A cause célèbre of the video nasty age, the Greek exploitation classic ISLAND OF DEATH returns fully uncut and, for the first time, in high definition. Let’s find out what the fuss was about…
Film censorship in England is a study in changing tastes and morals, and a litmus test of political correctness. Sparking a moral panic in the eighties, when horror movies were making killers of our kids, the ‘video nasty’ list soon became the go-to guide for the discerning gore fan. Nico Mastorakis’ infamous Greek exploitation flick Island of Death has had an especially fraught history with the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). Like Mastorakis himself has said, the story behind a film is often more interesting than the movie itself.
Director Mastorakis, who was a major player in Greek TV, became inspired to make Island of Death after noticing the financial success of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Given the film’s gritty nastiness and hazy intensity, it’s logical to assume that upping the violence and perversity would rake in more cash, and that’s just what Mastorakis did. The proto-slasher was not only one of the earliest attempts to mimic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but one of the principal titles in Greek exploitation cinema, and certainly the most successful.
After listing the most depraved sexual acts he could conceive, Mastorakis wrote the script in a week. The $35,000 budget was so low that he even had to take on the role of the novelist because the original actor wanted more than the budget allowed. Mastorakis has often gone on record to say that there was no artistic intention behind Island of Death and that it was a labour of financial lust, to afford him a prosperous filmmaking career. To that end, his feature debut was a roaring success; the controversial screen matter ensured its place on the video nasty list, courting notoriety and cementing its place in the cinematic pantheon. It also made Mastorakis a bankable name. But be that as it may, the cinematography is rich, and the film
The plot is a bizarre cacophony of senselessness, where sibling lovers Christopher (Robert Behling) and Celia (Jane Lyle) arrive on the idyllic Grecian island of Mykonos, on a pious crusade to knock off inhabitants dabbling in depravity. But they are the chief exponents, on a psychosexual bender to nowhere, provoking locals into sexual acts and administering a series of progressively worse punishments; from forced paint ingestion to melting a face with an aerosol can and candle. It’s a nonsensical script where characters contradict themselves and trying to find any reason behind their motivations is likely to cause a brain haemorrhage. It flits between picturesque imagery and perverted violence in one fell swoop, all tempered with cod religious imagery. Most of the actors were either models, tourists or folk dragged in off the street and their lack of acting chops is evident. The dubbing synchronisation only adds injury to insult. But Behling, himself a professional thespian, gives a Shakespearean quality to his performance and is strangely compelling, despite raping and killing a goat.
While a BBFC classification isn’t strictly necessary for a theatrical release, it is a requirement for any distributor looking for general widespread release. With the video nasty panic well underway, and the Video Recordings Act being passed in 1984, it became a legal requirement for every film to be given a BBFC certification before it could be released for home viewing in the UK. Even if a film had already been given the go-ahead for a theatrical release, it needed to be resubmitted for any home viewing format. Island of Death was passed X, with almost 14 minutes of cuts, for its 1976 theatrical release under the name A Craving for Lust (one of multiple titles which also included Island of Perversion and Devils in Mykonos). The film was released uncut on home video by AVI in 1982, but by November 1983 it got swept up in the video nasty fever spreading across the country. It soon became one of the DPP's (Department of Public Prosecution) 39 videos most libellous for prosecution for being obscene, in the master list of 72 nasties. If the Director of Public Prosecution deemed any title in violation of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, The DPP could take the offending film to court. And they did, in abundance. This meant that video stores stocking said offending titles could be prosecuted, and their stock seized. Strangely, Island of Death was deleted by the time the next video nasty issue came around, before returning in October 1985, where it soon became a mainstay. The initial disappearance is thought to be because it was confused with Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s film Who Can Kill a Child? - released as Island of Death in the UK.
In 1987 it was cut once again, this time by 13 minutes (which unsurprisingly comprised of the sexual violence and degradation), renamed Psychic Killer 2 and resubmitted, but the BBFC refused classification all the same. In order to achieve an 18 certificate rating in 2002, the distributor was required to cut over 4 minutes of footage, again comprised of sexual violence, degradation and humiliation. This included the bathroom rape scene, in which two hippy types accost Celia while she bathes, and the ‘golden shower’ sequence where Christopher pisses on a half-naked older woman. To anyone who has seen the film, you’ll know that sexual violence makes up a good chunk of proceedings, and would have made even less sense without. As a sign of the times, censorship has relaxed and the BBFC has been slowly allowing controversial titles to resurface, passing them with minimal cuts or none at all. Island of Death was finally passed uncut in September 2010 for Arrow Video’s DVD release, and five years later, Arrow has released the full uncut version on Blu-ray. The release presents the feature in a crisp and clear quality, the mono audio is up to scratch with the oddball soundtrack pootling things along.
Unsurprisingly, Mastorakis’ own attitudes towards censorship aren’t positive. While he’s all for protecting children from explicit content, he’s fervently against telling adults what they can and can’t watch, decrying censors as medieval, and the BBFC in particular as totalitarian and draconian. He had disclosed his vitriolic stance years before Island of Death was finally passed uncut. In recent years, he’s praised censors’ so called ‘stupidity’, even thanking them for making Island of Death a cult movie by banning and cutting it. And he’s right, without the hullabaloo surrounding its release, Island of Death would have faded into obscurity. A little controversy goes a long way.
But why such a troubled history? It doesn’t have the nihilistic scuzz of Cannibal Holocaust, or the viciousness of The Last House on the Left. Then again, given Mastorakis’ list of degradations, which include incest, bestiality, body mutilation, torture, crucifixion, rape and more besides, it’s really no wonder. For all its idyllic setting, it’s deliberately provocative and tasteless. But because it’s such a calculated ball of sleaze, it ends up being blackly comic, with its terrible script, over-acting and folk-infused soundtrack. It’s offensive, and the rape scenes are deeply uncomfortable to watch, but still, it might just be the most daring and definitive exploitation movie to date.