Why do we subject our eyes to the smorgasbord of visual atrocities out there? Are we all a bunch of sick voyeurs, thrill seekers and weirdos? Just look at the shelves of video nasties in your local film rental shop and at all the specialist festivals dedicated to the subgenres (Screamfest and Splatterfest in the US, the UK’s Frightfest, to name but a few). There are legions of fans, devotees and ambassadors of the genre – specialists who enjoy nothing more than subjecting themselves to the gamut of horrifying, nasty and downright trashy movies that the exploitation genre has to offer.
Yes, ‘splatter’ has a legacy. Beginning in France, the Grand Guignol theatre famously showcased staged spectacles of gore for its patrons, before 1916 ushered the movement onto the silver screen with D.W Griffith’s film, Intolerance. Hitchcock brought the genre closer into the mainstream with Psycho, but it was still predominantly banished to sleazy grindhouse cinemas and drive-throughs in the U.S. If fans are to champion one film for firmly propelling the genre into the public’s consciousness, however, it would be Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, which went on to be a huge commercial success. The output of splatter and exploitation films steadily grew, until ten years after the release of Night Of The Living Dead, Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave tested the limits of moral acceptability, inciting public outrage and a protest against the growing selection of ‘video nasties’ available on the market. Interestingly, esteemed critic Roger Ebert played a part in this, campaigning for censorship laws and a ban on the surging prevalence of commercially available splatter films. Moving on towards the 90s, tastes changed, a lot of the video nasties were allowed back on the shelves and the genre enjoyed a renewed popularity. This time, it was Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson who led the way with gore-comedies Bad Taste and Braindead. The outrageous use of gore in Jackson’s work spawned a new subgenre known as ‘splatstick’ in reference to the gleeful use of gore for comedic effect. Meanwhile ‘gorno’ (gore–porn) films celebrated a darker side to the genre.
So what exactly makes a good splatter film, I hear you ask! Surely, a lover of zombies and exploding heads has no discernible taste, no standards through which to filter the trash from the trash? Well splatter fans do, believe it or not! The film needs to have humour – gore that is so flamboyant, so utterly abundant that it cannot be taken too seriously, even by the director. Peter Jackson’s seedier (and arguably superior) roots in exploitation cinema provide three excellent examples of his previous passions: Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead (sold as Dead Alive in the U.S). The latter, Braindead, is so gory in fact, that Jackson had to employ the use of a fire hose to propel vast quantities of fake blood across his set. Falling neatly in the ‘splatstick’ niche, the mass zombie outbreak and final ‘lawnmower and rebirth’ scene is a highly celebrated moment in splatter cinema. For others, pure shock is enough, the ‘oh no, they didn’t’ factor. Schlock sexploitation splatter flick Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead is a good example of this. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Father of Gore’ Lucio Fulci’s grubby shocker The Beyond contains an excruciating-to-watch eyeball scene that its contemporaries avoided copying on grounds of taste.
Moving tentatively on to ‘gorno’, this subgenre celebrates the more sinister side of exploitation cinema. Here we find films that have incensed the public: films that have enraged mothers, holy folk and teachers throughout the land; and films that have been banned on grounds of morality and taste (think of the children!). Ruggero Deodato’s simulated snuff film Cannibal Holocaust is a notable example of this, and was taken to court not just over scenes of gore and animal cruelty, but over concerns that it was a genuine snuff film and that the cast were all massacred. These darker slices of obscenity are relished because the serve as a kind of ‘test.’ Recent additions to this subgenre include Tom Six’s The Human Centipede, Takeshi Mike’s Ichi the Killer and Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film. Topping the list of contemporary ‘gore porn’ shockers, however, is August Underground’s Mordum, ToeTag pictures’ second instalment in the notorious August Underground trilogy. Raising the bar for exploitation cinema, this predominantly unwatchable film has little discernible plot; it simply crawls along, bubbling with delight at its own toxicity. In fact, there will only be two types of people who watch this one: seasoned consumers of gore out to expand their repertoire… and the other kind? Well, you wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alleyway.
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