“Mind the doors!”
Death Line [aka Raw Meat] is a British cannibal movie that plays more like Frankenstein, presenting a heartbroken, barely verbal cannibal who simply wants a mate. Descended from a group of people who were trapped in the abandoned tunnels of the Russell Square tube station and forced to resort to cannibalism to survive, all this pitiable creature can muster is repeated mutterings of, “Mind the doors!”, a phrase he clearly learned from his ancestors who remembered their days as laborers. It’s his version of “I am Groot!”, but he doesn’t have a Bradley Cooper-voiced sidekick around to act as interpreter, thus leaving him wholly incapable of ever fully communicating with anyone.
It’s almost enough to make you forget that this dude kills and eats people. Almost.
A little historical context might help here: Last year, Julia Ducournau’s horror drama Raw made headlines for its shocking depiction of cannibalism, which is a subgenre of horror which has gone dormant in recent years. Back in the 70s, it barely existed at all. The granddaddy of the genre, Umberto Lenzi’s Man from the Deep River, came out in 1972, kicking off a wave of Italian-made cannibal movies. Those didn’t arrive in full force until the end of the decade, and the first of their American counterparts, chiefly Texas Chain Saw Massacre, didn’t roll out until ‘74.
Oft-forgotten in the history of the cannibal movie, then, is Death Line, which came out the same year as Man from the Deep River.
Chicago-born director Gary Sherman (Dead and Buried, Poltergeist 3), who emigrated to London after the election of Richard Nixon, had been working in commercials and was encouraged by his peers, including a young Jonathan Demme, to make his first feature. He had no idea how to actually make that happen, though, or even what story to tell. The various politically charged scripts he’d written hadn’t sold anywhere. As is a common story in film history, horror was simply what he turned to because it gave him the best chance of actually getting something produced. So, he threw together a script inspired by the legend of Sawney Bean, an apocryphal tale about a family of Scottish cannibals who preyed on travelers in the 17th century before being hunted down by King James VI and a volunteer army of 400 men.
In Sherman’s version, there is no family, just a grown man and his dying spouse. They’re the last remaining survivors of a people who first feasted on their own and then on random tube travelers after the company which employed them went bankrupt and declined to mount a rescue mission when a cave-in left them cut-off from the world.
It’s half an hour into the movie before we learn any of that, though. We actually open on two college students, one American (David Ladd), the other British (Sharon Gurney), as they happen upon a well-dressed drunkard sleeping one off on the steps leading to the subway. When they seek police assistance and return to check on the man he’s not there anymore. Unbeknownst to them, this man is actually a high-ranking official in the government, and his disappearance triggers a local investigation. Unfortunately, the lead cop (Donald Pleasance, who, at the time, was not at all the B-movie actor he later became) is too much of a crass drunkard himself to make much headway. He mostly cracks jokes, drinks tea, quarrels with Christopher Lee’s MI-5 investigator in one puzzling scene where they never actually share the frame, and generally bumbles and mumbles his way through.
The students, meanwhile, continue to bicker over their role in the disappearance.
Where exactly the movie is going with all of this is unclear.
Then, at almost exactly the 30-minute mark Sherman’s camera executes a masterfully chilling tracking shot exploring every nook and cranny of the cannibals underground home, beginning in the room full of victims, some of them fresh and barely untouched, others long-since dead and mutilated. The missing man is in this room and still alive, though not for much longer.
The camera, continuing its uninterrupted tracking shot, backs into another room where the male cannibal (Hugh Armstrong) is tending to the sickly female (June Turner). We see him attempt to feed one of the victims to her, and at exactly the moment this turns too grisly the camera exits out a side door and into the tunnel, slowly backing away to both emphasize the claustrophobia and surprisingly mundane setting. It really looks no different than any other subway tunnel, yet now we know that around one of those corners is a level of human carnage few can ever imagine.
Thus, the stage is set for another hour of the film where we know more than the characters, and it’s all likely leading to a confrontation in the tunnels. But this initial underground sequence is worth the price of admission for Death Line alone. It showcases an odd mixture of both gore and artistry which was uncommon to horror films of the era or any era, really. Sherman actually resorts to the same trick several more times, filming the conversation scenes up above more traditionally but initially resisting any cuts whatsoever whenever we return to the underground lair, instead mechanically moving through the gruesome setting.
As the inevitable confrontation inches forward, we’re supposed to grow conflicted about what to make of the cannibal. Though his actions are monstrous is he, himself, a monster?
As Sherman told ShockWaves last year, “I thought, ‘Wow, I could hide a political message in a horror script, and no one would ever know.’ I was raised in a very color blind home, and I got to England and everybody in England talked about racism in America yet the classicism there so far outweighs what our racism is here. So, I wrote the script, and made the monster the sympathetic character because he wasn’t responsible for what he did; society was responsible for his actual existence.”
The result of his high-minded intentions is a deceptively complex film tailor-made for cult fandom. It has its problems, of course. The story takes quite a while to come together. Donald Pleasence’s clear intention to play the material as a comedy doesn’t always work with the rest of the movie, and at times it’s a real challenge to make out exactly what he’s saying. Anyone hoping for more traditional cannibal horror will be let down by how infrequently the violence comes. But even in 2018 Sherman’s themes still register and the shots of decayed corpses still spook.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Death Line lends an intriguing sympathetic eye toward the underclass (symbolized here in the form of a wandering cannibal) but might frustrate some who will grow impatient during the long stretches of Donald Pleasance being ever so British and ever so drunk.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- What are the chances George R.R. “Hodo=Hold the Door” Martin has seen this movie?
- Title explanation: Sherman made this as Death Line, but after he completed the film and got it into some local theaters a studio bought it, recut it, and renamed it Raw Meat. That’s the title people knew it as for decades, but it was never what was intended.
Here’s Death Line’s wonderful opening theme music composed by Wil Malone:
Death Line [aka Raw Meat] is currently available to stream on Showtime. A new 4K restoration was released on Blu-Ray last year. This review is based on the version of the film on Showtime.