VHS Revival takes to the backwoods with Sam Raimi’s quintessential ‘video nasty’
When you hear the term ‘video nasty’, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
For me, many words and images flash before my eyes: lurid depictions of death, sleazy marketing, cannibals, slashers, snuff, exploitation, moral panic, political skulduggery — it’s a mishmash of amorality. In terms of titles, upon which many sub-par productions were sold, some movies that leap to mind are Driller Killer, Faces of Death and I Spit on Your Grave. Those were the movies that were whispered in the playground, that introduced me to the magic of fabled dread as a horror-obsessed preteen. Driller Killer wooed me with its title alone. I knew very little about the actual plot but its savvy, Hooper-esque marketing had me from the get-go. The events in I Spit on Your Grave were explained to me in detail by an older girl who took great pleasure in polluting my imagination with tales of brutal castration. Faces of Death was perhaps the most intriguing of all — about on a par with the infamous missing shard through the eyeball moment in Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. Were there really movies in which people died…like, for real? The answer is yes and no. I mean, technically they did, but not in ways I had been told by kids claiming to have witnessed it back in the late ’80s. Clearly they hadn’t.
In the end, my first ‘video nasty’ was none of the above. It was a movie I had heard things about, one whose cover I had stared at obsessively in the horror section of the local video shop, but fairly low down on my agenda because I’d heard very little about it. Of course, the VHS cover itself was enough to give you nightmares — not the US version included at the beginning of this article but the much grungier UK version designed by a young British artist by the name of Graham Humphreys that scared the living shit out of me. Humphreys was twenty years old when he was asked to work on the design for The Evil Dead poster — his first entry into the world of film. Speaking of his experience, Humphreys would explain, “Steve Woolley gave me a call and asked me to come in and look at a film, which was screening then at the Scarlett Cinema at King’s Cross… it was a new print and hadn’t been cut at that point and there was one other person watching the film with me in the cinema, and they left after about a quarter of an hour. I think to be sick, probably… the whole feel of the poster and the campaign was very sort of punk anyway… it was very grungy looking as well, and it just got away from the whole American gloss.”
There is something distinctly wicked about The Evil Dead that most ‘video nasties’, and indeed horror movies in general, fail to achieve. This is largely thanks to the film’s then upstart director Sam Raimi, who on a meagre budget put the majority of cheapskate directors to shame. It was clear from the beginning that Raimi wasn’t just another hack looking to cash-in on the burgeoning home video market. This was a filmmaker of prodigious talent who failed to yield to his financial limitations and in doing so created something quite formidable. Author Stephen King, the undisputed king of horror back in the 1980s, famously saw the film at Cannes and called it ‘the most ferociously original horror film of the year’. Respected critics Siskel and Ebert, who were notoriously opposed to graphic horror for the most part, admitted to disliking the movie, though Ebert was much less close-minded, admitting, “I didn’t enjoy it either, but I think I would have to give credit to the craftsmanship of the film. It was obviously inspired by Night of the Living Dead and it’s a very pure film, and apart from all these other dead teenager knifing, slashing movies we’ve had over the past several years, this one distils everything right down to the very basic things.”
Cheryl: [possessed] Soon all of you will be like me… And then who will lock you up in a cellar [cackles]
Ultimately, that’s what makes Raimi’s minor masterpiece in visceral terror so superior. It doesn’t waste time with characterisation or dialogue. It is 85 minutes of breakneck horror that never stops to catch its breath, that smothers you in grue and drowns you in the kind of nerve-shredding soundscape so relentless it pushes you to the edge of insanity: the creaking sounds of a semi-dilapidated cabin, the oppressive hum of a lurking presence, the twisted groans of a forest that is alive with evil, the searing splatter of gore, the cackling insanity of the awakened dead, those moments of pure nastiness, it turns you out and plays with your blood. The movie pushes its characters, and by proxy its audience, to the absolute brink and then some, and by the end it feels like you’ve been dragged through hell backwards. Stephen King was absolutely blown away by the movie’s presentation, and it was his approval that brought The Evil Dead to the public’s attention.
