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 1980s. 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 store, but fairly low down on my agenda because I’d heard very little about it. 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 film’s UK quad — 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 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.”
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 for breath, that smothers you in grue and assaults you with 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. It’s an absolute siege. 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. 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.
Cheryl: [possessed] Soon all of you will be like me… And then who will lock you up in a cellar [cackles]
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 effected grew to loathe her. At the time she was running for a second term as Prime Minister, and the ‘video nasty’ scandal, a thinly-veiled ploy to strip society of its civil liberties, was just the ticket to help strike fear in voters and coerce them into supporting her hard-line policies. 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 this particular film 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. Despite it’s supernatural elements, it was all-too-real.
I was a regular renter of horror 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 that 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. After years of horror endurance, of bragging that I could take anything thrown at me, I had finally discovered a movie that had lived up to the hype, and I was too terrified to stay the course. At the time it was a real dent to my ego, but like a horror character forced into stupid decisions, I would one day return.
I clearly wasn’t alone in my inability to stomach a film that would only grow in lore, so what exactly was it that offended the censoring boards so deeply? What had led them to conclude that The Evil Dead was simply unfit for public consumption? 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 its Golden Age apotheosis, affairs were far more cynical. The modus of the day for independent filmmakers was to shock and disgust. 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 came 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 when so many inferior films were allowed to sluice floor?
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 axe blows, the length of an eye-gouging and the number of times a pencil was twisted into Linda’s foot. These are undoubtedly some of the most savage moments in the movie, and BBFC’s 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 quickly banished the movie from the video arena. You were lucky if you got to see it at all.
The movie’s most not notorious and talked about scene comes in the form of the merciless rape of 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. The whole scene is painstakingly brutal, as if you’re being subjected to the ordeal yourself. 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 firm smack in the mouth. The way Cheryl is wrestled into submission is enough to make you shrink with revulsion, and then there’s the final act of penetration. Beautifully executed but utterly disturbing.
All of this would inspire Raimi’s next horror movie, a quasi-sequel titled Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. Two years prior, Raimi had tried his hand at straight-up comedy with 1985‘s Crimewave, a movie co-written by none other than the Coen brothers, but The Evil Dead‘s banishment had not sat right with him, so he embarked on what is an almost like-for-like remake, placing a further emphasis on those comedic elements the BBFC had pushed for to qualify the original movie for theatrical release. Dead by Dawn wasn’t self-censoring in the traditional sense. If anything it upped the splatter. But it 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 in keeping with the director’s predilection 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. In the annals of horror legend, its title is still uttered with an awed whisper.
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 us a platter of grue with the perverse delight of a hell-bound 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 superstar, is nothing short of breathtaking. And it’s all executed with such panache: the warped perspectives, the sumptuous framing, 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 relishes in its ability to startle, to shock and exhilarate and ultimately disgust. 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 audiences 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 grating in equal measures, playing the nervous system like a rusty cello. The wonderland Raimi and editor Edna Ruth Paul create through frenetic cuts and skewed perspectives culminates in a blistering 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 cinema it is a near-flawless outing; a worthy affront to anyone who considers themselves above this kind of thing. 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.