The chances are, if you’re a horror movie fan then you own some bootlegged videos.  You know what I’m talking about: TDK or Maxell dubs from European PAL prerecords and Asian laserdiscs.  For years, this was the only way to see essential films like the uncut versions of POSSESSION, THE BEYOND, MEET THE FEEBLES, Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU and countless others.  These days, “boots” remain our sole access to must-see flicks like THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, JIGOKU, PINOCCHIO 964 and the collected works of maverick filmmakers like Carmelo Bene and Fernando Arrabal (boots have also–ahem!–provided the source material for many of my reviews).  Bootlegging has been with us for quite some time, and it looks like it’s here to stay–maybe.

A Changing Market?

One has to wonder: where would the horror genre be without bootlegs?  Mired in a stew of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET/FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH/SCREAM sequels and offshoots, most likely–which it is, but with the countering influence of the burgeoning DVD market, which thanks to the efforts of companies like Anchor Bay is keeping the genre alive through a steady stream of digitally mastered editions of vintage fare like the aforementioned BEYOND and POSSESSION.  These particular DVDs owe their existence to boots, which paved the way by creating a demand for such once-obscure films.

Movies like JUNGLE HOLOCAUST, BRAIN DAMAGE and BEYOND THE DARKNESS, titles I never thought I’d see given legitimate releases, can now be found complete, uncut and (most importantly) affordable on the shelves of family friendly businesses like Best Buy.  You’d think that with such an explosion of mainstream accessibility bootleggers would lay down their VCRs and disappear.

Not quite.

If anything, “alternative video companies” are more prevalent than ever.  In a recent issue of Shock Cinema, editor Steve Puchalski made mention of the dozens of such outfits who’d requested a mention in his mag’s already packed “Video Distributor” list.  To look over the horror video listings on ebay, it seems that boots far outrank legitimate releases. I know of at least one video store in LA that not only rents boots, but sells copies of its more obscure titles.  I guess dubbing videos seems, in the current economic climate, like an easy way to make money (much in the same way as stuffing envelopes once did); all you really need, after all, are two VCRs.

The fact is, DVD proliferation or not, the bootleg video market is far from dead.  Neglected classics like HELLZAPOPPIN and LADYBUG, LADYBUG, to name but a couple, are unlikely ever to be granted legitimate video or DVD releases due to unimaginably convoluted, downright Kafkaesque legal entanglements.  I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that in making such films available, bootleggers are providing a vital and even essential service to horror fans.

For the bootlegger, the trick is in knowing what to offer–and this particular market, I’ve found, tends to be quite slow in catching on to which films have been legitimately released.  I was astonished, during a recent convention visit, to see boots of LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, EVIL DEAD TRAP and TETSUO being offered by dealers apparently clueless to the fact that those films are all readily available, and have been for quite some time (needless to say, those particular dealers weren’t attracting many customers!).

Such ignorance is a big mistake, for, as we’ll see, the bootlegging business can be a very dangerous place.

A Brief History

VHS bootlegs, it seems, have been around for as long as the VCR.  The business peaked, arguably, in the early nineties, when Hong Kong action movies and Lucio Fulci gorefests were all the rage, popularized by ‘zines like Deep Red and The Gore Gazette (both now sadly defunct).  Back then a simple unlabeled VHS copy of A BETTER TOMORROW was enough to keep me happy.  Indeed, I can remember getting hopping-up-and-down excited when the Connecticut-based outfit Fright Video obtained tenth generation copies of LE GRANDE BOUFFE and EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (both now readily available).  Yessir, those were the days!

With domestic horror videos under the bootheels of the MPAA, mainstream distributors subjected us to severely mutilated copies of flicks like SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH (the 80’s video version of Fulci’s THE BEYOND) and POSSESSION (whose running time was hacked to a scant 88 minutes from its original 120).  Thank God, then, for people like Rick Sullivan (who ran the Gore Gazette Private Library) and Chas. Balun (proprietor of the Deep Red Video Collection), who had their hands on uncut Japanese laserdisc copies of the above films and many others, and were only too happy to make VHS dupes.

That was then.  In recent years the market has gotten much tougher.  A simple unlabeled VHS is no longer enough; color packaging is now a must, as are good quality masters (most bootleggers now provide “quality ratings” for their videos).  And then there’s the thorny issue of legality.

