Death Line: Gary Sherman’s 1972 cannibal masterpiece Death Line comes to life on Blu-ray
In the early 1970s, young Chicago-based commercial filmmaker Gary Sherman found himself in London and inexplicably getting complete creative control over a fully-funded British horror film that he co-wrote and directed. That movie was 1972’s Death Line, one of the most remarkable, revolting and ultimately emotionally affecting genre movies not only of its decade, but of all time. Next week, genre legend Bill Lustig, via his Blue Underground imprint, will be releasing a totally uncut, 2K scan on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, marking the movie’s 45th anniversary. It’s an essential release of a major work of social horror.
Inspired by the story of notorious cannibalistic Scottish highwayman Sawney Bean, the horrifying fate of The Donner Party and the creation of the London Underground, Death Line (released in the U.S. as the heavily-hacked Raw Meat) tells the bone-chilling tale of the sole-surviving descendant of a cave-in during those long-ago early tunnel digs who, after being born and raised cannibalizing the dead, has emerged from under the subway tracks and is now dragging hapless British commuters into his moldering, blood and bone-draped lair while frantically searching for a new mate to carry on his diseased lineage.
A clear precursor to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Pete Walker’s Frightmare, Death Line sports a solid and often darkly hilarious performance by the great Donald Pleasence as a Police Inspector trying to get to the bottom of the mystery and a cameo by the legendary Christopher Lee. Starring as “the monster” is actor Hugh Armstrong (a role originally meant for Marlon Brando!) and although Pleasence brings the mirth and muscle to the movie, it’s Armstrong who pushes Death Line into the annals of masterpiece. Of course, Sherman’s sure hand guides him there. There’s a startling tracking shot that dives deep into the cannibal wretch’s subterranean abode, one that snakes along devoid of music, over bloated, rotting corpses, half-eaten faces and licked-clean rib cages, scurrying rats and general filth; it’s a stomach-churning sequence that is punctuated by a distorted humanity when we see Armstrong — his face hacked and blistered with sores — sitting vigil at the greasy bedside of his female mate, who is in the thralls of death. It’s a disorienting bit of cinematic bravado that has rarely been matched in the genre.
And Death Line — despite being bogged down slightly by a leading man (David Ladd) who can charitably be referred to as less-than-magnetic — gets under the skin for its comments on class and how those on the fringe are made not born. Like the aforementioned Chainsaw Massacre and Frightmare, Death Line suggests that when society casts a blind eye to what’s happening to the common man, hell itself is born from the ashes of ignorance, with the have-nots turning feral and cannibalizing the haves. Sherman was and remains and intensely socially aware filmmaker and his message here is clear. Although later Sherman works like Dead & Buried and Vice Squad are less personal films, that message is still clear: bad things happen when people ignore the world’s problems. That’s how monsters are made.
Blue Underground gives Death Line the respect it demands here, with a wonderful commentary by the animated and engaged Sherman and his producer Paul Maslansky as well as a series of enjoyable interviews with cast and crew members. Trailers and TV and radio spots round out the package and there’s a nifty little booklet with a fine essay inside by FANGORIA veteran Michael Gingold. And the movie looks great, as great as it can considering it’s a really grimy film (even grimier than C.H.U.D. which clearly borrowed its soul from this movie) and was never designed to be pretty.