Since the very first films were shown in theaters, there have been people who have felt that the content in certain films was not acceptable for the general public to see. Many of the earliest controversial films were banned because of polarizing subjects, typically content that was interpreted as politically or racially charged.
Some of the earliest examples of banned films that we know about follow this pattern, like The Johnson-Jeffries Fight (1910), which was footage of a real boxing match. This film was banned in South Africa because it showed a black boxer (Jack Johnson) knocking out a white boxer (James J. Jeffries) and was feared that it might incite race riots. Even Battleship Potemkin (1925) was banned in many different countries because they felt it could turn people toward communism. Many of the early bans didn't even make sense. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), for example, was banned in Poland for being "pro-German" and banned in Germany for being "anti-German." Crazy is as crazy does. Who are we to judge?
Political and racial paranoia aside, we want to look at films that were banned because they were too violent, too disturbing or just too gross. One of the first films, at least that we can find, that was banned for being too disturbing was the Disney film, Skeleton Dance. You've probably even seen this film. It has four animated skeletons dancing around a graveyard. It's cute and everyone likes it. Well, everyone except Denmark. The Danes said it was too "macabre" for their liking, so they banned it from showing in their country. What a bunch of scaredy cats.
Some films, like the ones on this list, weren't just banned in one small country. Most were banned across many countries around the world. Let's look at the worst of the worst. The films that were so shocking that the film certification boards in various countries banned them outright. Here are 15 movies that were banned from theaters for being too disturbing.
Released in 1932, Tod Browning's film Freaks, was pulled from release and forced to be recut when it was deemed too graphic, too shocking and too exploitative for audiences. The resulting cut version was not received well by audiences because its narrative suffered from the dramatic scene loss. Ultimately, it would prove to be the cause of Browning's career to collapse as well. The film, which takes place in a "freakshow," was based on Browning's personal experience with the carnival. The major issue was that the movie used and exploited real carnival side show characters with real deformities and diseases. For over 30 years the UK kept this film banned. In the 60s and 70s, though, the film resurfaced and became an accepted piece of the counterculture, gaining new audiences and decent support. The film that resurfaced was still the recut version, however, as the original film, filled with all of the most disturbing deleted scenes, was lost to time with no record of where it went.
14 A Clockwork Orange
Though it's largely considered a masterpiece today, A Clockwork Orange wasn't always loved. In fact, even though it was released in theaters in the UK initially, it would end up being pulled (by Kubrick himself) after a number of copycat-like crimes began to occur. A series of crimes eerily similar to events in the film, such as an old man being beaten and robbed, sprung up in areas around the UK and this led a discouraged Kubrick, under pressure from the public, to pull the film from theaters. The film would remain banned for all of Kubrick's life, only released in theaters the year after Kubrick's death (released in 2000). Several of the themes and the graphic acts of violence have disturbed viewers for many years, but the message of the film is reinforced by these events. In 2000, Brits everywhere were like, "hey, you see this new film A Clockwork Orange?" And the rest of the world laughed. We laughed.
In 2009, Grotesque, a torture-loving film with little to no plot outside of torture, was released to a throng of controversy. The UK, as they are known to do, banned the film from being released in their theaters due to its excessive and graphic nature, as well as the sexually explicit imagery. Initially, Japanese audiences didn't seem to care about the film. It wasn't getting huge audiences, but it wasn't seen as too controversial either, so it wasn't in danger of being banned. However, after the UK pulled it from their release schedule, a few DVD distributors, such as Amazon, pulled the movie from their shelves. This left the film in some hot water and it severely affected the final sales. The UK film classification board cited their main reasons for banning the film were its lack of character development.
12 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Today it's loved by horror fans and considered to be one of the pioneers of the slasher genre, but there was a time when people genuinely feared The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Banned outright in many different countries upon its release, this film was seen as excessively violent and unnecessary for the time. The "based on a true story" claims certainly didn’t help its case, even though it is only very loosely based on the crimes of Ed Gein, but all the negative publicity did help give it a name. Looking back, it's actually quite tame; the violence is energetic and sensationalized and it doesn’t glorify rape like several of the other films on this list. After Britain banned the film, even the word "chainsaw" was banned from other film titles to shelter themselves from copycat films. Because that type of cinematic violence was so new at the time, it was hard for audiences for register, but, for modern audiences, it's like child's play.
11 Last Tango in Paris
In 1972, Bernardo Bertolucci directed Last Tango in Paris, a sexually explicit piece of erotica that would go on to be banned in several countries provinces and states. Several scenes needed to be cut and trimmed in order to pass for theaters in certain countries, especially a graphic sexual assault scene. Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, the film centers around the sexual encounters and fetishistic lives of two strangers. The ideas for many of the scenes were inspired by Bertolucci's own fantasies, which is weird to say the least. Both Schneider and Brando would eventually accuse Bertolucci of taking advantage of them and even "r*ping" them. Even though the film was received quite well at the time of its release, the actors were scarred from the experience. Brando wouldn’t speak to Bertolucci for 15 years after making this film.
10 The Exorcist
With its graphic nature, religious themes and the rumors about extreme audience reactions to the film that circulated during its release, it's really no surprise that The Exorcist was banned for a period of time in several different countries. The longest lasting piece of the ban was in the UK, where they removed the video from the shelves (yes people used to rent physical copies of movies from stores) in 1988. This ban would last 11 years until 1998/99. This decision was made to protect younger viewers that might be drawn in by the 12-year-old star from seeing it. To be honest, this just seems like a good decision. Anyone who ever had the misfortune of watching this film at too young of an age will stand behind this ban because The Exorcist was terrifying. Still to this day, it's terrifying.
