Late one night at the Russell Square station in the London Underground, university students Patricia and her American exchange student boyfriend Alex find an unconscious man collapsed on the stairwell. Fearing the man may be diabetic, Patricia checks his wallet and finds a card that reads James Manfred, OBE. Alex and Patricia inform a police officer about Manfred, Alex and the officer return to the stairwell to Alex’s surprise find that Manfred has vanished. Inspector Calhoun is assigned to look into the disappearance. Calhoun antagonistically questions Alex, who asserts the man was a drunk, and suggests he and Patricia robbed the man.
While discussing the case of the missing Manfred, Calhoun’s colleague tells him about the history of the London Underground, particularly the Victorian railway workers who constructed the tunnels under dire conditions, and an urban legend that a group of descendants who survived an 1892 cave-in still live below ground in an abandoned section of the tunnels. Meanwhile, one of the last surviving members of a family of these railway workers watches his female companion die; they have survived in the underground by resorting to cannibalism of the railway patrons. In an empty chamber, Manfred’s body lies, mutilated. The man laments the woman’s death, as he is now left in complete solitude. The man goes into a rage and brutally murders three Underground maintenance workers in, taking one to his lair.
Calhoun remains suspicious of Alex and Patricia, and calls Alex in for repeated interrogations. After seeing a film one night, Alex and Patricia take a train home and get off at Holborn station. While de-boarding, Patricia realizes she forgot her textbooks on the train. Alex attempts to retrieve them, but the doors close before he can exit; just as the train leaves, Patricia yells through the window that she will meet him at home. Once the train exits the platform, Patricia is attacked by the cannibal man and incapacitated.
When Patricia fails to meet him at their flat, Alex seeks help from Calhoun, who is dismissive of him. Alex returns to Holborn station to search for Patricia, and enters the tunnel against the orders of a station attendant. He manages to breach an abandoned area of the Underground that had caved in, and finds remnants of the miners who worked there over a century ago. Meanwhile, Patricia awakens in the cannibal’s lair. She finds him to be aphasic and unable to communicate with her. When he begins grabbing her aggressively, she hits him over the head and manages to flee, escaping into a tunnel. He finally corners her and attempts to communicate with her, but becomes frustrated and violently attacks her.
Alex stumbles upon the scene and begins fighting with the cannibal, stomping him on the head. Patricia, however, begs Alex not to hurt him, and they watch as the cannibal stumbles into a passageway. Calhoun and several other detectives who have entered the Underground discover Alex and Patricia. As they search through the abandoned section of the Underground, the detectives uncover a room full of corpses laid in bunk beds – the generations of survivors from the cave-in that occurred a century before. There they find the cannibal, bleeding profusely, and he collapses in front of them, apparently dead. The detectives return meet Alex and Patricia, who have been waiting outside the cannibal’s lair, and head to the station platform. After they leave, the cannibal screams “Mind the doors!” as the credits roll.
Sherman’s own journey into the world of underground horrors began with a BBC docudrama called Edna, the Inebriate Woman, which chronicled the existence of a group of outcasts who had taken residence in the unused subway catacombs of London.’ “It talked about the tube tunnels that these people lived in,” he recalls, “and that was the first time I’d heard of them. That’s when I started doing my research and found out there were over 500 miles of them under London. Then I started finding out why, and I just started getting all the material I could find.”
At the time, Sherman was an American expatriate who had moved to England following the polarizing events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in his hometown of Chicago. A couple of years earlier, while still in his teens, he’d crafted an hour-long documentary on rock ’n’ roll great Bo Diddley. It did well, and young Sherman, a minor recording artist himself, hit the road with several groups, filming musical shorts essentially, early music videos at the behest of record companies. That job included a stretch with one of rock ‘n’ roll’s major-league eccentrics. Sky Saxon, and his band the Seeds, famed for the ’60s Top-40 hit “Pushin’ Too Hard.”
“The Seeds film was very special; I actually rephotographed a lot of the footage, developed it by hand and solarized it,” he says, referring to the process of exposing film to light during development, giving it the negative-positive look of a ’60s psychedelic poster. “It made its way to the Aspen Design Conference, and here I was, 18, 19 years old, and advertising agencies started calling me to do commercials.”
Then, along came the Democratic National Convention, with its cops-vs.-hippies scenario played out in the streets with billy clubs and tear gas, and Sherman “decided to get my ass out of there before I got arrested.” Because his mother was British, he was able to get a green card with no problems, and began a new life in England.
