Just as the rise of the internet has unleashed an avalanche of unregulated pornography on unsuspecting households, the popularity of the video recorder in the early 1980s gave rise to the extreme “video nasty”.

On Sunday the Duke Of York’s is celebrating the 30th anniversary of one of the most celebrated videos branded a nasty during the ensuing tabloid furore – Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.

Following a screening of the full uncut movie, a panel of guests including Craig Lapper, senior examiner at the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC), Empire Magazine’s Chris Hewitt and Brighton-based director Ben Wheatley, who was behind last year’s cult horror Kill List and the forthcoming black comedy Sightseers, will discuss the impact of the film and the video nasty phenomenon.

A big contributor to the rise of the nasty was the lack of videos available when players first came onto the market.

“A lot of film companies were sceptical about releasing their big films on video,” says Lapper. “The gap in the market was filled by lower budget and horror titles.”

Because no formal regulation was required to release a film on video it meant some of the movies which made it into people’s homes had previously been refused a classification at the cinema because of extreme content.

Although they’d be turned away from a cinema screening, in theory a child could buy the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters or I Spit On Your Grave and watch it at home without the authorities being able to do anything about it, as all videos were unclassified.

“The board tried to set up a voluntary scheme where videos could be sent for classification,” says Lapper, who points out the BBFC offers a similar thing today for internet content.

“Because there was no legal requirement those companies who wanted to release more extreme material could release it anyway.”

The scandal eventually led to the creation of the 1984 Video Recordings Act, which meant all videos, aside from sport, education or music videos without violent or sexual content, had to be classified by the BBFC before they could be released.

But before that law was passed, something had to be done to try to stem the ultra-violent or sexually-graphic content that was free to be shown in the home or stocked in video shops.

“The best way to handle them was under the Obscene Publications Act,” says Lapper. “It was normally used for pornography, but it could apply to films that contained violence or sexual violence that ‘could deprave or corrupt’.”

The result was the celebrated list of 72 video nasties compiled by the Director Of Public Prosecutions. Prosecutions could be brought against the film’s producers, distributors and retailers, while the police were empowered to take offending material off the shelves in shops.

Legal issues

Aside from creating a list of unmissable films for impressionable teens if they could find them – ranging from Blood Feast and The Driller Killer to Faces Of Death and Cannibal Ferox, as well as The Evil Dead – the method also led to legal problems.

“One court could decide a film was obscene, and another could decide it wasn’t,” explains Lapper. “The Evil Dead had been given an X certificate in the cinema meaning only adults could be admitted into a cinema to watch it. No legal action could be taken against that.

“The Obscene Publications Act talked about a likely audience, and with video anyone, including children, could have access to the film. So we could have the case that a film could be obscene on video, but not at the cinema. The video could be acted against while the cinema version was still being screened without any problems.”

Many of the films on the original video nasties list are now available to buy on DVD, sometimes uncut, and often playing on their “banned” status on their promotional material.

Lapper points out that many never bothered applying for video classification when the Video Recordings Act finally came in.

"It's inevitable that over time the effects on those films became less convincing than they were at the time," says Lapper. "They started to look more dated and less threatening. The public are a lot more media savvy and more aware now than they were in the 1970s and 1980s about how films are made and the audiences they are aimed at."

Lapper admits that even today films which are to be seen in the home often have to meet more stringent conditions – with some receiving different classifications for the cinema and home use such as the movie 30 Days Of Night ( a 15 in the cinema and an 18 on DVD). There are still those, such as The Human Centipede 2 or A Serbian Film, which can fall foul of the censors completely.

Each submitted movie is seen by two examiners, out of a team of 14, who write a report sent to a senior examiner.

If a film falls on the borderline of a classification system then it will be referred to further examiners.

"Examiners watch the whole range of material, from children's up to adult level, as well as television programmes and Bollywood films," says Lapper who has worked at the BBFC for the last 15 years. "There is quite a range of material which provides some level of balance.

"One becomes familiar with seeing certain types of material that you wouldn't choose to watch after work, but you don't tend to find you get desensitised - if anything the more you tend to see unpleasant material the less tolerant you are of it!"

What is happening in context is always important - a protracted gang rape scene at the start of courtroom drama The Accused has a different context to the opening scenes of revenge exploitation movie I Spit On Your Grave for example. And similarly when it comes to use of weapons the time when any shot of nunchucks or chainsticks in a Bruce Lee film was banned is long gone.

"If a knife is used in the context of criticising violence in a realistic environment it is more likely to be considered appropriate," says Lapper. "We don't have any block bans anymore as we did with chainsticks."

Since 2000 the Board has been consulting the public for their opinions.

“The messages we receive are that the public expect to be allowed to make their own minds up about what they choose to view, provided it isn’t in breach of the law,” says Lapper.

“An area that the public is concerned about is sexual violence rather than straight depictions of gore and violence.”

In this respect, some of the films lumped in with the video nasty furore have been allowed to escape further censure while others, such as I Spit On Your Grave, still cause concern.

“The Evil Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters are films that are just about straightforward gore and horror. There is less of a concern towards those kind of films.

“Horror films tend to come in waves. A few years ago with Hostel and Saw it was quite novel to see those hard, top-end 18 horror films at the cinema. Now horror films are much more atmospheric and following classic horror styles, although the effects can be more realistic.”

And what of the film that found itself at the centre of the furore? Lapper believes today’s audiences are unlikely to be shocked.

“The effects in horror movies have moved on so much in the last 30 years. I think it’s still an enjoyable and entertaining film for horror fans, with a certain black humour and visual panache. It showed Sam Raimi [who went on to make the Spider-Man trilogy] to be quite a promising filmmaker. “

  • The Evil Dead And The Rise Of Video Nasties (15, 120 mins), Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Preston Circus, Brighton, Sunday, October 28. Starts 1pm, tickets £9. Call 0871 9025728