Unfortunately, others didn’t see it that way, and crucially, they were the ones with the power to banish it to commercial purgatory indefinitely. In 1984, the British government, led by ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher, responded to a tabloid smear campaign and the efforts of activist Mary Whitehouse to criminalise filmmakers involved with the then deregulated, pre-certificate VHS market. A puritanical individual who openly opposed social liberalism and the autonomy of the individual, Whitehouse set out on a personal crusade that played right into the Conservative party’s hands. The cessation of the coal mines had resulted in mass unemployment in the UK, leading to abject poverty and even the loss of homes as a generation prepared for life on welfare. Mass protests followed, most famously the 1984 Battle of Orgreave, which saw miners and the local constabulary clash in a bloody battle that for years was blamed on the miners in a vile instance of propaganda that was described by BBC journalist Alastair Stewart as “a defining and ghastly moment” that “changed, forever, the conduct of industrial relations and how this country functions as an economy and as a democracy”. In reality, Thatcher was building herself an army, and those affected grew to loathe her. It was around that time that she was running for another term as Prime Minister, and the ‘video nasty’ scandal, a thinly-veiled excuse to strip society of its civil liberties, was just the ticket to help strike fear in voters. And it worked a treat.
I first got my hands on a taped copy of The Evil Dead when I was around 10. How butchered that version of the movie was I’ll never know because I didn’t make it past the first twenty minutes. I didn’t see any actual gore, and I was relatively desensitised to modern horror by that point, but there was something about it that chilled me to the core. It’s grungy aesthetic, the brooding sounds of inevitability, they cut right to the bone, and as soon as Cheryl wandered into the dark recesses of the surrounding forest I checked out. I was a regular renter of horror movies at the time, and though I was often too terrified to watch them alone, there was something queerly intangible about The Evil Dead that surpassed the typical suspension of disbelief. Whether it was the cheap reality of it all, the dizzying direction, the excruciating sound or all three, at that point in my life it was a step too far. For once I had willingly retreated, had become self-censoring. Finally a movie that had lived up to the hype and I was too terrified to stay the course. But like a horror character forced into stupid decisions, I would one day return.
So what was it that offended the censoring boards so deeply, that would lead them to conclude that The Evil Dead was not fit for public consumption? Okay, so the movie was enough to terrify my juvenile self beyond mortal comprehension, but watching as an adult it is clear that the film has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Horror would soon go that way as a whole as a way to sidestep such impositions; you only have to look at the evolution of franchises such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street to see that. But back in 1981, about the time when the slasher sub-genre was at the apotheosis of its Golden Age, affairs were far more cynical. The modus of the day for independent filmmakers was to shock and disgust. The likes of Sam Raimi were few and far between, and not everyone with a video camera had the skill and resourcefulness to turn a pittance into a classic movie, or even the intention, so notoriety comes first and foremost. Unlike the majority of trash to fall under the ‘video nasty’ category, The Evil Dead was a superbly made movie, so why was it tarred with the dirty brush?
According to the BBFC website, the censoring body ‘was divided between those who felt the film was so ridiculously ‘over the top’ that it could not be taken seriously and those who found it ‘nauseating’.’ Ultimately, the movie would undergo 49 seconds of cuts before an X certificate was awarded, including a reduction in the number of blows during the slaying of a demon with an axe, the length of an eye-gouging and the number of times a pencil was twisted into a victim’s foot. These are undoubtedly some of the most savage moments in the movie, and their belief was that their omission would place more of an emphasis on the movie’s humorous elements, making it more palatable for the movie-going public, who were far less accustomed to such breakneck violence at the turn of the 1980s. Unfortunately, The Evil Dead came to prominence at the worst possible time, and the rising momentum of moral outrage banished the movie from the video arena.