“I kind of lucked into a situation,” he explains. “I met the editor of Television Mail, which was the trade paper there, and he was familiar with some of the stuff I’d done back in Chicago. He did a feature article on me, and the week it was published, I started getting phone calls from advertising agencies. I got hooked up with a company in London that had a producer working for ’em named Jonathan Demme, and Jonathan and I became a team. Jonathan produced and I directed, and we did commercials together.”
Eventually, Demme would return to the States with partner Joe Viola, going to work for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and beginning his ascension to the top rank of American filmmakers. But before that happened, he was instrumental in getting Death Line off the ground.
“Everybody kept saying to me, ‘You should make a feature,’ ” Sherman remembers. “And I said, ‘How do you make a movie?’ They said, ‘Write a script’ So I started writing screenplays, and I did a couple that were like glorified student films, because there I was making commercials and living unbelievable life that I had never imagined myself living I mean, I was surrounded by the rich and famous, right in the middle of the late-’60s/early-’70s scene in London, and going to parties with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. So I wrote scripts that just hit everything way too heavily, that preaching-to-the-converted thing you do in your early 20s.”
Obviously, Sherman was a man who wanted to say something with his art, and as is the case with many serious filmmakers, the challenge came in finding a vehicle that could carry some heartfelt ideas and still be commercial enough to get financed. He found it during a location shoot in the south of England, doing a commercial for Proctor & Gamble. “I was with an agency producer named Ceri Jones, and he and I had this idea for Death Line,” Sherman explains. “We were off on this three- or four-week shoot, in the South Downs, and Ceri and I would spend every night working on the script.”
Originally titled The Ghoul of Dover Street, the screenplay (credited on screen to Jones alone) went through several revisions, becoming Death Line in the process. Then, Sherman gave it to Demme to read. “He went nuts over it,” Sherman recalls.
“He was going to produce it, but then he and Joe Viola put their deal together with Roger Corman. He was given a directing deal: If he’d produce Joe Viola’s Angels Hard as They Come (1971), then he’d get to direct a picture with Joe producing it. So Jonathan took off for Hollywood and Paul Maslansky stepped in. If it wasn’t for Jonathan, Death Line would never have gotten made. Jonathan was the one who gave the script to Paul Maslansky, whom he knew from New York. Maslansky had just finished producing a film for Jay Kanter, Alan Ladd Jr. and Elliot Kastner in Israel. The next thing I knew, I had a call from Jay Kanter: ‘Come in and meet us.’
“So I went in and met Jay and Laddie, and they said, ‘What do you want to do with this film ?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to make it, if we can make it for nothing. Because I’m not ready to give up my commercial career, and I don’t want people sitting on top of me telling me to do this and do that. If you let me make exactly the film I want to make, I’ll do it, and I’ll do it for free. Just pay me the minimum.’ I was paid either 5,000 pounds or $5,000 I can’t remember which. I threw the script in for free. Ceri got paid a little. whatever the minimum was for co-writing a script, and everyone worked for scale.
“Alan Ladd Jr., Elliot Kastner and Jay Kanter were partners in a company called KLK productions,” he adds. “Elliot, for one reason or another, was doing something else and didn’t want to be involved in this, so it just became K-L Productions, for Kanter and ‘Ladd. Jay and Laddie executive-produced it, with Paul as the producer.”
Sherman was able to land genre favorites Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee for supporting roles. Male protagonist Alex Campbell was played by David Ladd, son of Old Hollywood leading man Alan Ladd and brother of Alan Jr. (“a bit of nepotism paid off for me,” notes David of his casting), best-known then for his work as a kid actor in American films of the ’50s and early ’60s. Because of Kanter’s involvement in Death Line, however, the film almost ended up featuring an actor with an even bigger name.
“Jay had been Marlon Brando’s agent from day one of Brando’s film career; Jay had been talking to him on the phone, and Brando was going to play the monster as a giggle, because it only would’ve been a week of his time,” Sherman reveals. “We were not going to put his name on the movie, and just let it out as a rumor that it was Brando. But then his son Christian came down with pneumonia, and he wasn’t able to do it.”
Instead, the role was filled memorably by an actor named Hugh Armstrong, who disappeared after the release of Death Line. In fact, notes Sherman, Armstrong disappeared because of Death Line. “Somebody told me about Hugh Armstrong and said, ‘This guy’s absolutely unbelievable.’ He was doing what we’d call today ‘performance art.’ Just an amazing guy. And really, all he wanted to, do was teach. He had not a penny in his pocket. He basically said to me, ‘If you give me the chance to do this. I’m going to take the money and go to South America, into the mountains, to teach children and find new drugs,’ ” Sherman laughs. “I actually have some postcards he sent me from South America. I have not heard from him in probably 20 year’s; he may still be there.”
