Starring: Donald Pleasance, Hugh Armstrong, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, June Turner, Clive Swift, James Cossins, Christopher Lee
Released in America under the more sensationally titled Raw Meat, Gary Sherman’s horror curio is literally an underground classic. When British horror of the early 1970’s mainly consisted of the Hammer studios struggling to break free of their gothic cycle and Amicus studios making starry US co-produced anthologies, Death Line represented a small number of UK independent films influenced by the sleazier, gorier horror of early Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (the following years would see Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren both carve out a gruesome niche in this very style). Chicago-born Gary Sherman moved to London as a commercials director, but found that the London Underground provided the perfect backdrop for his directorial feature debut. Marketed as an exploitative splatter horror, the film poster’s tagline – “Beneath modern London buried alive in its plague-ridden tunnels live a tribe of once human. Neither man nor woman, they are less than animals … they are the raw meat of the human race!” – neatly sums up the ‘lost race’ concept but is entirely misleading in respect to the film’s highly irregular narrative approach. Images of a scantily clad race of blonde zombies on the poster could not be further from the truth! So quite what audiences made of Death Line in 1972 one can only wonder, but it’s a fair guess that, depending on their taste, reactions would have ranged from baffled annoyance to joyous surprise.
Death Line is essentially split into two contrasting narratives, an overground/underground story divide as stylistically different in tone, design and direction as is possible. Firstly, overground we have the comings and goings at Russell Square tube station and a London of the early 70’s that’s not so much swinging as simmering. After some bizarre and groovy title music, two dreary 20-somethings Alex and Trisha find a man collapsed on a tube staircase and then bicker about it at length in their bed sit; a rather seedy Minister gets more than he bargained for after being rejected by a Soho prostitute; and Christopher Lee crops up as an MI5 agent for a 2-minute cameo sporting a terrible fake moustache which nevertheless bagged him a special writ-large title credit. Then there’s the wonderful horror stalwart Donald Pleasance, stealing the film as the grouchy tea-obsessed Inspector Calhoun, one of the greatest screen coppers and a clear forerunner to The Sweeney‘s Jack Regan. A gloriously eccentric performance filled with subtle ticks and quirks, Pleasance provides a much-needed comic tone to an otherwise grim and downbeat movie. In one delightful scene, the main plot is totally disregarded in favour of Pleasance getting hilariously drunk in an East End boozer. Earlier, over a nice cup of tea Inspector Calhoun is informed of a Victorian-era accident which trapped a number of men and women deep in the underground. Then with a sharp jump cut the film takes a startling turn …
In an astonishing 7-minute tracking shot, the camera slowly makes its way through a dark cave of unspeakable horrors. The noise of steady dripping water, a gradually increasing heartbeat and feral cries from an unseen creature accompany images of strewn decaying corpses. Eventually the camera pauses on The Man (Hugh Armstrong), a revolting wart-covered Neanderthal crying over his dying partner. The shot disappears through the damp mouldy walls, pulls back along a large disused tube tunnel and rises towards the noise of a train arriving at a busy Russell Square tube station. The sequence is an audacious side-step from the action that David Lynch would be proud of, enough for audiences to think someone had put the wrong reel in. Lingering on all the grisly details – crawling maggots, rotting flesh, pools of blood – the scene has the resolute ambition of the director stamped all over it. Later things get a whole lot nastier, as The Man drinks from the neck of a victim and gets particularly inventive with a spade. There are some truly shocking and incredibly gory attacks which were among the first of their kind in British cinema.
One of the first films to explicitly depict cannibalism, ‘The Man’ was making light work of carcasses two years before Frightmare‘s Dorothy Yates or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface. Hugh Armstrong’s compassionate performance makes The Man simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, similar to Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. He is a beast created through inhumanity and represents the fearful by-product of man’s own negligence. Apart from a series of wails and whimpers, The Man’s only words are the anguished repetitive cry of ‘MIND THE DOORS’, presumably the only words he has heard from above, which is both chilling and imbued with pathos. The film’s macabre eye for detail earned it a hardened fan base, including Guillermo Del Toro, who declared at a 2002 Lincoln Centre Horror season that it was one of his all-time favourites. Death Line even became respectable when it won the inaugural Golden Scroll award from the Academy of Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. In 2000 a panel of critics named Death Line as one of the ‘Ten Most Important British Horror Films of the 20th Century”.
Death Line could be described as slight and underdeveloped, clocking in at a mere 84 minutes, but as an exercise in brutal and unusual horror it can’t easily be dismissed. An essential film for any horror fan looking for something extraordinary – and verging on arthouse – beyond the canonical classics. It’s certainly enough to make you look twice next time you’re on the Piccadilly line!