asked to do so. Last year the film was granted an 18 in its uncut form for video and DVD release. Prior to that, in 1990, the board had asked for one minute and six seconds of cuts before allowing the film a video release, and prior to that, in 1983, they required a 49-second snip for its X-certificate theatrical debut.

And on one other occasion, in 1985, they refused it a certificate altogether. The Evil Dead was banned, and in the process became one of the highest profile victims of the video nasties campaign which introduced a new era of film censorship to the UK.

The classification for cinema and video releases is vastly different. With cinema releases, the BBFC has always been an independent body making certification recommendations that local authorities are not legally bound to abide by. Councils and the board can – and sometimes do – differ. So when the board declined The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a certificate, Camden’s council was quite within its rights to go ahead and show it anyway. Conversely, when Westminster took against David Cronenberg’s Crash in 1996, it refused to allow the film to be screened despite the BBFC seal of approval. More recently the board became involved in a minor spat with Tinseltown over a supposed “aggressive” marketing campaign aimed at persuading councils to decrease Spider-Man’s 12 certificate to a PG. And we all know who directed Spider-Man. That’ll be Sam ‘Evil Dead’ Raimi.

It was the arrival of the video recorder that put a wasp up the nightie of this process. Video cassettes were subject to no regulation – the flaky Obscene Publications Act apart – and therefore enjoyed a period of freedom never seen before or since, a period of anarchy. Video nasties were pure punk, and for a generation of gore geeks the era was Year Zero, when the video shop was a cavern of lurid and sensationalist delights. The cover of SS Experiment Camp with its infamous image of a topless woman hanging in upside-down crucifixion; The Driller Killer, a close-up of a bit boring into the skull of its bearded, screaming victim; the gut-guzzling cannibal on the cover of Cannibal Holocaust. It was clear that we were no longer in Boris Karloff, or even Christopher Lee territory any more, and we were galaxies away from Daniel Farson’s Beaver Book Of Horror. Critic Kim Newman, the horror fan’s John Peel, remarked of the time: “Films which had seemed impossible artefacts imaginable only from stills in American magazines were freely available from high street shops in every town and city in the country.”

Not everybody was happy about it. It was Mary Whitehouse who first coined the term ‘video nasty’; The Daily Mail positively loathed them, and opportunistic solicitors made sure they were the mitigating circumstances responsible for every single crime of the age.

Things came to a head in 1984 when the powers of the BBFC were extended under the Video Recordings Act, giving the board power to classify and cut video releases. All videos had to resubmitted for a certificate. In the meantime the Director Of Public Prosecutions drew up a list of banned films, which included The Evil Dead and which went on to become a kind of Panini album check list for horror collectors (“Got. Got. Got. Need. REALLY need.”)

All that such lists and bans achieved was to secure the legend of the nasties. And for many, this era was their first experience not only of censorship but of the media’s potential to distort the truth. Reading the newspaper reports of the time, it became increasingly difficult to tally descriptions of the films with the films themselves. The Daily Mirror’s ‘Pony Maniac’, for example, a horse-worrier in Kent who, it was reported, “could be affected by video nasties or a new moon”. Or the case of rapist Mark Austin in 1983, when his solicitor dutifully related how his mind had been twisted by exposure to nasties, in particular I Spit On Your Grave, causing him “to live out his fantasy.”

What? To have his Johnson chopped off by Buster Keaton’s niece? Because that is exactly what Camille Keaton’s Jennifer does to her attacker in I Spit On Your Grave.

And here was the problem. The nasties, (with one or two exceptions – step forward Faces Of Death) were not the ‘catalogues of cruelty’ we were led to believe they were. They were just ‘films’ after all, with scripts and directors and actors. They still had plots, and characters with goodies and baddies. What made them problematic was that the baddies indulged in more egregious behaviour than normal, and the goodies were often forced into murky moral waters in order to stop them. Could anybody say The Evil Dead’s Ash, reduced to a quivering, whimpering wreck by the end of the film, has ‘won’. In castrating, torturing and killing their daughter’s attackers in The Last House On The Left, do Dr and Mrs Collingwood do the ‘right’ thing? The Pony Maniac no doubt missed the sly genre subversion of Raimi’s Evil Dead, and Wes Craven’s point in Last House On The Left, that violence dehumanises us all, almost certainly went over his head, but the pro and anti-censorship lobbies were equally guilty of homogenising what, after all, was a disparate set of films.

For every reprehensible, irredeemable nasty on the DPP’s list, there was another made with wit and intelligence. Craven’s film, for example, nicked its plot from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring; Dario Argento’s Tenebrae is considered one of the Italian stylist’s best films; Dead & Buried, written by Dan O’Bannon of Alien fame, is a masterpiece in creepy paranoia and has an ending that… Well, let’s just say M Night Shyamalan was probably paying attention when he made The Sixth Sense.

Even the rape-revenge movie I Spit On Your Grave was the subject of several impassioned defences, drawing favourable comparisons with Oscar winner, The Accused, which seemed to skirt the issue by shifting its moral centre from Jodie Foster’s problematic trailer trash to district attorney Kelly McGillis, and by prosecuting not the perpetrators of the rape, but those who cheered them on. In contrast, I Spit On Your Grave is unflinching in keeping Jennifer, a writer, at the centre of its story. Nasty, for sure, but does it really deserve the same company as Anthropophagus The Beast, Maniac, or The Beast In Heat, about a female SS doctor who tortures POWs before feeding them to an insane midget?

Similarly, writers such as Julian Petley have mounted cerebral defences of the infamous ‘cannibal’ cycle of films. The Italian-made films such as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, which were apparently meditations on third-world exploitation. Elsewhere on the list, The Driller Killer’s Abel Ferrara has gone on to a critically successful career, authoring his own entry into the rape-revenge sub-genre, the well-regarded and inevitably banned Ms 45, before going on to work with Christopher Walken in King Of New York.

And Sam Raimi, creator of the Star Wars of gore, and the Johnny Rotten of the video nasty era, is still giving the BBFC problems. Last month, at least four councils broke rank to show his Spider-Man as a PG, despite the BBFC’s assertion that it is one of the most violent films ever aimed at children.

Thankfully we’ve seen the last of the Pony Maniac. The Evil Dead, however, live on.

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