Movies

The blood runs in rivers as Jay Slater grills and drills Mike Lee, the man behind that most infamous of video nasty labels - VIPCO

VIPCO. This one word encaspulates early video horror;

 

outrageous splatter films of dubious merit that put two fingers up to the BBFC during the early 1980s. VIPCO might not have been popular in the vicinity of Soho Square, but they released films that were eagerly sought after by a gore-starved public. Even the advent of the censorious Video Recordings Act in 1984 couldn't get rid of them, and they are still around in the new millennium. Unlike Mary Whitehouse So what is VIPCO? Who is VIPCO? might be a better question. VIPCO is Mike Lee, a canny entrepreneur who spotted a gap in the market and filled it with zombie gut-crunchers and cannibal capers. He still claims that Zombie Flesh-Eaters is art, and few Dark Side readers would disagree with him!

Jay Slater: Think Shogun Assassin and Zombie Flesh-Eaters and VIPCO springs to mind. Why carve yourself a living in the unpredictable video industry?

Mike Lee: This is how it all started. I was working in an old hi-fi chain called Lasky's that is no longer around. I was located in the Oxford Street store on the video department in 1978. At the time, video was the new thing and 1 was being asked by countless people if films were available. I thought that this was the way forward, so I decided to be involved with movies. I was on £58, which was not an enormous sum for five days a week with long hours. Naturally, I knew nothing about the film business, only the retail side. I flicked through the Yellow Pages and I called every film distributor who was listed, asking to buy rights for video.# Every distributor was terrified by video and how it would affect their cinema admissions, but eventually I met one guy who was willing to talk. He remembered that I went to school with his son, and this broke the ice. I managed to buy four softcore sex movies and these were the first films that VIPCO released: Hot Sex in Bangkok, Caged Women, Bed Hostesses and Sweet and Sexy. Later I bought another movie off him titled The Young Seducers. 1 thought that this was great, because most blokes would have been turned on to the idea of seeing a pair of tits on a TV screen without having to put out a Super 8 projector - which was the norm for home entertainment until then. That said, I really wasn't into the sex stuff. Of course, like most blokes, I was titillated by seeing lovely naked women but it wasn't my scene. 1 asked the same distributor if he had any horror movies he could sell to me. He said that he only had one horror film for cinema distribution and it was Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh-Eaters (laughs). I bought the video rights from him, set up my own campaign and people loved the movie. When I started, I had a little cash saved. To get the first films released on video, it cost me all of my savings which was around £7000 - quite a tidy sum in those days for a young man. But I needed another £1000 for sleeve design and packaging. I spoke to my father who thought I was mad wasting money on trashy films and should save what I had. But this is what I wanted to do and I was going to do it. The first four films struggled to shift. I did them fairly cheaply at £19.99 each and I used to approach shops singly trying to sell them. I was selling them during the day and duplicated copies in the evening with a master machine and six rented VCRs. That was what I did in the early days of VIPCO, and I can tell you, I used to be knackered!

Jason Slater: Why the name VIPCO? Mike Lee: Here's a great little story. When I first started to trade, I suggested to my accountant that I needed a video company to register, and as it happened, he had a spare title: Video Instant Picture Company Ltd, hence VIPCO. And I love the name. Absolutely love it.

Jason Slater: Before you set up VIPCO as a primary horror label, were you interested in the genre? Mike Lee: Yeah, I do like being scared on occasions. The one film that really did terrify me as a youngster was The Exorcist. I remember the advertising campaign, which was very powerful, and the scene where Linda Blair chucked up on the bed freaked me out.

Jason Slater: Zombie Flesh-Eaters has always been your prime title. Were you aware of Lucio Fulci and his status as Italy's leading graphic horror director?

Mike Lee: When I released Zombie Flesh- Eaters, it was no older than a year or two. I had no idea who Lucio Fulci was, but when I looked at the master I thought it was such a great movie, you know, great comic strip hor¬ror. Wonderful stuff, particularly the poke in the eye, which is, for me, cinema at its very best. As that splinter of wood slowly slides into that woman's eye, it's a scene that has to be seen. After that I was hooked on Fulci. So much so that 1 obtained the rights for The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and House by The Cemetery - worthwhile films in everyone's collection. After the Fulcis I had a spate of good ones, The Bogeyman, for example. A great movie that did wonderful business and was incredibly haunting for its time. After that, VIPCO put out Shogun Assassin. When I saw that for the first time, I knew I had to have it. It was awesome. It was such a great movie that I bought the cinema rights as well and I had never done that before. For me, it was a real first. I struck a number of prints, 1 can't remember how many, and sat with audiences in cinemas where possible. Just to hear the audience's reaction made it all worthwhile. Theatrically it made a decent profit and was then released on to video, and everyone loved it.