In Death Line, Amstrong plays the last male descendant of a group of Irish laborers from the turn of the century, men and women from an excavation crew lost in a cave-in underneath London. Their employers, leery of the expense of a massed rescue dig, presumed the victims to be dead and abandoned the site. But there were survivors, and they managed to live and breed in subterranean isolation, feeding upon what they could find or upon whom they could capture in an occasional foraging mission. Disease and decay have decimated their present generation, and now only one family remains.
Bereft of recognizable speech except for his rote-memory bellow of “Mind the doors! ” as a morbid reminder of subway safety etiquette Armstrong’s half-human, half-alive character forays up into the station area during low-traffic periods. His aim is to pick off lone passengers as food the better to nourish his unsightly, pregnant and patently doomed mate (June Tiimer) and foster some hope of rebirth while the police ponder the series of unsolvable disappearances. These missing-person cases are given a low priority until a ranking public servant (James Cossins) with an appetite for London’s sexual underground falls prey.
Sherman’s sympathies never veer from the dwindled cannibal tribe, and he conveys a seething, if understated, anger throughout toward the corporate and bureaucratic parasites who neither attempted to remedy the original disaster in times past nor give much of a hang what goes on beneath the concrete in the present day as long as it doesn’t annoy the ruling class. In denying Arm- strong an articulate voice or a presentable appearance, however, Sherman had to parcel out the dramatic exposition and near-heroism among his ensemble cast Ladd, love interest Sharon Gurney and, especially, Pleasence as a cheeky, irritable middle-class investigator named Inspector Calhoun.
Carping incessantly about minorities, longhairs and other irritants, Donald Pleasence’s Calhoim is a brilliantly realized character, by turns humorous and repellent, muttering like Popeye in a vintage Max Fleischer cartoon. It’s to Pleasence’s credit that the remarks sound completely off-the-cuff, as though he’s making them up on the spot. Except for one sequence, however, every line was scripted.
“The only ad-libbing was done during his drunk scenes,” says Sherman, referring to a scene in which Calhoun and his sergeant (Norman Rossington) get potted in a bar. Donald asked to be able to throw some digs at the Queen. So he says, ‘Look at ’er, sloggin’ her pretty little guts out in the far corners of the world, and look at this place a knockin’ shop!’ American audiences don’t get that line, but a knocking shop is a whorehouse,” he laughs.
“I really enjoyed the opportunity Gary Sherman gave me, to cut loose as a rowdier sort in Death Line,” noted Pleasence. “Quite as much fun as all those Nixon-isms that George Lucas gave me to spout in THX 1138, and a great deal more comprehensible a character, it was.”
The great character actor also remembered his turn in the movie for another reason. “I am grateful to Death Line a little film, of course, but with a big social conscience and a sort of epic sense to its horrors for allowing me to come as close as I ever would come to working on a Hammer- type film,” he explained. “Naturally, Death Line wasn’t a Hammer not by a long stretch but it had that attitude, that intelligence and, too, that sense that the burdens afflicting the masses tend to stem from their exploitation by the ruling class.
“And of course it put me in the good company of Christopher Lee, who along with dear old Peter Cushing is Hammer, to many people,” Pleasence continued. “Christopher and I, now, we’d been friends since our first meeting (they worked together in support of top-billed Dirk Bogarde on director Ralph Thomas’ 1958 version of A Tale of Two Cities), and of course we fell right into place in short order on Death Line, me with my attempt at a sort of Andy Capp style of disrespectful slovenliness and Christopher with his air of somber authority. We had our little confrontation wrapped and approved in just a take or two, if memory serves. We still run into one another, off and on and both of us seem to remember that job with about an equal fondness.”
For his part, Lee recalls his one-day shoot as “a sort of hit-and-run assignment for me, but one I remember fondly because it allowed Donald Pleasence and me to do something of a Mutt & Jeff routine. Tense and confrontational, but very pleasant to play out, what little our characters had to do with one another. I was trying to suggest a sort of James Bond-type conspiratorial intrigue, something of shadow-cabinet figure who’d prefer not to have come out from the shadows. I think the subway-ghost gimmick was supposed to represent some shameful secret that the Crown wanted kept quiet not like the Jack the Ripper case.”
Lee’s James Bond analogy is apt. He plays an inspector with MIS, the same real- life British investigative organization that includes Bond as a fictional member. And when Lee’s character and Pleasence’s inspector meet, another bit of class warfare rears its head. In shooting the scene, Sherman played up the disparity between Lee’s haughty aristocrat and Pleasence’s sputtering working stiff with unusual camerawork that was sparked by necessity. “You know, Christopher is about a foot and a half taller than Donald was,” the director laughs, “and I had this one-on-one, where they get in each other’s faces which, I must admit, I didn’t think about until I was designing the scene.
