Written by Zoë Rose Smith
In the previous article History of the Extreme: the 70s we looked at how filmmakers really tested how they could shock the audience and went further than ever when it came to their boundary pushing material. We saw some of the most controversial and notorious films ever created, which still have their name carved into the stones of history with the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, Mier Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave, Wes Craven’s The Last House on The Left Left, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more.
But then came the 80s, which was generally seen as one of the most triumphant decades within the horror genre; one that excelled when it came to setting the standards, and birthed a generation of horror lovers like no other decade. It was during the 80s that the audience were given one of the most well-loved sub-genres, one that promised to provide sheer terror, keep viewers awake at night when they heard a sound in their house, and one that proved walking can be more dread-inducing than any other method of movement. This was where the slasher genre was birthed! Even though it’s not a particular sub-genre designed for everyone, it did change the future of horror and gave fans something to scream about with films and franchises still raved about this day: John Carpenter’s Halloween, Wes Craven A Nightmare on Elm Street, Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse and many, many more. Some of the characters featured throughout these films have become iconic representations of the horror genre, plastering themselves on every piece of merchandise and becoming famous as the gatekeepers of the genre.
However, it wasn’t just slasher films that were coming to the forefront within the 80s, and there were also many horror movies that were designed to crawl further underneath the viewers skin and bring a psychological or monstrous element to the screen including The Thing from Carpenter, The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, An American Werewolf from John Landis and The Beyond from Lucio Fulci. The list is endless when we start to delve into 80s horror, which is why it’s such an interesting and special time for the horror industry and one that felt like the gift that just kept on giving. Whilst the industry was booming, there was still the niche sub-genre of extreme that was trying to make it’s mark within horror, but how such a polarising and particular type of film make any noise amongst an era in abundance of incredible movies?
The 80s was a decade that wasn’t particularly kind on anything of extreme nature, and even saw the sub-genre demonised and attacked severely by censorship, especially in the UK. Even though now it’s something we actively seek out, many excessively violent horror films were coined as ‘video nasties’ by the BBFC when they were released, which incurred damage to their distribution, runtimes and even allowing them to exist in some countries. This term was used in the UK to classify films on video tape that were deemed too exploitative for viewers by the British Board of Film Classification. The content in the films was deemed so violent and controversial that the BBFC decided to either completely ban the films outright in the UK or request that they be cut to shreds, disbanding most of the parts that made them the films they were. Many of these films had been released during the 60s and 70s, and never been looked at through this lens but came under fire during the video nasties period.
There was an obscene amount of films that were subject to being banned, cut or censored as much as possible including films previously discussed like I Spit On Your Grave, The Last House on the Left and Faces of Death. When it comes to the films that came under scrutiny from the BBFC, it’s completely exhaustive but to name a few that were unsafe: The Burning, The Driller Killer, Zombi Flesh Eaters. The Evil Dead, The Toolbox Murders, Profundo Rosso, Suspiria, Scanners and more.
So where did that leave the extreme horror genre? How could a genre specifically designed to be extremely violent and controversial survive in a climate like this? When looking back at the 80s it seems that some filmmakers may have been wary of this and therefore didn’t push the boundaries as far as they could have, at least for those who were hoping to have their films released in the UK. However, as with all filmmaking, there are always those that ignore the oppressive world around them and continue making their depraved vision, which allowed the audience to be graced by a few extreme movies that truly did leave a mark.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST 1980
One of the most notorious films to grace the world was from Italian director Ruggero Deodato, and even the title of the film suggested it was going to be something extremely controversial. Cannibal Holocaust follows an anthropologist from New York whom travels to the Amazonian forest, a section labelled The Green Inferno, to search for the members of a missing film crew. Whilst there he retrieves their camera equipment, which he takes back to New York for viewing. Upon watching the tapes, it’s soon discovered that the crew were savaged by cannibals and fed to the tribe, however, their actions may have justified the cannibalisation of their flesh.