Jason Slater: A more notorious title of yours was The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1981).

Mike Lee: Yeah, made by Sharad Patel who's quite a prolific filmmaker. It was a film that I was chasing for some quite time. Patel was difficult because he was a wealthy bloke and I don't think he was too fussed if he got deals or not. At the time, I worked incredibly hard to get the video deal. I signed for the rights in December 1980 or 1981. I can't recall the exact timing but I had seen the film and I real¬ly wanted to get it. I was invited by Patel to the premiere screening of the movie when his company was called Twin Continental Films. The premiere was held at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road and I was allowed to bring a couple of mates and the wife. I sat there and I saw this great film about Idi Amin. He was a ruthless thug - no doubt about it. I thought it was a very powerful movie and it should be seen on video.The video did very well.

Jason Slater: VIPCO was, and still is, connsidered to be the UK's leading video horror distributor. However, they barely survived the 1984 Video Recordings Act. Could you see what was going to happen to video before the act was passed by the Government?

Mike Lee: We didn't have a way, before 1984, of knowing whether or not we could release films on video. There was no clear structure and no referring authority to ask if a certain film should have a U certificate or so on. There was no one to turn to, but cinema had a clear legalisation. I started VIPCO in 1979 and it took some five years for the Government to get off their arses and do something about it. So they couldn't blame me for putting out movies on a new medium when they were to slow to get off the mark and do something about it. They could cry wolf and say that you shouldn't have Video Nasties and scary horror movies out on the market place, but that was a load of nonsense. I mean, why did it take them five years to decide that the public could not see horror films? And now, these tapes are now fully vindicated by the BBFC, who say that they can be released and seen by the public. So we were right all along. Of course it crippled my company at the time. The boys in blue paid visits to shops all over the country, and whole¬salers, and began to nick all their stock. It was total paranoia! All orders dried up and my business slumped overnight. We crashed. My property was also searched for illegal booty. It had no reason to be - we're talking about horror movies, for God's sake. Those who think that horror films are going to turn you completely demented are talking out of their arse. I can't think of one incident when someone saw Driller Killer and went out into the streets with a drill. There were no zombies marauding, or any bogeyman out there. It just didn't happen.

Jason Slater: Why are the UK cinema posters for Zombie Flesh-Eaters and Bruno Mattei's Zombie Creeping Flesh so alike? Did you have a share of the rights for their theatrical release?

Mike Lee: Zombie Creeping Flesh was never mine, it was Miracle Films, as was Zombie Flesh-Eaters. I only had the video rights for the Fulci movie, although I am glad to say that VIPCO have released the fully uncut print of Creeping Flesh -I wanted it to be the graphic version with all the gore. Here's a nice story about Miracle Films. It was run by a man called Mike Myers who I had great admiration and respect for and is sadly no longer with us - may he rest in peace. Myers was very helpful to director John Carpenter in getting Halloween off the ground. And Carpenter, in his honour, named the murderer Mike Myers. A lovely gesture, I thought. Jason Slater: Stonevision have recently released Marino Girolami,s Zombie Holocaust in a fantastic print although the film struck for the disc and video was slightly speckled. I note that they are planning to release a new edition of Zombie Flesh- Eaters on DVD with many extras.

Jason Slater: Why did VIPCO lose the rights for Fulci's movie?

Mike Lee: The rights had moved to Variety Communications and as my sales contact had fallen sick, I had no idea where the film was. The director of Stonevision nipped in there, under the wire as it were, and stole the movie from right beneath me! However, having said that, hats off to him for doing a great job on a great movie. I weaved a deal for the VHS rights, although I am envious with Stonevision for having the DVD rights. I have a lot of regret for not having the DVD rights.

Jason Slater: Would you agree that Driller Killer and your graphic packaging helped spark the Video Nasty debate?

Mike Lee: Well, it certainly aroused the media and the Advertising Standards Authority, who claimed that they received a small number of complaints. VIPCO advertised in a bunch of magazines. We didn't just take a line of text or part of a page, we punched a whole page picture of the video sleeve, with the old fellah having his head drilled. No editor at the time said that they would not run my advert. I presumed that, had there been a problem with the image, they would not have touched it. But we didn't get one refusal and that included trade papers, music magazines and video press. After that, VIPCO put out Shogun Assassin. When I saw that for the first time, I knew I had to have it. It was awesome. It was such a great movie that I bought the cinema rights as well and I had never done that before. For me, it was a real first. I struck a number of prints, 1 can't remember how many, and sat with audiences in cinemas where possible. Just to hear the audience's reaction made it all worthwhile. Theatrically it made a decent profit and was then released on to video, and everyone loved it.