“That whole sequence with Christopher and Donald was shot in a day in Jay Kanter’s living room,” Sherman adds. “But Christopher is 6-foot-7 and Donald was 5 -foot-4. Donald refused to stand on a box, and Christopher refused to work on his knees I actually asked both of them. So I decided to shoot ’em both in singles. And if I had to shoot ’em in singles, I thought I’d do something funny with it.
“So, the scene starts with Donald being the big shot, and Christopher being the little asshole, and I shot Christopher wide and Donald close, reversing what you usually do with size and distance. So with every shot, every line, of Donald’s, he, gets smaller and smaller, as Christopher takes the piss out of him. And every shot of Christopher, he gets bigger and bigger. So it starts with this wide shot of Christopher and this close-up of Donald, and with each line of Donald’s I moved the camera back a little bit, and each line of Christopher’s I moved the camera forward a little bit. Then it follows Christopher as he sits down, and we go to this wide shot of Donald that ends up taking in Christopher. There was no other way to do it, with eye lines and stuff, because of the foot-and-a- half height difference between the two of them. I thought it’d look really ridiculous if you saw that on screen.”
“Death Line, Raw Meat whatever the title, was a fast and furious production, no pun intended, and of course we were under- ground, in England, a great deal of the time,” Ladd says. “And underground in England is cold. I was absolutely freezing to death during those stretches of the shoot, and there was nowhere to get in out of the cold. I mean, that desolate setting was real, not some comfortable soundstage. But it also was, at the time, a thrilling experience. I was a struggling actor, working for the sake of working, and of course I was delighted to have a hand in the project and especially to be in such good company.
“It was funny,” says Sherman of his work with Ladd, “because David and I were the same age. He was a kid, I was a kid, and it was kind of weird. It wasn’t like I could pull from my years of experience and put my arm around his shoulder like [Old Hollywood director] George Stevens could, and say, ‘Well, David, you know, do it like this.’ But with Donald, it was completely different. Donald sat there and said, ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’ ”
Besides Pleasence’s performance. Death Line is noteworthy for a number of other things, including an eight-and-a-half-minute tracking shot through the underground tunnels pulled off by director of photography Alex Thomson, who went on to snare an Oscar nomination for 1981’s Excalibur and the FX makeup created by the father-and-son team of Harry and Peter Frampton.
“Harry Frampton did Alec Guinness’ Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist,” notes Sherman. “He’s one of the great British makeup guys of all time. I don’t think he’s with us any longer. Peter was his son, and just learning the trade.”
In addition to Armstrong’s visage, which perfectly conveys the character’s diseased and subhuman condition, the Framptons were also responsible for creating the partially devoured corpses for one of the movie’s most unsettling scenes. As was the case with just about everything else in Death Line, Sherman’s themes and concerns extended even to the shots of the stacked, ravaged bodies. “I knew I could do something different,” he explains. “I could do something special. I could do something about class differences and civil rights, which was something that had been drummed into me ever since I was a Md.
“My uncle had been drafted into WWII, and he told them he was a photographer, because he’d been working his way through medical school as a photographer, and he didn’t want to tell them he was in medical school because he didn’t want to be a medic. So he became a technical sergeant and was put in charge of a photographic unit. And what his unit was assigned to was war crimes evidence. I’m Jewish, so obviously he was Jewish, and he was sent into all the concentration camps.
Many, many, many of the photographs you see of war crimes evidence in the camps… if my uncle didn’t take them, he was in charge of the units that did.
“He was never the same,” adds Sherman. “He never finished medical school. It did awful things to him, and man’s inhumanity to man was something that was drummed into my head from the time I was 2 years old. I remember my cousins and I went down in his darkroom once and started looking at his photographs, which we weren’t supposed to do. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. Those images that’s the cemetery in Death Line.
The way the bodies are just laid out on racks is the way that people were kept in the concentration camps, where they lived. Those images were so instilled in me as being the most horrific thing I could ever imagine.” Sherman kept quiet about his themes while shooting was underway, fearing, he says, that “if anybody realized the film was socially significant, it would never get made.”
BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS
Interview with director Gary Sherman
Your feature directorial debut took place in 1973 with the subway-station cannibal mystery, DEATH LINE. Can you take a moment to reflect on that inaugural experience?
