Rarely will genre-picture viewers encounter a harder tonal shift than the transition occurring around the 23-minute mark of UK horror show Death Line, released in the U.S. as Raw Meat. The opening stretch of the movie proceeds like a standard-issue thriller. After a well-dressed gentleman is killed by an unseen assailant in a London subway station, a young couple discovers his body and learns from his ID that he’s an important official. The couple solicits help from a nearby cop, but upon returning to the scene of the crime, the victim has vanished—thus making the couple suspects in the disappearance of a VIP. Thereafter, quirky Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) probes the lives of the couple, American Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Brit Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney). Then writer-director Gary Sherman abruptly cuts to secret catacombs adjoining the subway station, wherein a grotesque creature (Hugh Armstrong) tries feeding pieces of
the gentleman’s body to another creature, who dies. Enter the world of “The Man,” last survivor of an inbred cannibal tribe evolved from survivors of a construction cave-in that occurred 80 years previous.
From the moment Sherman introduces “The Man,” Death Line transforms into a depressing meditation on the nature of humanity. Lengthy and wordless scenes reveal aspects of The Man’s dismal existence. We see that he lovingly preserves the corpses of his dead companions, and that generations of mutations have rendered him animalistic, hence his taste for human flesh. Sherman approaches these scenes with a sort of tenderness, even though Death Line gets quite gory during moments of violence, as when The Man impales a victim. Meanwhile, Sherman tracks a melodrama aboveground, because Alex becomes cranky about getting roped into a police investigation, which has the effect of driving away Patricia, who finds Alex’s behavior to be callous. Scenes with Pleasence joking and sniffling as the persistent inspector lend much-needed humor, though the overall vibe is grim.
It’s not hard to see why the picture has gained a small cult following over the years. While there are myriad misunderstood-monster movies, Death Line employs its subterranean metaphor to good effect while exploring the always-interesting idea that civilized man is never all that far removed from his origins as a savage animal. If one indulges Sherman’s outlandish premise, the suggestion that The Man is merely following his nature comes across with a smidge of emotional heft. And if certain elements of Death Line are bland (such as Ladd’s performance), there’s usually something interesting to compensate. Not only does Christopher Lee show up for an entertaining cameo, but Sherman’s camera captures a whole lot of ’70s kitsch, from Gurney’s shag haircut to loving glances at London’s seedy red-light district. Does it matter that Sherman can’t quite land his ending, which tries to be simultaneously horrific and poignant? Not really. Even with its flaws, Death Line is memorably bleak.
Death Line: FUNKY