Jason Slater: Has there ever been a film that VIPCO dearly wanted to release but could not?

Mike Lee: Hundreds of them! Last House on the Left would have been nice to have. I would have liked to have that as I don't have a Wes Craven movie. Another film I would be delighted to release would be The Hills Have Eyes. You know, that was poignant of the era and the artwork is magnificent. I believe that Last House on the Left is with a UK distributor but it would have a hard time getting released on video because of the BBFC.

Jason Slater: After the 1984 Video Recordings Act, VIPCO was knocked for six. It was a number of years before the company was relaunched. What did you do in the meantime?

Mike Lee: I did a number of different things in life, although I still hung on to my film rights and masters in the belief that one day that they could be released. I wasn't going to take a criminal decision to start banging them out the back door just so that the fans could get them. I wanted them to see the film in a proper and approved form. I thought that the establishment had got it all wrong so I tucked the masters away until a time when they could be put on the shelves legally. And I was right to do so. Vipco came back in 1992 and managed to get a few films that had previously been thought taboo through the censors. It was said that members at the BBFC used to sigh in despair when a Lucio Fulci film was submitted by VIPCO. But unlike the BBFC, I don't treat the press as an authority. I treat them as opinionated people who print what they would like to say. They can print what they think but it doesn't necessarily mean we have to agree with them. As for the BBFC, they are somehow linked with the government and in a way, we must be respectful of them and what they do. But yes, I have had my run-ins. As you are well aware, Jay, I submitted Cannibal Ferox some number of years ago ano it is only lately that VIPCO were granted a certificate. Now, with all the money you have to pay to have a film submitted prior to them viewing it - a thousand quid, I think - my hands are tied. I have to be respectful of what they do.

Jason Slater: A little bird told me that James Ferman wanted to leave Cannibal Ferox gathering dust in a drawer...

Mike Lee: I don't want to cast aspersions on a particular individual, but clearly Mr. Ferman was top of the tree. I can't say if he did or did not want to have the film released, but my speculation as a paying customer would be that that was the case. I don't think he loved me at all - at least not physically! (laughs). I think he had a very dim view of my activities. But it was his job to take the films and it was my job to submit them. Now James Ferman has long gone, but VIPCO is still here. I think it says that he threw in the towel as we're concerned. He was getting his decisions wrong, and it was time for new management.

Jason Slater: How do you regard your competition in the UK such as Redemption/Salvation?

Mike Lee: I've had a look at their stuff and it's very different from VIPCO. I don't think that their films are exciting, and they don't get to the point when compared to VIPCO titles, which really deliver. Take one of their leading titles. Salon Kitty, for example - a nice little movie but it doesn't really get there, does it? It's boring, a bit pedestrian. I was offered Salon Kitty years ago but I would never have put it out. I wouldn't have it on my label. You can fall to sleep watching that movie, but with Zombie Flesh Eaters and Shogun Assassin, you know what you're getting (laughs). Gor, blimey, come on! The blood flows, there it is! It gushes all over the screen. With Salon Kitty, you have to wait two days until you see a bird get her kit off. I mean, what is this?

Jason Slater: Have you received any reaction to VIPCO from Nigel Wingrove of Redemption?

Mike Lee: Well, he was certainly delighted to include my product for a publication he did - something on the Video Nasty. He never told me about it and it was only afterwards that I learned what was going on. He had some young lady call me to ask if would be okay to reprint certain video sleeves, but I was clearly incensed about it. He never had the rights to the artwork, and as an individual in the industry, never called me for a chat about it. I called him a couple of times but he never returned my calls - a bit naughty, really. His loss.

Jason Slater: What does VIPCO have in store for the new millennium?

Mike Lee: There's a great rostrum of product being released now and new titles will be added by the time the dear reader flicks through this interview. I have recently released The Slayer, Pranks and Mountain of the Cannibal God - that Ursula Andress classic directed by Sergio Martino. We will have resubmitted Shock Waves, The House on the Edge of the Park and The New York Ripper. Now, at long last, Lucio Fulci's infamous slasher will be going to the board of censors. And of course, the ultimate horror film of them all, the daddy of the genre. Cannibal Holocaust that will be coming to the reader's video screens. Also, I am proud of VIPCO's recent disc release of Fulci's City of the Living Dead. Not only is the print fully uncut, it features an interview and audio commentary with actress Catriona MacColl!

Jason Slater: Do you expect The New York Ripper to be cut to ribbons by the BBFC? Times have changed since the early 1980s, but Fulci's movie was submitted and rejected for classification completely.

