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From Driller Killer to Cannibal Holocaust: Taking the bite out of ‘Video Nasties’

Home / More / News / From Driller Killer to Cannibal Holocaust: Taking the bite out of ‘Video Nasties’

Published on 31 July 2018

Video Nasties - are they so bad?
Video Nasties - are they so bad?

They were dubbed the scourge of our society in the 1980s and blamed for morally corrupting our children.

Labelled obscene, Video Nasties, as they were dubbed, became a media sensation and were seized upon by social commentators as a symbol of technology leading us down an immoral path.

Violent, graphic imagery on the cover of the videos, coupled  with disturbing content, made the ‘Nasties’,  the forbidden fruit of the film world.

Some of the most well-known titles included:


  • Driller Killer
  • The Last House on the Left
  • Cannibal Holocaust
  • The Evil Dead
  • I Spit on your Grave


Now, one University of Sunderland academic is re-examining the controversial genre and has urged us to the hit the pause button on writing off these horror flicks.

Dr Mark McKenna has been presenting his “Rethink of Video Nasties” paper at a film conference in Europe.

In it, Dr McKenna takes a look at the “wider reasons” behind society’s outcry at the films and examines how, over the following decades, they became highly prized cult classics.

Dr McKenna said: “In the early 80s these video releases were not brought before the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) due to a loophole in classification laws, which said the films did not need to be submitted to them.

“This led to the distribution of films from America and Europe which became known as ‘Video Nasties’, leading to public debate concerning the availability of these films to children due to the unregulated nature of the market.”

The widespread distribution of the films in the newly emerging video market prompted an outcry that saw  prominent figures like Mary Whitehouse and The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) demand the films be banned – and in some cases prosecution – of the movies and their distributors.

Dr McKenna takes a look at reactions to the films in a wider context, examining what was happening in British society at the time, as well as the film industry’s fears over the emerging video market.

Dr McKenna said: “The Conservative Government was struggling in the aftermath of the Brixton and Toxteth riots, the sinking of the Belgrano, and by reacting to the issue of Video Nasties they could demonstrate resolve to largely fictitious problem.

“What we have to remember is that this type of reaction is nothing particularly new. In the 1950s comic books were causing the same type of outcry, while in more recent years, the internet and social media have been blamed for many of society’s ills.

“The emergence of the home video market was also a threat to the cinema industry who felt their share of the marketplace could be compromised. An effort to suppress it followed.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the video version of The Exorcist was never included on the Director of Public Prosecution's list of ‘Video Nasties’. After the Video Recordings Act (VRA) was introduced in 1984 it became a requirement that all films obtain a certificate from the BBFC to be legally released in the UK. It was subsequently removed from the shelves - after nearly four years of being freely availability – it would be 1998 before the film was legally available on video.

Dr McKenna added: “In the years that followed ‘Video Nasties’ were promoted through the language of exploitation, before shifting towards an emphasis that foregrounded quality and authenticity, and in doing so helped to change the way products typically understood as exploitation might be promoted.”

A book based upon Dr McKenna’s research, Nasty Business: The Marketing and Distribution of the Video Nasties will be published next year by Edinburgh University Press. Anyone wanting more information about this or Dr Mckenna’s other research can contact him via his website www.drmarkmckenna.co.uk