Steeped in politics, history and racial prejudice, Cannibal Holocaust is far more than just the cannibal movie it looks like by its outer flesh. Ruggero may have produced an exploitative film that amassed a large amount of attention, but he tried to present the audience with a deeper meaning to the storyline, something seen time and time again when it comes to extreme. Deodato came under scrutiny for Cannibal Holocaust after his marketing ploy, in which he asked the actors to disappear for a year, was believed to be real and he was taken to court in order to prove that they were all alive and well. The film features depictions of rape, impalement, dismemberment and cannibalism but it is the real animal cruelty that became the sore point for most viewers. With the real slaughter of a turtle, squirrel monkey, tarantula, coatimundi, pig and snake. To this day it’s still considered as one of the most controversial films ever made.
Listen to the full episode on Cannibal Holocaust with body horror filmmaker Andy Stewart.
HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK 1980
Another 1980 Italian exploitation film making its way into history as it also came from Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato, who was clearly on a warpath to fuck with the audience by use of film. House on the Edge of the Park centres around two young men who gatecrash a party at a home (on the edge of the park) and decide to inflict a mentally and physically torturous evening upon the party guests. As a follow-up film to what the audience were privy to in Cannibal Holocaust, it is a little disappointing and exceptionally tame in comparison. There might be elements of torture and humiliation but for the most part this is more of a home invasion film, and less of something that will scar you forever. The problem with The House on the Edge of the Park is that it’s not a particularly memorable film either… The acting, the casting and dialogue is quite poor and in an era that went on to produce some of the finest horror films ever created, it’s hard to remember such a film amongst the mix. It does feel strange to see this come from Deodato after Cannibal Holocaust as compared to its predecessor, it really is a walk in the park.
Even though we might be looking at the history of extreme cinema, there’s something about Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession that just feels as if it needs to be spoken about here. Even though not necessarily explicitly an extreme movie by nature, it’s that nature that has caused this film to be considered as extremely controversial especially around the time of its release. Mark (played by Sam Neill) discovers that his wife Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani, who is perhaps the most beautiful woman to walk this Earth) has been having an affair and no longer wants to be with him. The couple go through turmoil while trying to come to terms with their change in circumstances and look after their son.
Possession is filled with sexual tension, strange eroticism, violence and dream-like horror that turn into nightmares making this one a really wild ride. This one sits more within body horror but exhibits many themes and tones that are used throughout extreme cinema, and time and time again is a fan favourite for those partial to extreme. Sexual gratification from violence is shown throughout, fetishes that come from disgusting sources and some erotic scenes that might turn you on whilst also making you feel repulsed. The film pairs repulsion with attraction, something that many extreme horror films aim to do as it pushes our personal boundaries and leaves us feeling conflicted regarding our own fantasies.
CANNIBAL FEROX 1981
We’re only in 1981 of the 80s and we already have another Italian cannibal exploitation film, as you can tell it was a popular era for this kind of film. Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox follows a group of friends who are on a trip through Paraguay to disprove that cannibals exist, however, they encounter two men who have been torturing and murdering a cannibal tribe who are now seeking revenge. The friends become trapped in a vicious game of brutal murders and eating human flesh, which leaves them realising cannibalism does exist.
Some people prefer Ferox over Holocaust, but essentially Lenzi tried to capitalise on the shocking and notorious nature of Holocaust to create a film that very similar. The imagery is exceptionally similar and some of the shocking themes also include real animal cruelty. It’s not that Ferox is a doomed movie and not particularly well made, it has some shocking scenes of guts and gore including the explicit image of the flesh of breasts being ripped through by sharp hooks and the castration of a man’s balls, but it still doesn’t quite churn the stomach as much as Cannibal Holocaust does. That’s not to say it’s not a tough watch, it’s incredibly hard to look at but it’s a film that just doesn’t offer that audience anything they haven’t already seen.
Another body horror film, but one that consistently finds itself falling between genres and mentioned within the extreme cinema world. David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome is one that’s hard to even explain as a film as it’s a waking lucid nightmare into one sexually birthed Hellscape. Max Renn (played by James Woods) works for a TV programming station and needs something new, something innovative, something fresh and exciting to keep the viewers interested. That’s when he stumbles across the TV show Videodrome in which participants are tortured and punished for entertainment. It’s not until Max’s girlfriend (played by Deborah Harry) auditions for the show and disappears that Max needs to discover the truth behind the tv show.