Gary Sherman: I was very political at the time and I kept writing these very political scripts. I’m still political, actually, but nobody took them seriously. They were student film kind of scripts. Somebody said to me, write a horror film and you’ll get a lead. I had a fairly successful commercial career going at the time. So I came up with the idea for this story and I sat down with a friend of mine, who was an advertising agency writer and producer, and I was doing a big commercial campaign with. He had just written a novel, and I said, you know, I have this idea for a movie, and while we were on location shooting for some commercials, Ceri Jones and I wrote DEATH LINE together. The whole idea of DEATH LINE was to kind of highlight class distinctions in England more than to make a scary movie, and I just kind of wrapped my political treatise of the class distinctions in England in this movie. I understood the British culture and I really was pointing a finger at British classicism, which to me is what DEATH LINE is all about.
It’s not derivative of any other horror movie from that period or before, really.
Gary Sherman: No, it’s not derivative, and it wasn’t meant to be derivative. I wanted to write a scary movie, and when I first got to London – having been involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and witnessing some of the awful things that were occurring during the Vietnam era – I realized how racist we were here in America. But then I looked at English society and realized there are few human beings more racist or class conscious than the Brits. This was just sort of chewing at me, and I wanted to do something that spoke to that. I had been researching how the [London Underground] tubes were built, because I’m a research nut and will research anything. In looking into it, I found there had been a competition to complete the tube tunnels between capitalist companies, which is an ideal we usually associate with America. There’d been a lot of accidents, and a lot of people had been killed during these competitions during the 1880s and 1890s. There were cave-ins where people were just left down there, because they were working class and the higher ups basically thought “well, who the fuck cares?” And, well, I did. It pissed me off, and I wanted to say something about it, and was trying to figure out how to make that statement about it.
So, I was reading this legend of the Highwaymen, who were Scots from the 16th Century and became so notorious that they couldn’t show their faces in public anymore because the price on their head was so high. They were starving, and they started to eat their victims. They had all this money but they had nothing do to with it because they couldn’t go anyplace to spend their money, so what they started doing was not only robbing these people, but they’d start killing them, and taking the bodies and smoking the bodies. They became cannibals. They ate their victims because they were starving & because they couldn’t go anyplace to get food. It went on for generations. Then finally, I think it was during the reign of King James, he sent the army in, because they found a smoked arm floating in the water and they followed the tides back and went and found these caves filled with these cannibals. They were all taken back to Glasgow. The men were hanged and the women were burned at the stake as witches. The whole Sawney Bean story always fascinated me. So, I combined that with the Donner Pass incident, and used it all to show how the Brits don’t care about the under classes. It’s just like how (Donald Pleasence’s) Inspector Calhoun says: “an iron monger from Kilburn is, of course, a missing person.” The fact that people had been missing from the tube station for years didn’t matter, because who rides the tubes late at night? Working class people. It’s not until James Manfred, OBE (James Cossins) goes missing that they even launch an investigation, despite eighty years of missing persons before him.
That’s great. In fact, I believe that Wes Craven was also inspired by the Sawney Bean story for ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, which was a few years after ‘Death Line’.
Gary Sherman: Well, I’m not going to point any fingers. Lots of people did lots of things that were similar. (laughs) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a lot of things that were reminiscent of ‘Death Line’. There were lots of films, even up to today that have resemblances to ‘Death Line’. And why not? It’s like Picasso said, “Mature artists emulate. Immature artists steal.” (laughs) That’s what we all do. You usually copy from something that went down before. I love Wes though. I love his work. He’s one of the greats of our genre. But there are a lot of pictures I’ve seen that I think have stolen ideas straight from ‘Death Line’. My great friend Guillermo Del Toro, who I think is one of the great gifts to our genre, credits his whole career to ‘Death Line’. He’s told me he first saw it when he was 8 years old and that it inspired him. In every one of his films has at least one scene that’s a tribute to ‘Death Line’.
How did Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee come to the project? Re-watching it, it’s amazing to see those two sharing a scene together. How was it working with them?
