The Video Nasties

By 1980 the home video market was taking off, and there was very little censorship or regulation for video distribution in the UK. Censorship from the BBFC only applied to films being showed in theatres at that time and subsequently, a wave of films from Italian horror and the American Grindhouse cinema quickly took advantage of the UK’s lacking regulatory system.

It wasn’t long before the tabloids began focusing on these films, highlighting and playing on their excessive violence and sexual nature, branding them as immoral, corrupt, and blaming them for youth violence. As far as horror films go, this kind of bad publicity is about as good as publicity gets. As the films were named and shamed by the tabloids newspapers, it did wonders for their popularity, and of course, sales.

In 1981, Go Video started distributing Cannibal Holocaust in the UK. As a marketing ploy, they wrote an anonymous letter to Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association expressing their outrage and disgust for their own film. In a way, this backfired, as it spurred Mary White to lead a national campaign against these movies that were soon given the name ‘Video Nasties’.

The tabloids, notably led by The Daily Mail, fed the hype and whipped their gullible readers into a frenzy with headlines such as “For the sake of all our children, burn your video nasty”, and “Ban the Sadist Videos! Before they invade your home!” Clearly both sound advice.

In 1983, as a response to heavy, if not a little misguided, public pressure, the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) published a list of films that were banned by name. This kick-started raids on video stores, and a somewhat trial-by-fire of the horror film industry in the UK, resulting in a total of 72 films being added to the list and facing the risk of prosecution for public obscenity.

Today, most have been re-released, some with cuts and editing, and 10 remain banned because they have not been resubmitted to or have been refused classification. However, what remains truly shocking isn’t the content of these films, but the abuse of power and ignorance displayed by the British government, who inadvertently created a black-market, and essentially prompted the start of movie pirating in the UK. The list gave these films instant cult status and immortalized them as part of cinematic history, whereas, had they gone ignored it seems likely most would have faded into obscurity.

Ironically, these days, the list makes a solid check-list for horror enthusiasts and connoisseurs to follow. So, as standalone films, are they any good?

Well, for most, the answer would be no. The majority are low budget, poorly produced films, with bad acting and a fairly loose plot, and that’s the American Grindhouse movies. The Italian films share these qualities, but are far more confusing and have painfully bad dubbing. I would suggest that even the most die hard horror fan would not do any injustice to their preoccupation by missing most of these off their watch list. However, the Video Nasties fall on a scale that goes from one extreme to another, yes, most are quite awful, but some are very good. You know, in a sick, perverse kind of way.

10. There was a Little Girl

9. Cannibal Holocaust

8. House by the Cemetery

7. Fight for your Life

6. Dead and Buried

5. Zombie Flesh Eaters

4. The Beyond

3. Tenebrae

2. Possession

1. The Evil Dead

I am still looking out for SS Hell Camp and Mardi Gras Massacre, I’ve struggled to find them. I suspect someone, somewhere has a dusty VHS copy packed away in there loft. If you have seen them, I’d be interested to know what they are like? Or if you have a copy, start rewinding it, and ill begin relearning the art of tracking on my old video player now.


  1. A lot of people who write letters of complaint have never actually seen this stuff. The Daily Mail always was the most heinous scare-mongering rag. Today, some of the most disgusting Torture Porn gets straight past the sensors – it’s a mad world…but a really fascinating period of film history 🙂

  2. I’ve seen and own all of these. I even own SS Hell Camp and Mardi Gras Massacre. Both which are not very good films at all in particular Mardi Gras Massacre. If you’re interested in picking up SS Hell Camp and Mardi Gras Massacre check out for both titles as they are available.

  3. I knew a bit about video nasties, but I never knew the ban was basically started by a fake letter used to drum up publicity. That is hilarious! And, I had never heard of There Was a Little Girl before reading this post, but judging from the IMDb synopsis I don’t know if I’m missing much.

    • I mainly included that one because it is such an odd one on the list, it really only made it on because of a scene where a dog is killed. The rest of the film is actually tamer than I expected. It’s better shot and appears to have a higher print quality than most of the other Video Nasties. I mean, it’s not going to blow you away or anything, it only just scrapped onto my top 10, but it’s not too bad, as these films go. Oh it just occurred to me, most of these films were released under four or five different names – you may have known this one as Madhouse or Flesh and the Beast.

      Thanks for the comment. I have just been looking around your site actually 🙂

  4. What a lovely trip down memory lane. I remember moving to the UK in 1982. When I first got here the video market was booming and the VHS was beating the crap out of betamax. You could still get I Spit on Your Grave is a lot of video stores. Roughly six months later, you couldn’t find a copy anywhere.

    The one thing that has always bothered me about the UK is their censorship policy. Great article!

  5. Hi,

    I have just nominated your blog for the “INSPIRING BLOG AWARD”

    The rules are as follows:

    1-Thank the person who nominated you with a link to their blog
    2-Post 7 things about yourself
    3-Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award
    4-Inform those people that you’ve nominated them, just as I am with you

    And above all, have fun. I’ve chosen you because I’ve been following your blog and felt it to be inspirational. All these trips down memory lane have helped fire my imagination as I work on my novels, keep it up and take care.

    Allan Krummenacker

  6. I’m familiar with the video nasty list but never heard about the Cannibal Holocaust letter. These films were readily available in Canada when I was growing up. I seen all of these films when I was a teenager. Most of these are still huge favourites of mine. One thing about the Italian flicks in the 80s though…they were often painfully badly dubbed like you say. As a teen hungry to be challenged I could look past it. But I’m sure glad most of them are now available in subtitled versions! I am surprised to see Possession and Dead and Buried on this list. I really love both those films, but they really are not nasty at all! I’ve never seen There was a Little Girl, I need to make a point of seeing that one.

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