So Are They Legal?
In a word: No.

This is contrary, of course, to what bootleggers would have you believe.  Many of ’em have taken to referring to something called the Byrne Act that supposedly legalizes what they do (Video Search of Miami, who started the BA Defense, even goes so far as to charge a $10.00 “membership fee” through which, apparently, “It is legal for you to purchase out films”–bullshit).  I won’t go into the intricacies of US Copyright law here, but I would suggest logging onto the constitutional web page and reading up on this Byrne Act before buying into thatdefense!  Those FBI warnings you see before videos aren’t there for decoration, and just because a tape originates in another country does not mean the copyright is null and void over here.

The fact is, there are consequences for bootlegging, and they can be pretty steep.

The now-defunct Film Threat magazine made things difficult for Deep Red’s Chas. Balun on at least two occasions.  In the first of ’em, FT editor Christian Gore lent a dubbed tape of Japan’s notorious GUINEA PIG mock-snuff film series to Charlie Sheen, who contacted the FBI, believing the simulated murders depicted on the tape were real.  When the FBI questioned Gore about the tape, he fingered Balun as the source.

The second incident occurred when Gore discovered Balun was selling boots of the (then) Film Threat owned NEKROMANTIK.  Somehow, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Balun shut down his bootlegging operation shortly after.

If I might digress a bit: am I the only one who found Christian Gore’s anti-bootlegging stance a mite hypocritical?  The fact is, he not only accepted advertising for bootleggers in his magazine, but also sold the non-copyrighted compilations TV SCHPINCTER and CATHODE FUCK through it (furthermore, Film Threat’sown copyrighted video line folded when the magazine did, leaving worthy films like RED AND ROSY in distribution limbo).  I can’t help but flash back to the 1992 LAX Fangoria convention, where I was an amused witness to the sight of Chas. pouring beer on Gore’s head in retaliation for the latter’s antics.

To continue: Rick Sullivan’s much respected New York based ‘zine The Gore Gazette folded shortly after Sullivan was busted for selling boots of Russ Meyer movies through his Gore Gazette Private Library.  Once again, I don’t think the two events are unrelated.

I can list many more incidents illustrating the negative consequences of bootlegging, but I think by now I’ve established the fact that boots are far from kosher, despite what their purveyors would have us believe (for that matter, horror movie bootleggers are also the source of a number of untrue rumors, like the one about the Spanish kid show sensation Xuxa–who, despite what a number of boot catalogs would have you believe, DID NOT commit suicide!).  Does this mean we should stop buying bootlegs?  Well, no!

In Conclusion

Things may have gotten better since the dark days of the late eighties and early nineties, but American film distribution is still a pretty sorry affair when it comes to horror movies–good ones, anyway.  Theatrical distribution, even of the “arthouse” variety, is pretty much a dead venue for transgressive fare of any sort, while the MPAA and Blockbuster Video (the haven for the Lowest Common Denominator) remain major stumbling blocks on the home viewing circuit.

Personally, I’m against letting shortsighted distributors determine what movies I can see.  For those of us who love film, bootlegging is a necessary evil–although I’m beginning to think evil isn’t the right word at all–just the opposite, in fact.  Bootlegging may not be legal but, dammit, it should be!

Recommendations

Video Search of Miami (www.vsom.com) is widely considered the top of the heap (albeit mostly by themselves!) among boot outfits.  While they often push videos of dodgy quality and their prices are ridiculously high (a wallet busting 25 clams per video, plus that aforementioned $10.00 “membership fee”), they remain second to none for sheer professionalism.  Orders are always filled within a week regardless of quantity (I’ve placed several orders with them, so this is something I can personally vouch for), and all inquiries are answered in timely and courteous fashion.

Mark Johnston’s Shocking Videos (www.revengeismydestiny.com) can always be counted on to dredge up the rarest stuff imaginable.  I honestly don’t where Mark finds much of his stock, which includes titles so scarce that porno filmmaker Jamie Gilles apparently bought a copy of one of his own films through Johnston.  Another longtime fave is Greg Ledbetter’s European Trash Cinema (www.eurotrashcinema.com), which features a number of exclusive titles you won’t find ANYWHERE else.