Gary Sherman: Working with Donald and Christopher was one of the joys of my life. When Ceri and I were writing the script, we’d always pictured Donald Pleasence as Calhoun. Everybody said to us “you’re nuts. It’s a pipe dream. You’re never going to get Donald Pleasence.” But Ceri kept hearing that Donald wanted to do a comedy, so we were going to offer him a comedic role and see if he’d do it. Even though what happens in the tubes is dead serious, we thought if we did comedy above ground, it’d magnify the horror down below. So, we wrote the part of Calhoun as a comedic one. You know, up to that point in his career, Donald hadn’t really done a whole lot of horror. He was an actor’s actor. He was Blofeld. At the time, he was doing Man in the Glass Booth on Broadway. I got the script to his agent. With Jay Kanter behind the movie – he was once one of the biggest agents in Hollywood, you know there was an air of seriousness behind the project. He got respect from everyone. Donald read the script, and I flew to New York, and he was delighted, saying he’d love to do a comedy, but just wouldn’t pay attention to the rest of the script. So, Donald was in, and once Donald was in, everyone else came to us. Christopher was friends with Paul Maslansky, and asked him one day what he was currently producing, and Paul told him “well, we’re doing this movie with Donald Pleasence” and Christopher said “I’m in.” Paul was like “well, what do you mean, you’re in?” And Christopher told him that he would do anything in order to get to do a scene with Donald Pleasence. He said “if I don’t have to wear fangs, and I get to do a scene with Donald Pleasence, I’m in.” Paul told him, “Chris, you get paid more for a film than we have for a whole budget here”, but Christopher said as long as he got to do a scene with Donald, he’d do Death Line for scale. Now, I had to write the scene they share together into the script, because originally Christopher’s character was just an off-screen presence who was only mentioned offhand. So, we sat down and wrote the scene, and the two of them loved it. But then that helped attract Norman Rossington, and then Clive Swift, who had just finished doing Frenzy (’72) with Hitchcock, and James Cousins, who was in every British film being made at the moment. Everybody just wanted to work with Donald. It was fantastic, but also overwhelming for me a twenty-something who hadn’t seen as many movies as these guys had made. But it was fun, and I learned a lot.
So, anyways, Marlon Brando agreed to do it. He’d just done a horror film with Michael Winner prior to this, 1972’s The Nightcomers, which Jay Cantor, Alan Ladd Jr. and Elliot Kastner had produced. I mean, there were no two people closer than Jay Cantor and Marlon Brando. And, so, anyways, then, at the eleventh hour, Marlon’s son, Christian, comes down with pneumonia in Los Angeles and is, like, on a critical list. So, Marlon has to jump on a plane and goes back to Los Angeles, and we lost Marlon. Which, I mean, we weren’t going to advertise the fact- I mean the whole idea was, is that Marlon is gonna do it and we were never gonna tell anyone, we were not gonna put his name on the movie, and it was just kind of gonna get leaked out that, “Maybe that’s Marlon Brando”.
The character of the underground cannibal known as The Man is totally a victim of his situation. Do you have a sympathy for your on-screen monsters?
Gary Sherman: Well, the villain Ramrod in my film Vice Squad is as evil as anybody can be. But then that film is about violence against women and I wanted it be as ugly as possible and there was no way I could forgive that character after what he had done. He made choices. But in Death Line, the monster was forced into that situation. There’s a scene at the end of the film were the boyfriend character (David Ladd) is kicking The Man in the head, and his girlfriend (Sharon Gurney) yells at him to stop. And if anyone watching can identify with her or The Man at that point then I’ve done my job because it wasn’t The Man’s fault. He was just being what society had forced him to be and he didn’t deserve to be punished for it.
One of the main locations of DEATH LINE was the unfinished underground railway station in London called the Museum, which added a genuinely frightening ambiance to the film. What was it like to film there and did you experience any real scares during production?
Gary Sherman: It was really strange being down there. We shot in a part of the original unfinished underground that had been used to store munitions during World War II, and in these tunnels that had actually been dug before World War I. So they were in pretty bad shape. This was 1972 when we were shooting down there and you could still see the damage from the bombing during the Second World War, and the place was filled with rats! There were rats down there by the millions. One of the things that we were worried about was we had our kind of clean, trained rats that we were using and we were trying to keep our rats from getting away and getting mixed with the wild rats that were down there. There were a lot of people in these tunnels you know, homeless people; and so we actually did find other places for them to stay while we were filming, and kind of took care of them. Then we got into the areas that they actually lived in, which we used for locations. We walked into one space and there were like dozens of dead rats hanging from strings tied around their tails. Some of the homeless people had this thing with collecting dead rats and just basically using them as decoration. I don’t know if they were taught that the dead rats would scare off the live ones, but it was kind of gruesome. It always felt like that old place was going to cave in on us at any minute. So it was creepy, I don’t know if it was scary but those tunnels were really creepy and damp and cold, and you just felt so filthy by the time we finished work everyday. The smell when we first went in there was absolutely putrid, and we sent a team in to spray everything down with disinfectant, and that made it smell even worse, although we did feel a lot safer. I don’t think any of us wanted to walk out of there having re-discovered Bubonic Plague.
