The Video Dead, Video Nasties, and VHS Horror Rentals




The other week, I finally watched The Video Dead, a low-budget, straight-to-video zombie flick from 1987 about a possessed TV set that belches out walking corpses from its screen. This film isn't a classic by any means (more about that later), but I felt that I had to watch it at least once for what it represented--specifically, the impact that England's "Video Nasty" list had on VHS horror movie releases here in the United States. In some ways, the Video Nasty list was to VHS horror movies as the Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 were to horror comic books, even though the results were completely different. Read on ....

The Video Nasty list was compiled in the early '80s by the U.K. government in response to a media campaign by Mary Whitehouse from the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVLA). Videos on the list, which largely consisted of horror films, were confiscated across England due to their violent and graphuc content; they were either re-released with edits or banned altogether. Even though these films were not censored in the United States, video distributors used the Video Nasty list as a means of hyping the controversial nature of those films in American video stores.

Many of the Video Nasty titles featured prominently displayed warning labels, some of which reminded VHS renters that these films were banned in other parts of the world. As a result, previously obscure grindhouse fare such as Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death and I Spit on Your Grave became overnight legends, and their warning labels upped the ante in terms of how video distributors were going to market rare and straight-to-video horror films.


The front and back covers of Make Them Die Slowly (a.k.a. Cannibal Ferox) when it was
released on VHS by Thriller Video. Note the prominent warning labels on both sides.


With the Video Nasty list inadvertently contributing to the marketing of explicitly grisly fare on VHS, other horror videos that weren't being censored or banned had to find a way to sensationalize themselves in order to generate consumer interest. Some added warning labels anyway, probably one of the few times in U.S. history where companies wanted to add warning labels--whether they were needed or not--to improve business. Yet the more notorious strategy during the VHS rental craze was to provide shocking, lurid cover art.

To paraphrase an old adage, when the going gets gory, the gory get gorier, so cover art for many other VHS horror film titles did what they could to convince potential viewers that they were just as gory--or gorier--than the films that featured warning labels. One such instance was the cover for The Video Dead. There are two other versions of the VHS cover but the one below was what arrived at my local video store to help promote the film, along with a huge poster that bore the same image.




As you can see, this cover art is spectacular and dynamic, so much so that it demands a 3D rendering. A rotted zombie aggressively tearing its way out of a TV set to grab the nearest victim, with glowing electrical sparks and shattered screen glass flying everywhere? That's so cool, and I guarantee that it convinced thousands of viewers to rent The Video Dead. I didn't rent it at the time--back then, I was under the impression that if a movie wasn't previously released nationally in movie theaters, it probably wasn't worth renting--but I would gawk at this poster like a slack-jawed zombie whenever I went to the video store because it looked so amazing. Indeed, this cover made the other VHS covers for The Video Dead look restrained by comparison.


Here are the two additional VHS covers/posters for The Video Dead.


After all these years, I can tell you that The Video Dead is not nearly as good as the horror art that was used to market it. In fact, the distributor that picked up the film for VHS release felt that it wasn't gory enough; the film's crew later shot and inserted additional gore scenes before the film was released on video, although those scenes are still very tame in comparison to other films from that era such as Hellraiser and Reanimator--both of which, by the way, were not on the Video Nasty list either.

The Video Dead has some interesting ideas and means by which the zombies are defeated in the third act is quite novel, but these positive attributes aren't enough to compensate for its muddled script, poor acting, and clunky dialog. (In its defense, it does have an intentionally funny line about skunks that made me laugh out loud.) Ultimately, The Video Dead cover art is much more entertaining and imaginative than the movie, but that's to be expected--the cover was intended to make you believe that a warning label should be there, even though it wasn't and never would be.

Poorly made horror movies are as old as cinema itself, and the horror film business has a long history of using sensationalist gimmicks to bring audiences to sub-par films (just ask William Castle). Yet The Video Dead--both its poster art and the movie itself--represents a unique time in horror film history when one country's system of censorship became another country's advertising campaign.

Here are some additional examples of warning labels that appeared on VHS horror movies during the '80s:










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