Death Line Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
When a prominent politician and a beautiful young woman vanish inside of a London subway station, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) investigates and makes a horrifying discovery. Not only did a group of 19th century tunnel workers survive a cave-in, but they lived for years in a secret underground enclave by consuming the flesh of their own dead. Now, the lone descendant of this grisly tribe has surfaced, prowling the streets for fresh victims… and a new mate. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Gary Sherman’s Death Line (aka: Raw Meat, a objectively superior title) is the first and still the best of a small collection of horror movies about (sometimes) cannibalistic, animal-like people living in underground subway tunnels and murdering the street-level humans foolish enough to wander into their domain. Films that followed its lead included Douglas Cheek’s cult favorite C.H.U.D (1984), Christopher Smith’s Creep (2004 – a film that was accused of ripping Sherman off), Maurice Devereaux’s End of the Line (2007), Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train (based on a story by Clive Barker, 2008), and Peter A. Dowling’s (admittedly non-cannibalistic) Stag Night (2008). Of course, before Death Line, there was a tradition of scary stories from the London Tube on film, namely Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit (1967), but Sherman, who co-wrote the script with Ceri Jones (according to the on-screen credits, Jones was the ‘screenwriter’ and Sherman was the ‘storywriter’), was digging into a very ‘70s brand of raw, non-supernatural horror that was rarely touched by British filmmakers. His cannibals weren’t alien invaders or ancient monsters, but tragically human creatures, akin to the rural, hardware-wielding cannibals of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – except that Tobe Hooper wouldn’t make that movie for another two years (in 1974). Sherman was ahead of his time, but also firmly planted in Britain’s ‘50s & ‘60s horror traditions of Hammer and Amicus studios, making Death Line a pretty important transitional picture. The old guard was represented in cast members, like British horror superstars Donald Pleasence & Christopher Lee, and American//UK producers Alan Ladd, Jr. & Paul Maslansky (who would strike gold almost a decade later with the Police Academy series). The new guard was represented in Sherman himself, who was not the product of the British studio system, but an American transplant from Chicago. At the time, his only other credit was a musical documentary short called The Legend of Bo Diddley (1966), which would’ve made him something of a gamble for the producers. The gamble pays off in terms of the film’s raunchy, filthily real-world edge. Sherman certainly has style (the two surviving cannibals are introduced via a seven minute, no-cut tracking shot), but he’s not concerned the beauty of his grotesque urban environments, which he then compares to the even more grotesque sub-urban (as in ‘beneath’) mud and corpse covered landscapes. It’s like a modern London Gothic, similar to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) New York Gothic and Hooper’s Texas Gothic – both films that, again, were released well after Death Line.
And Sherman doesn’t stop with the piss-stained, blood-soaked imagery – he populates his scummy streets and undergrounds with mercilessly indifferent people. With the exception of the one major female character, the impossibly empathetic Patricia (Sharon Gurney), even the central protagonists are amusingly callous dickheads. These tonal choices gives the film dramatic texture that carries it beyond its shock value and gruesome scares, which were outrageous at the time, but don’t quite compare to the no-holds-barred splatter movies that Death Line helped inspire. Given the overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere, the satirically stiff upper-lips and snappily sarcastic dialogue that coincides with the apathy becomes the closest thing the audience gets to levity. This wasn’t an unusual approach for the era, as ghoulish irony and stone-faced reactions became a British horror mainstay, throughout Hammer’s hippy-driven horror flicks and even Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972). Donald Pleasence bites into the sardonic possibilities with relish, leading to what I’d call a very near career-best performance. His incessant nose-blowing and joke-making is nicely contrasted against the other central performances, namely David Ladd’s grumbling ‘romantic lead’ (a Chicago native that acts as Sherman’s cultural entry point) and the forlorn, speechless cannibal man. Christopher Lee also makes a splash as a classist MI5 man that pops up only once to give Pleasence a hard time.