In ‘Death Line’ (‘Raw Meat’), about 20 minutes into the film, you’ve got this incredible shot it begins with a rat eating a piece of meat and slowly pans left in a 360 angle to reveal a bunch of bodies and the whole underground set piece. How much preparation went into achieving this shot and how difficult was it to pull off? Because for me, it’s one of my favorite moments of the entire film.
Gary Sherman: Well, thank you very much. The shot is 8 and a half minutes long and it’s the entire reel 4 of the movie, back in the days when films were reel to reel. (laughs) I wrote it into the script. That shot is detailed moment for moment the way it takes place in the script. I had no money to make that film. We made it for pennies. Especially pennies based on today’s budget! That whole shot was done using a very primitive piece of equipment and a elemack, which was basically a studio pedestal, a hydraulic post on wheels. And you could drop on it, but you couldn’t go up, because you’d have to pump it up with a pedal. So there’s no way to rise on it, it’s only drop down. And then we put a mini-jib, which is basically a balancing arm with the camera on one side. We didn’t have video assists back then. So, the operator actually had to be holding the camera on the mini-jib and a grip would work the arm to raise it lower as needed and it was on track.
We spent one day setting the shot, lighting it, rehearsing it, we laid the track & the track had to be covered with hay as we went along so you wouldn’t see the track. Also, the camera does the 360 of the man’s larder and then comes back up and thru the window of the door, and shows the door into the next room and then it goes out thru the next door. We rehearsed all those tricks. At the end of the day, the producers came down to set.
Now, I’m pretty fast. I do a lot of set-ups everyday, so the big joke at the end of the day was the producers asking “Well, how many set-ups do you do today?” And I said “None”. “How much film did you shoot?” “We never turned over.” They’d say, “You know, this is a low budget film! What’d you do all day?” “Well, we just rehearsed and lit and set the shot and we’re going to do the shot first thing tomorrow morning. When this shot is done, it’s going to be 8 and a half minutes of screen time!” Getting 8 and a half minutes of screen time in one day is not all that terrible! The producers kept asking me “Well, what if it doesn’t work?” I just told them, “Don’t worry about it. It’s going to work! I’ve seen it and it works.” The next morning we shot it, and the producers wanted the film day-lighted so we could see the dailes on it by the end of the day. We went on to shoot more stuff, this being the following day, but the first thing we did was the tracking shot. When we finished shooting that next day, we already had the dailes from the tracking shot, and everybody just sat there in awe looking at it.
With the exception of H.G. Lewis? films, visceral, graphic horror was sparse in the early 1970s. Whereas the gory content of Lewis? films was presented in a much more slapstick, schlocky sort of way, the gore in Death Line was exhibited in a very primitive fashion, as the aftermath of implied violence with underlying issues of necessity and survival at the heart of it. What sorts of issues did the realistic nature of the gore present upon being the film being rated, released and distributed? Did you experience any backlash from cast and/or crew-members upon shooting those particularly graphic scenes?
Gary Sherman: The gruesomeness of DEATH LINE was an absolute necessity for me to bring up the political content of the film. I wanted to show how devastating class distinction could be. It was necessary for me to show that the result of this class distinction could create the kind of mayhem and ugliness that was created in the world of the people who lived underneath the tubes of London. While were shooting, it was ugly and it was horrifying. But the main crewmembers were really dedicated to making this film, and understood the film that we were making; there was no backlash to the gore and violence whatsoever. But there was backlash from the casual people coming on to the set, so we had to change stand-ins a lot. There was one guy who was a stand-in for James Cossins, who’s basically lying unconscious most of the time among (the dead bodies), who literally just ran out of there and said, I’m not lying in that kind of stuff! This plays smells awful! I’m not getting sick!? Even though there was really no chance of anybody getting sick because as I said, we had disinfected the place considerably.
When the film came to America, it was re-edited and retitled Raw Meat. How did you feel about that cut of the film?
Gary Sherman: I hated Raw Meat. It’s not my movie. It was completely recut. They even re-voiced some of Donald’s dialogue, because the producers didn’t think audiences would be able to understand his Britishness. It was just absolutely unbelievable. They just treated the film with zero respect.