Mike Lee: Yeah, it was swiftly dealt with. To cut it heavily would be severely punishing the movie. But I do think that the British fans should be able to see the very best that VIPCO can offer, even with restrictions imposed by the censors. I think it's classic Fulci where he manages to get the macabre over. I admit that it's not the best-written film in the world, and the plot is a little thin, but nonetheless, it has a place in everyone's collection. The New York Ripper should be there. I am 100% behind the movie and pushing it as far as I can so it can be seen, [note: the BBFC cut 22 seconds of Daniela Doria's grisly demise, nipple slicing, eyeball mutilation, etc].

Jason Slater: The censors have told me that Cannibal Holocaust has been praised as an effective horror movie even after cuts to the animal mutilation and sexual degradation.

Mike Lee: The Blair Witch Project tried to deliver what Cannibal Holocaust has done. I was not impressed with The Blair Witch Project. Where's the story? Yes, it had movement, but Cannibal Holocaust certainly delivers. Any critic worth their salt would praise Ruggero Deodato and his film.

Jason Slater: I note that VIPCO will be reissuing Blood Camp Thatcher, struck from a fabulous new print.

Mike Lee: It was formerly known as Turkey Shoot. I didn't like the name of Turkey Shoot. It didn't sound right, I mean, Turkey? That's asking for a critical drubbing. Of course, when I released the movie, Margaret Thatcher was in power and I liked the idea of including Thatcher. It wasn't down to personal terms but in the movie, the dreaded camp was run by an evil Thatcher and I thought it would have been far better to change the title. I went to great trouble to find an excellent print that was in its widescreen glory. A great movie that Vipco shall be releasing on DVD shortly. It was cut by the censors previously but shall be resubmitted.

Jason Slater: And Zombie Nosh?

Mike Lee: It's a classic American gore movie. It shall be resubmitted to the board and I hope that it will fly through uncut as it was trimmed for its earlier release. Of course, how can 1 forget one of my favourites - Flesh- Eating Mothers? Pure family flavour clean to the bone - mum loves it! I mean, you have to see that movie. Have a Ruby Murray and some beers with your mates on a Saturday night and watch Flesh-Eating Mothers. It has to be done.

Jason Slater: As a video distributor, is the DVD phenomenon a medium that you cannot ignore?

Mike Lee: I can't say that VIPCO's focus is 100% on DVD. Our focus is on DVD and video. It would be foolhardy to ignore the fans who only have video machines, and we're not going to do that. As for the popularity of DVD, it is zooming. It is interesting, as it started off slowly but now has reached a 40% stake of sales with the rest going to video. So yes, DVD has slowly started to penetrate the market and won't be long when the discs will dwarf VHS. I mean, DVD is great as the medium is lifeless. And it suits me as the fans can see my movies again in a better format than they had previously.

Jason Slater: Any plans for Sewage Baby?

Mike Lee: I want to release a double-bill of Sewage Baby and Slime on one DVD - I think that it would be a cracking disc. All he wanted was a cuddle! (laughs). Sewage Baby was offered to VIPCO in the States and it gave me a bit of a chuckle when I first saw it. I thought that it would be a good move to release it. Not everyone likes Sewage Baby, but that also goes for big films, doesn't it? 1 mean. Pearl Harbour (sic) has been savaged by critics and the public, but they can,t go wrong with Sewage Baby!

Jason Slater: Had you any idea that in the heyday of the Video Nasty, original cassettes of films such as Zombie Flesh Eaters were reaching three figure numbers?

Mike Lee: No idea until now! (laughs). I had no idea they were selling for so much money. I am delighted to learn that people were paying so much for a VIPCO title. I mean, paying over £100 for a video cassette? That really tells you about the value of the product that we put out. I'll let you into another little story. When we first released Zombie Flesh- Eaters, it was struck from the original X-cer-tificate version that was, of course, cut of all the juicy splatter. After selling thousands of copies, ten months later I decided that I wanted to put the cuts back in. Therefore, VIPCO released the "Strong Uncut Version." put the price up, and sales rocketed like you've never seen before! Every cassette flew out the door and we couldn't keep up with demand. And every time we printed a batch of video sleeves - at a time we would print 5000-10,000 - a month later 1 would have to reorder more. I have since been struck for six on how well that Italian horror movie did. Surely, it has to be one of the greatest films of cinematic history, video wise. The proof is in the pudding. Nothing can beat art and gore at the same time, as well as sheer bloody terror. I loved every second of it.

Thanks to Craig Lapper of the BBFC. The Dark Side Magazine