9 Faces of Death
The weird documentary-type horror film, Faces of Death, was released in 1978 and was met with some interest because of its unique style and graphic content. Advertised as showing real deaths (about 60% real) from various news footage, Faces of Death used camera tricks to make the other 40% appear genuine as well. For contemporary audiences, this type of film doesn’t make much sense as it is basically clips with no narrative to speak of, but that didn't stop it from spawning multiple sequels. Although the film's PR suggests it was banned in over 40 countries, it wasn't. It was only banned in Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland and as always, the UK, which is still a substantial list.
8 Evil Dead
At the time of its release, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead was one of the most violent and graphic films ever released. The film had a profound impact on many involved in the horror genre, like Stephen King, because it showed things that had never been shown on film before. The excessive splatter gore and sexual content, such as the tree r*pe scene, led to it having quite a bit of controversy following it around. Having it banned in Iceland, Ireland, Germany and Finland, did not concern the makers of Evil Dead because all of the talk about the places it wasn't allowed to be shown only increased the interest in it for the places that it was available. This enabled the film to get a substantial following, which led to the insanely successful, Evil Dead II.
7 Cannibal Ferox
Playing on the press given to Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 (more on that film below), Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox used familiar plot devices to create a strange and hyper-graphic film that would be banned in an incredible number of countries (as many as 31). The film, which follows a bunch of outsiders exploiting Paraguayan (cannibal) native populations, uses graphic makeup and prosthetics to create very realistic gore and violence. In the UK, the film was released on DVD but was pulled soon after and banned until somewhat recently. In the U.S., the film was banned until the late 90s when Grindhouse released the film. As with quite a few films on the list, the ban for this film was closely related to the fact that the narrative is so weak. Violence without substance is a fast track to the blacklist. But that's what many of these films are aiming for.
6 The Human Centipede 2
After the disgustingness that was The Human Centipede, which had a creep surgically attaching three humans together into a "human centipede," director Tom Six decided to up the ante and do another film, this time with 12 people. Not only is the film gross and disturbing, it's also horrible and boring. Built on shock value and nothing more, The Human Centipede 2 was predictably banned in many different countries, including the UK, New Zealand and Australia, among others. In certain releases in the U.S., the distributors gave out "sick bags" and even had an ambulance stationed out front as a PR move, but it didn't help. Though the film did just barely cover its budget, it made half of what the first film did.
5 The Last House on the Left
The Last House on the Left is a revenge-horror film directed by Wes Craven that is meant to shock and disturb audiences with, primarily, sexual violence... excessive sexual violence. And shock and disturb it does. Jam packed with r*pe and sexualized gore, the film leverages the anger and disgust built up in the audience toward the villains to justify the brutal revenge murders that take place at the protagonists. Likely because of the directorial style, the film was received decently by audiences, but it was still banned in a number of places, including the UK, who held it on the list of "video nasties" until the 90s. This type of film would go on to inspire many others in the revenge/exploitation horror genre like the next entry. The Last House on the Left would be remade in 2009 for some reason. It was bad.
4 I Spit on Your Grave
I Spit on your Grave is a film that feels like the entire run time is just r*pe and violence. In fact, that's actually not far off the truth. The actual r*pe scenes in the movie last for about 30% of the total film's length. That is the definition of sexploitation. Because of its overabundance of gore and sexual violence, the film was banned in a number of places including Canada, Germany, Ireland, Norway and Iceland. Many of the current day versions of the film have been edited to cut back on the r*pe scenes, but there is still plenty in there, more than enough to scare off almost all sane viewers. This film too would be remade, this one in 2010. Sure, stylistically, it might be the superior film, but it is just as bad as the original.
3 Salo (The 120 Days of Sodom)
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1975, Salo (The 120 Days of Sodom) is the film based on the very controversial book, The 120 Days of Sodom, by the Marquis de Sade. Thought to be one of the obscenest and most sexually explicit films ever made, it was banned (and still remains banned) in many countries across the world. Depicting the kidnapping, torture, r*pe and murder of young men and women for the enjoyment of four rich sickos, the film shows all manner of crimes against human nature. There are a few scenes which vividly feature the horrifying act of coprophagia, which is enough to turn anyone's stomach. It was shown in 1977 in the UK without the permission of the film classification board and was then banned outright until 2000. Some countries, like the UK, have come around and allowed for substantially cut versions of the film to be distributed, but it has remained under the watchful eye of classification bodies.
2 A Serbian Film
Banned almost everywhere it can be, Srđan Spasojević's A Serbian Film is perhaps the most controversial film ever made. With graphic depictions of r*pe, torture, murder, child abuse and necrophilia, A Serbian Film is one of the most despicable things you could ever watch. Following the journey of a skin-flick star who gets involved in a snuff film, this vile piece of work is described as an analogy for the assault of the citizens by the Serbian government, but that's simply trying to attach meaning to something meaningless. The film is shock value at its finest and carries no message and no meaning with it. Violence has a place in cinema, but it needs to have purpose. This type of violence seems to have neither.
1 Cannibal Holocaust
Banned in over 50 countries, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) holds the title for being the film that garnered the largest overreaction. In one of first, or quite possibly the very first, found footage film, Cannibal Holocaust details the finding of film that records the graphic murder of a team of filmmakers at the hands of a cannibalistic native tribe. The found footage shows that the filmmakers came across two warring cannibalistic tribes and incited them in order to record their shocking ways of life on camera. By the end, all of the original filmmakers have been murdered, but the people who found the footage are as disturbed by the actions of the film crew as they are with the cannibals. The film's effects were so graphic and realistic, that people thought it actually was a snuff film. The director, Ruggero Deodato, was even brought up on murder charges because of the rumors that his cast members were actually killed. Obviously this all got sorted, but it didn't lessen the bans.