7 of the goriest cult horror movies
To celebrate the arrival of spooky season, we unpack the most violent and deranged video nasties of the 1970s and 1980s.
Zombi 2, Deep Red and The Driller Killer
Nowadays, for the most part, gross-out gore doesn’t tend to, well… gross us out. We’re inundated with it, for one: from Netflix horror movies to record-smashing TV epics, everything seems slapped with a generous coat of blood and viscera, be it comic and garish or the result of realism gone mad. Ravenous zombies dislocating jaws and ripping off noses with their teeth? No problem. Pedro Pascal’s head being crushed between the husky hands of a Very Large Icelandic Man in Game of Thrones? Didn’t even blink!
This isn’t to suggest that gory horror is a new thing. On the contrary, one of England’s most infamous cultural debates was centred around the censorship of a selection of particularly morbid movies, colloquially categorised as “video nasties”.
It was the early 1980s: educator, conservative activist and all-round Karen, Mary Whitehouse, was leading the charge to ban video nasties, calling them a symptom of “the corruption and gross exploitation which has invaded our culture”. With a flurry of tabloid support, she was hellbent on getting rid of them. Unsurprisingly, given they were bolstered by a voter base of tightly-wound social conservatives (read: boring puritans), Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government gave in to the pressure in 1984, introducing the Video Recordings Act.
The films Mary Whitehouse deemed too morally transgressive for adults with individual agency to choose to watch - won’t somebody please think of the children?! - were thus banned by the state. It’s this beleaguered battleground that serves as the backdrop for Censor: an unsettling, metatextual homage to the nasties, centred on one eponymous censor, Enid (Niamh Alghar). She’s charged with keeping the films out of public view, while simultaneously trying to solve the strange disappearance of her sister.
With the film out now, we’ve collected some of our bloodcurdling faves that caused moral mayhem for your viewing pleasure.
1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
If you were stuck in the middle of a nascent zombie apocalypse, what would be the first thing on your mind? (Comically decapitating your zombified (or not!) ex doesn’t count.) Safety first, right? You need a fortress, a place to wait for everything to blow over, if you will. According to this, the magnum opus from certified King of the Zombies George A. Romero, a shopping mall might be a fairly safe bet. That’s where a couple and a pair of SWAT members find themselves at the advent of the zombie apocalypse. With its entrances blocked from the hordes outside, they wait while society collapses around them; that is, at least, until a marauding biker gang (led by SFX guru Tom Savini) fucks things up.
2. Zombi 2 (1979)
Originally written as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, Italian Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 -- also variously known as: The Island of the Living Dead, Zombie, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Nightmare Island, among others -- is, make no mistake, the epitome of bargain bin schlock. We say that, of course, as a compliment: trash, after all, tends to be tremendous. We could rattle off a mouthy synopsis here -- American scientists go to a remote Caribbean island, where the dead are rising from their graves; someone gets their eye gouged out on a bit of wood; yada, yada -- but, in lieu, we’ll offer three simple words: zombie versus shark. (The main theme song slaps too, if you’re into ethereal, creepy electro synth vibes.)
3. The Driller Killer (1979)
American filmmaker Abel Ferrara, of King of New York and Bad Lieutenant fame, has garnered something of a reputation as a provocateur. The artsier lot might’ve seen his newest flick, Siberia, a surreal look into the spiralling psyche of a misanthropic loner played by - well, who other than - Willem Dafoe. The Driller Killer, his first non-pornographic feature, shares a number of unexpected themes: an increasingly insane anti-hero; deep religiosity; a slightly ogling reverence for naked women. What makes it distinct? Said anti-hero, played by Ferrara, caps off the film by offing a bunch of people with a power drill. No ambiguity here!
4. Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975)
You can’t have a video nasties list and not include some giallo - a subgenre of low-budget Italian slashers, essentially - and, given everyone and their mum has seen Suspiria since Luca Guadagnino remade it, why not include a slightly lesser known Argento picture? It’s an interesting twist on the usual slasher set-up: an enigmatic, hatchet-wielding killer on the loose, identified solely by his black gloves, a musician (David Hemmings) decides to investigate. Some might argue this to be Argento’s best work: it’s a kaleidoscopic, hyper-gory feast for the senses, backed by a bumping Goblin score -- with a great, fairly complex narrative to boot.
5. Friday the 13th, Part II (1982)
We love a slasher, don’t we? Friday the 13th, Part II is arguably the most notable of them all, if only because the genre’s rich iconography, and so many of the tropes we associate with it, find their roots here: the mist-laden camp site; the skin crawling ch-ch-ch soundtrack; and, most of all, sexy 19-year-olds getting slaughtered for days. It’s here, too, that the hockey mask adorning, machete-slashing Jason Voorhees took his nascent steps into the horror world. (A million-and-one sequels later, and the best death scene still goes to the knockout punch in Jason Takes Manhattan.)
6. The Evil Dead (1981)
Ah yes: for Whitehouse’s money, this was the nastiest of all the nasties, and not to sympathise with a puritanistic moralist (and, crucially, remember: a Karen) -- “nasty” probably works as an adjective, here. There are demonic possessions a-plenty; a blood-spurting decapitation by shovel. It’s all violent and crass, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rock, because, well, it does. The sequel and its out-of-time follow up, Army of Darkness, cut through horror with pitch-black humour; now, the whole series is a cult staple. Groovy.
7. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981)
Before A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddie’s Revenge fagged up the slasher with its queered inversion of the final girl, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker did just the same. Inspired, in part, by the Oedipus myth, here 70s teen idol Jimmy McNichol plays Billy, a teen whose sexually repressed aunt, with whom he lives, thirsts over him. After one grizzly murder at the house, a detective swoops in to investigate: being a bit of a useless dickhead, he erroneously thinks it to be the result of a made-up gay love triangle involving Jimmy and his closeted basketball coach. Novel for an 80s exploitation flick, too, is that said coach saves the day in the final act. Gay rights!