Although more body horror than extreme, it is a good example of manipulating the body is often a recurring theme seen throughout extreme films, which can often mean the lines around where these films truly sit is confusing. Videodrome comes from esteemed director Cronenberg who continuously made the audience feel repulsive in their own skin. This film features gross-out sexual elements, torture and punishment, graphic violence and some sequences that will truly make you feel squeamish. Long live the new flesh.
GUINEA PIG SERIES
During the 80s there was one series of films that helped to define and set the standards for what was to come in the extreme cinema world. That series came from Japan and was called the Guinea Pig series. Even though notorious in name, it is a series of six films that people have often heard about but never actually seen – preferring to shy away from the atrocities that are held within. In many ways this series, with one film in particular, has become one of the most controversial series ever made because of the extreme torture and violence depicted. They also became known after serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki was found with one of the movies in his collection when the police raided his home. There are rumours he reenacted a scene on a victim, but that seems to be a fantasised element.
There is much speculation around the order of the films, so for this reason I will refer to them as in the order that I first discovered them. The first film in the series The Devil’s Experiment is from 1985 and follows as a group of men torture a woman in order to see how far they can push the human body and the human mind. They burn her, they beat her, pour guts and worms on, gouge her eyes out… It’s nasty stuff.
The second film is perhaps the most well-known of the entire series and it’s called Flower of Flesh and Blood from 1985. This one was made by Hideshi Hino, who is also famous for his extreme horror manga work. This short film is pure torture as we see a man slowly dismember a woman on a table, limb by limb until he decapitates her and makes her into what he believes is a flower. The effects are so realistic and tough to watch that Charlie Sheen was given a copy of the film and reported it to the FBI as he believed it to be a real snuff film. It is this film in particular that has allowed the Guinea Pig series to gain such a controversial name for itself.
The third film is called Shudder! The Man Who Never Dies or He Never Dies and follows a man who cuts himself only to find out he cannot feel pain. He invites over a colleague and starts to mutilate himself, ending in decapitation. This one, although gory and gruesome, is quite hilarious and has a more splatter feel to it. The fourth film was produced in 1986 but released later. Devil Woman Doctor follows a trans doctor as she treats her patients by torturing them, mutilating them and slaughtering them. Again, the more comedic tone comes into play here.
The fifth film is Android of Notre Dame from 1988 and focuses on a man who needs a human guinea pig to experiment on in order to find a cure for his sister’s illness. As expected the experiments do not go well and therefore he needs another guinea pig to experiment on. The final film in the series is from 1988 and is called Mermaid in a Manhole, and is one of the more popular films. A man visits a sewer to distract himself from the recent loss of his wife and there discovers a sickly mermaid who has a skin disease due to living in the sewer. He takes her home to resolve her disease, but it doesn’t go as expected. This one has a more sombre and sad tone to it, which completely changes the vibe again.
The Guinea Pig series is disturbing, hilarious and at times batshit crazy but it’s a great example of Japanese cinema and the culture you’ll see in many Japanese movies. The series is most notable for the extreme first two films which are truly horrifying to watch and some people won’t even go near them for that reason!
Want to know more about Guinea Pig and the American Guinea Pig remake? Listen to the full chat with Unearthed founder & filmmaker Stephen Biro!
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER 1986
This has always been a film that has felt left behind and forgotten about even though it’s one of the most disturbing serial killer films you’ll see. John McNaughton’s 1986 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer stars Michale Rooker as Henry, and we the audience watch him as he goes from one murder to the next, with no man, woman or child spared. He forms a friendship with Otis who eventually becomes involved with the murders. Otis’ sister Becky becomes infatuated with Henry, however Henry never seems to reciprocate the feelings. The film ends on a bleak and depressing note, just how it started.
This film has been classed as something that will truly shock you, and has imagery that during the 80s was very shocking. What makes Henry so extreme is the tone of the film paired with scenes of molestation of a corpse, incestous rape and psychologically hard to digest aspects. It’s not necessarily the way people are murdered or the amount of gore, it is how we see the film through the eyes of the killer and watch how he has no empathy towards those who he brutally slays. This was one of three movies that led to the NC-17 classification rating in the US. It was also heavily cut by the BBFC in the UK.