In the years that followed Death Line, Sherman made a respectable collection of genre films, peaking early with the fantastic, Dan O’Bannon co-scripted shocker Dead & Buried (1981) and a non-horror, pure exploitation vehicle called Vice Squad (1982).
Personally, I was never able to find Death Line on VHS and had to wait for MGM’s anamorphic DVD to finally see it. In a way, this was a blessing, since that DVD, as well as the UK disc from Network Films, was the unrated cut. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray debut (which was delayed a bit after the initial announcement, presumably because they found a better source?) was created using a brand new 2K scan of the original, uncensored camera negative. All of the clean-up and grading was approved by Sherman himself and the results are presented in 1.85:1, 1080p HD video. This is a mostly great transfer, beginning with the fact that you can actually see what’s going on during the many, many dark sequences. Cinematographer Alex Thomson really pushed the limits of what 35mm cameras are capable of photographing without purposefully crushing out the vital details of these scenes. Textures are quite impressive, even in close-up, much more than the respectable SD versions, and the wide-angle patterns are pretty tight for a movie of this age that was shot in a purposefully rough style. The palette is largely neutral (with exceptions) and all of the browns, reds, blues, and greys are well-represented without appearing too homogenized. The only really issue is that there’s a bit of digital noise sprinkled throughout the movie, which appears to be a telecine problem, rather than the results of compression or bad authoring on Blue Underground’s part. This doesn’t create wiggly edges or vertically strafing dots, but does cause blotching within the subtler hues and gradations. The overall grain texture appears pretty accurate to me, too, despite the snowy effects said noise creates.
Death Line is presented in its original mono and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The sound quality is pretty inconsistent, which seems to be a mixed issue. Some of the distortions and dips into muffled volume/range sound like source damage, but most of it seems to be present in the original material. The sudden shifts in tone tend to coincide with obvious ADR work and certain repeated locations create drier noise quality than others. Though this is largely a dialogue and music-driven film, there are moments of impressionistic noise, especially where the cannibal’s realm is concerned. Since neither he nor his mate speaks in any traditional language (they mostly moan and grunt, though he can say ‘mind the doors,’ which he uses as an all-purpose phrase, similar to Game of Throne’s Hodor), the environment needs to speak for them. The fact that these sequences are so clear and dynamic (for a low-budget mono mix, at least) lends more credence to my assumption that the majority of the track’s problems are related to on-set sound recording. Wil Malone’s score mixes keyboard-based stripper rock, with weirdly whimsical clarinet motifs, and mournful string work. The music exhibits nice depth and rarely distorts, though it is also tends to be mixed mighty low.
Commentary with director Gary Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky, and assistant director Lewis More O’Ferrall, moderated Blue Underground’s David Gregory – Sherman leads the discussion on this informative and good-natured commentary. Gregory does an admirable job shifting focus and moving things along, while Maslansky & O’Ferrall fill the extra space with oodles of charming behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Tales From The Tube (18:51, HD) – The featurettes begin with a roundtable (or round-couch) interview between Sherman and executive producers Jay Kanter & Alan Ladd Jr. The discussion mostly covers the pre-production/financing processes (a young Jonathan Demme was a fan of the script and almost a producer), early casting (Marlon Brando was sought for the cannibal man role), finding locations on-the-cheap, and distribution.
From The Depths (12:41, HD) – In this continuation of the previous roundtable, star David Ladd and producer Paul Maslansky talk about the film. They praise Sherman, Donald Pleasence, and the rest of the cast, but are also sort of mystified by the fact that talented, well-known actors wanted anything to do with the project.
Mind The Doors (15:36, HD) – In the final interview, actor Hugh Armstrong recalls his career, scoring the role of Death Line’s sad cannibal, embodying the character, the creature make-up, and working with the cast & crew.
Death Line and Raw Meat trailers, Raw Meat TV and radio spots
Poster & still gallery
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