Friday, 24 April 2009

Death of the Cut: The changing face of film censorship

Although Zombie Flesh Eaters was granted an X-certificate cinema release in 1980, the BBFC sliced out a hefty 106 seconds of footage before passing it. This included the infamous shot where a woman’s head is forced into a wooden splinter, bursting her eyeball - nicely disgusting, although it lacks the sheer bewilderment of the ‘zombie vs. tiger shark’ fight.

Thanks to such hefty cuts, the BBFC was often accused of being over-zealous in its censorship between the 1950’s and 1990’s. The cuts weren’t just limited to violent titles such as Straw Dogs and Last House on the Left either. Even Rebel Without a Cause was meddled with, for fear it would encourage ‘teenage rebellion’. Of course, films containing graphic sex or violence were always the ones dealt with the most harshly. Banned scenes were the subject of great excitement amongst horror fans, especially those lucky enough to find a ‘hardcore’ uncut version on video.

There was no legal requirement for videos to be classified up until the early 80’s, but concern grew that these titles would fall into the hands of impressionable young children, who would undoubtedly grow up to be cross-dressing serial killers. This resulted in the Video Recordings Act of 1984. From then on, all commercial videos for sale or hire in the UK had to be classified according to their suitability for ‘home viewing’. However, through the passing of the Video Recordings Act, the BBFC had already begun to evolve away from their censorship past. This was reflected in a title change, from the British Board of Film Censors to the British Board of Film Classification.

The term ‘video nasty’ soon became a media buzzword, one which was bandied about with glee by the likes of the Daily Mail. This attitude sadly continued well into the 90’s, but despite media pressure, the BBFC had become cautious about unnecessarily cutting any so-called controversial titles. Larry Clark’s Kids was swiftly labelled ‘child pornography’ by the press, but the BBFC passed the film with only minor cuts after investigating the actual age of the main actors. Crash was another movie thrust into the spotlight, thanks to several graphic sex scenes featuring car crash victims - including a memorable shot of James Spader getting it on with a vulva-like scar. The BBFC screened the film to a group of disabled people before passing its verdict, eventually releasing it uncut.

At the turn of the new millennium, the BBFC decided to poll the UK public for its opinions on film classification. The results showed that people weren’t quite as bothered about violence and bad language in movies as previously thought. For parents the main concern was drug use, as well as violence in the lower classification categories that could be easily imitated by their sprogs. Not amazingly shocking - even the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had been vilified in the past, for encouraging kids to construct katanas or nunchucks out of bits of wood.

Sex scenes, however, appeared to get a big thumbs-up from most of those polled. The result was that real sex became acceptable in 18-rated films, as proved by the likes of Intimacy and 9 Songs. Sexual Violence was still a grey area, especially in the case of Baise-Moi, a 2001 film featuring an explicit rape scene. The film inspired much debate over whether the sexual content was actually pornographic - Director Coralie Trinh Thi suggested not, because it was “not for masturbation.” The BBFC limited their cuts to a 10-second penetration shot, which they claimed eroticised sexual assault, then passed it with an 18 certificate.

Recently, the BBFC has taken to providing detailed consumer advice about every UK release on both the film posters and its own website. Jurassic Park 2 was the first to get this treatment back in 1997, with a warning to parents about ‘scary scenes of violence’. Since then we’ve been treated to cautions such as ‘contains scenes of criminal activity’ for Pickpocket, and ‘contains sexualised posing’ for the recent Fast & Furious (surely ‘contains Vin Diesel’ is all you really need to know). Perhaps the most legendary advice so far is ‘contains mild peril’, already notorious for being almost completely meaningless.

Still, at least the BBFC are now clear in their role as a classification board. Instead of slicing out huge chunks of films to ‘protect the general public’, they’re instead letting us make our own minds up. As the board itself has stated: “Who’s to decide what adults can or can’t watch?” And for the Zombie Flesh Eater fans out there, the movie was finally released fully uncut with an 18 certificate in 2005, as part of the ‘Box of the Banned’ set. Time to settle down for some good splinter action, horror chums.

Chris Barraclough

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