Jörg Buttgereit’s 1987 film Nekromantik is one that will forever hold an exceptionally well-known name for itself due to the topic that it broaches in unflinching detail: necrophilia. In this horror exploitation movie we follow Robert who works for a street cleaning agency that specialise in cleaning up dead bodies which are found discarded or at crime scenes. In order to surprise his beautiful girlfriend, Betty, and add a little spice to their intimate relationship he takes home on the rotting corpses from work. Betty is delighted, and together the couple make love to the skeleton in what could be considered as one of cinema’s most romantic and sensual yet extremely disturbing sex scenes. Unfortunately for Robert, dead men are just better than the living, and Betty leaves him for the skeleton corpse. Rob delves into despair and self-loathing which doesn’t end well for him.
Nekromantik is one of the most taboo films ever created and caused a lot of controversy – showing necrophilia in such a detailed way causing a lot of problems for many people. Buttgereit made Nekromantik as his own rebellion against the German state and how heavily they censored nearly everything produced in Germany. And even though Nekromantik was made by Buttgereit just to push boundaries, it’s a film with a lot of heart and soul, with meaning and symbolism throughout. The soundtrack is stunning and although disgusting in places, it’s an exceptionally touching and beautiful film.
MEN BEHIND THE SUN 1988
This one is easily on the list as one of the most disturbing films ever made, and it truly does live up to its name once you start watching it. In 1988 Mou Tun-Fei released Men Behind The Sun, which is based on the true events that happened during WWII. This one is an example of a CAT III film, which is classified as an extremely violent (often with sexual themes) movie from Hong Kong, and CAT III was their classification system when it came to some of the most fucked-up films. Men Behind The Sun can also be classified as a historical film but due to the nature of what it shows, often ends up being labelled as an extreme film.
It covers the war atrocities that were committed during WWII at a Japanese biological weapons experimental centre called Unit 731. The experiments that took place there are beyond imaginable, and the film doesn’t do anything to hide from the audience just how depraved and inhumane those experiments were. During the film we see an amalgamation of distressing and upsetting scenes that really leave the viewer feeling distraught. One includes a woman having her arms frozen solid and smashed off with a baton, something she is completely conscious for and can feel every second of… This is a film that will leave you reeling afterwards and is a real example of what extreme and CAT III films were made to do, which evoke an extreme emotional response in the audience. Men Behind The Sun will make you feel repulsed and saddened that you’ve even watched it. This film is often just a step too far even for those who love the extreme genre.
TETSUO: THE IRON MAN 1989
One of the strangest and most titillating films to ever come out of Japan was Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 film Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Although classified as a cyberpunk body horror movie, Tetsuo is seen as part of the extreme cinema realm as it mixes elements of extreme body modification with sexual pleasure and pain whilst broaching the often controversial topic of fetishes. A businessman becomes plagued by a disease that turns flesh into pieces of metal, and is consumed by growing thoughts involving metal and sexual scenarios. As his body begins to transform into The Iron Man, he is plagued by a metal fetishist who wants to conquer the world and make it consumed by metal.
A film like Tetsuo is difficult to truly grasp through words alone and is much better explained by actually watching the film. There are so many elements to this film that are batshit crazy and leave you completely baffled, but that’s the magic of this one – there’s really nothing else out there that comes close to it. The production of the film was very low, and the working conditions so poor that most of the crew left during production, leaving only director Tsukamoto and the cast. Generally Tetsuo has a positive reception from most who have watched it as it’s not exceptionally gory or nasty, but it is downright weird, sexual and makes you feel uncomfortable in places. It does bring a disturbing element along with it in the sense that it makes you question sexuality and how others can find something like metal arousing, but it isn’t the most disturbing film in extreme cinema history.
So how do you think the 80s shaped up in terms of extreme? It was a decade that brought a lot to the table, and really helped to influence and shape some of the extreme movies we see today. Did you miss finding out what sick and depraved films were released in the 70s? Fear not, you can read the history of extreme cinema in the 70s. Next time we’ll be looking at the 90s which although not considered a cinematic masterpiece era for the horror genre, had some real gems when it came to extreme.