The movie’s most not notorious and talked about scene comes in the form of the merciless rape Cheryl at the hands of the forest. A forest doesn’t have hands but this one may as well have. Watching it back recently, I couldn’t believe how explicit it was. I’ve seen the movie dozens of times but it’s always new to me, as if I’m experiencing it for the very first time — and experience is the key word here. It’s painstakingly brutal and somehow utterly believable. The movie may be dripping with self-awareness for the most part but then there are moments like this, the kind that sober you up like a smack in the mouth. The way Cheryl is wrestled so distressingly into submission is enough to make you shrink, and then there is the final act of penetration. Beautifully executed but deeply disturbing.
All of this would inspire Raimi’s next horror movie, a quasi-sequel titled Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. Two years prior, the filmmaker had tried his hand at straight-up comedy with 1985‘s Crimewave, a movie co-written by the Coen brothers, but The Evil Dead‘s banishment had not sat right with him and so he embarked on what is almost an out-and-out remake, with a further emphasis on those comedic elements of the original — the very formula that the BBFC had pushed for to qualify the movie for theatrical release. Dead by Dawn wasn’t self-censoring in the traditional sense. In fact, if anything it upped the splatter, but did so in such a slapstick way it was impossible to get offended. Many horror fans prefer the sequel, as well as the third movie in the eventual trilogy, Army of Darkness, which takes Ash’s battle to the middle ages in a left-field move that expands on the director’s canvas for off-the-wall creativity, but for me The Evil Dead stands tallest as both a feat of filmmaking and a historical artefact of cinema.
Linda: [singing] We’re going to get you. We’re going to get you. Not another peep. Time to go to sleep.
As an exercise in terror, very few dig their claws into you quite like The Evil Dead. Sure, the make-up and effects are a little dated; after all, the movie was made on a budget of roughly $350,000 at the turn of the ’80s, but it grabs you by the throat and never let’s go, Raimi force-feeding you a platter of grue with the perverse delight of a hellbound minion. The way he stalks his cast from behind pillars, an unseen presence lurking on the periphery of damnation, jumping from tracking shot to extreme close-up and in the process transforming the super-animated Bruce Campbell into a bona fide star, it is nothing short of breathtaking; and it’s all executed with such panache: the warped perspectives, the sumptuous framing and the bravery and exuberance to be creative. Raimi grows in confidence as the evil does, because he and the evil are one and the same.
The Evil Dead may have terrified me as a youngster, but watching as an older man its emphasis on humour is much more apparent. The movie relishes in its ability to startle, and when our cabin-bound girls suddenly leap from maudlin melodrama to pure, unadulterated evil, it takes your breath away, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The way those demons cackle and toy with the remaining survivors is both excruciating and a joy to behold, all of it buoyed by the kind of breathtaking sound design that is vital in wearing the audience down to a quivering nub. It’s like the last 15 minutes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for almost the entire movie and it absolutely floors you. The scene in which Campbell mercilessly beats his possessed fiance as she mocks him with her ceaseless cackling is a turning point for the previously loving Ash, and it’s just the beginning.
All of this leads to an astonishingly assured finale for a novice director. It is gleeful and disgusting in equal measures, playing our nervous system like a rusty cello. The wonderland he and editor Edna Ruth Paul create through frenetic cuts and skewed perspective adds up to a blistering and irresistible crescendo. Not only do you feel repulsed by its gore-laden assault, you find yourself wanting to gorge on it like a zombie incredulously chomping on your very first brain. ‘Video nasties’ have garnered a reputation for being mostly cheap affairs that are worthless beneath their exploitative embellishments, but The Evil Dead isn’t one of them. In the realms of low-budget horror it is a near-flawless masterwork and a worthy affront to anyone who considers themselves above such filmmaking. There is value to be found everywhere and The Evil Dead is a grungy diamond buried deep in the recesses of censorship ignominy. I love its history, its sense of anarchy, the way in which it sheds the ‘video nasty’ stigma. It rose through a pile of low-budget garbage and planted a flag for independent filmmakers. It is rebel filmmaking at its very finest.