Mary Whitehouse VS Evil Dead: by Steve Stark

How one low-budget horror film eventually defeated the censors

Steve Stark

In 1984, the British establishment were very concerned, not with the fallout from the Falklands conflict, high unemployment rates or the AIDs epidemic. They werevery concerned with the emergence of a batch of horror films on VHS, chief among them being Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.

It had come to light that the distributors of titles such as Driller Killer and Cannibal Holocaust, were taking advantage of a legal loophole to avoid submission to the censorious British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). This meant a vast array of gory horror films were sitting in video stores uncut and uncertified, where they could be taken into the homes of unsuspecting plebs, whose unsophisticated minds would soon be corrupted by the depravity on screen.

At least that was how many among the elite saw it.

“Ban the sadist videos” squealed the Daily Mail in a long-running campaign. “Save us from Video Nasties” it begged,and “Moral crusader” Mary Whitehouse heeded the call. Whitehouse and her busybody campaign group, The National Viewers and Listeners Association pressured the government into action and thus the Video Recordings Act was born.

This new act demanded all publications be submitted to the BBFC first, which led to heavy censorship, outright banning and even prosecutions for distributors under the Obscene Publications Act. A total 72 films were banned initially and formed the infamous “Nasties List” which the Mail naively published in hope of warning the public. Ironically, the notoriety only increased interest in these titles and many of them developed a cult following they may not have otherwise found.

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead was among the 72 nasties and is perhaps the most important. Here’s why –

For his first film, the young director married gory special effects horror with slapstick comedy and to achieve this he concocted a simple set-up which would become a staple of the genre –a group of teens go into the woods, bad stuff happens. In this case the bad stuff involved demonic possession and bodily dismemberment.

Made on a meagre budget of $375,000and by a crew of mostly Raimi’s friends, Dead was clearly not going to be a slick Hollywood production. Fully aware of the limitations, Raimi understood the best way to make his film stand out would be by pitching everything way over the top. He’d draw on his love of The Three Stooges’ slapstick, then add gallons of fake blood to create what some critics would refer to as “Splatstick”.This revolutionary approach would not only bring box office success. It would also draw the Sauron-like gaze of the tabloid press, the NVLA and a certain Mrs Whitehouse.

Whitehouse immediately branded the film “The number one video nasty” despite not having seen it yet. She eventually did when she showed footage to alarmed politicians and following that screening the film was placed on the dreaded list with copies ordered for seizure. Distributors Palace Pictures were then raided by Police and swiftly hauled into the courts on obscenity charges.

Legal proceedings took place over several months, with Raimi flying in to testify. But upon seeing the film, canny judge Owen Stable recognised its humorous intent and outright dismissed the case, even going so far as to criticise the prosecutions service for bringing it to court.

This outcome exposed a chink in the movement’s armour, a chink which would soon begin to crack. After all, how could the video nasties be so bad if the supposed “Number one” was deemed inoffensive by some stuffy old judge?

By 1985 Evil Dead was off the nasties list, yet perhaps out of spite the BBFC still withheld certification for several years. Its eventual release in 1990 was cut by 1 minute 55 seconds. This toned down every act of violence, especially the shots of an ankle being stabbed by a pencil and where a character is sexually assaulted by a possessed tree (incidentally a scene Raimi now regrets). The film finally passed uncut in 2000 and was a top seller on DVD that year.

Nowadays, all 72 Nasty titles are available on DVD and Blu Ray in the UK, most of them completely uncut. It would seem we live in more liberal times. However, as streaming giants Disney Plus digitallycensor harmless fare such as Mermaid comedy Splash, and with Netflix recently providing a needlessly sanitised version of Back to the Future 2, it would seem the authoritarian pearl-clutchers haven’t left us yet. Rather, like the eternal malevolence which lurks in the forest of Raimi’s film, they merely lay in wait of the next unsuspecting victim…

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