First of all, the film was sold to AIP out from under us by the people who originally financed the movie. We were actually in the middle of making a deal with Frank Yablans, who was running Paramount Pictures at the time. We wanted Paramount to take [Death Line] worldwide, except for the UK, because the UK belonged to Rank. Frank saw the movie and loved the movie, and he and CIC were going to take the film to the rest of the world. We call up the financiers to tell them we sold the film, and they say “you’re too late.” We’re like, “well, what do you mean we’re too late?” They said “we already sold it to AIP.” They’d did it with a cross collateralization of a couple of other pictures they made. It was just horrible. Then here comes (head of AIP Pictures) Samuel Z. Arkoff saying “oh, the great unwashed will never appreciate the movie.” And it was over from that point on. They cut up the super long tracking shot (through the underground), and they spread it through the movie, and they cut some scenes with Donald, and they re-voiced the British actors. Just made a mess of it.
That’s the centerpiece of the film! But despite you obvious skill in directing you didn’t make another film for almost a decade…
Gary Sherman: Well, all anyone wanted me to do after Death Line was horror. As long as I killed 47 people in a movie, they’d make it. I once wrote a screenplay for a romantic comedy that I really loved and I showed it to my agent and he just said, “No one’s gonna buy a comedy from you. They want blood and guts from you.” But y’know, I wanna direct a film where no one gets killed. I don’t wanna kill people anymore.
During your absence in the 1970s after Death Line, you did write a horror screenplay that was eventually directed by John Huston called Phobia.
Gary Sherman: In one foul swoop that was the most exciting and depressing experience of my career. I wrote Phobia as two unconnected parallel stories where in one, people keep getting killed, and in the other someone is trying to straighten out their life. Then at the end these stories come together and you realise you’ve been watching two sides of the same story. You realise that the guy in the character-driven side is actually the perpetrator of the murders and it ends with him blowing his own brains out – BOOM!! So I was working at Fox and I got a call from this guy called Ron Shusett and he thought Death Line was the greatest film he’d ever seen and he bought the script for Phobia. And this was before Ron made Alien — he wasn’t anybody then…
Did you want to direct it?
Gary Sherman: I was trying not to direct horror at that time. So one day Ron calls me up and says, “Guess what? John Huston is gonna make Phobia!” And I get to meet him! I was thrilled! In the meantime I started working on another project and I start hearing back these horror stories from the set of Phobia. “John is sick, John is drunk, the film is way behind schedule and over budget.” What I later found out is that he was so drunk all the time that he couldn’t get anything done and he’s only shot one of the stories. But he’d shot so much footage that they figured they could make a whole movie based on that. So they just shut the film down. A few months later I went to see a rough cut and I couldn’t stay until the end. It was awful. I was just sick to my stomach because Huston was a major hero of mine. I mean John Huston directed one of my screenplays and it’s the worst thing he ever made! I was devastated.
RELEASE/DISTRIBUTION AIP & Raw Meat
In a lengthy review of Raw Meat that appeared in the Village Voice, Robin Wood has high praise for the film, saying it “…vies with Night of the Living Dead (1968) for the most horrible horror film ever. It is, I think, decidedly the better film: more powerfully structured, more complex, and more humanly involved. Its horrors are not gratuitous; it is an essential part of its achievement to create, in the underground world, the most terrible conditions in which human life can continue to exist and remain recognizably human.” Wood observes that the structure of the film “…is strong without being schematic; one can’t talk of allegory in the strict sense, but the action consistently carries resonances beyond its literal meaning.” Wood sees several intentional parallels between the Underworld and the “Over-world”; for example, “the desperate, totally committed need of the underground cannibal for his dying wife is set against the casualness of the young American student, who can manage little beyond a shrug when his girl, Pat, walks out on him.” Wood acknowledges that Ladd’s performance is “ineffectual,” but for him that doesn’t unduly damage the film: “…The point lies partly in the superficiality of the ‘surface’ characters, as against the intense desires and needs of their Underworld counterparts.” Wood also notes that the structure of the film is given even greater complexity “…by the introduction of a third term of comparison, Inspector Calhoun. Against the coolness of the student and the desperation of the cannibal is set his tough resilience, the sarcasm, invective, and cynicism that are his protection against loss and aloneness…”
Reviewing Raw Meat for the genre magazine Cinefantastique (Vol. 3, Number 2), Reynold Humphries calls Raw Meat “a fine and noble film” and “…one of the most intelligent contributions to the genre in recent years, with a complexity of inter-relating ideas that one finds only in the best works.” Humphries makes note of the film’s emphasis on caste politics, as well as the attitudes toward violence. “Whereas the indifference of the American stems from being conditioned to violence in New York, that of the British ruling class is due to the arrogance of an imposed class superiority. The Establishment is shown to be split on class lines and only the young people come out of it well…”
The title of that piece as well as its vitriolic contents reflected the fate of Death Line after crossing the Atlantic and being picked up Stateside by AIP Before its new, re-titled release, aimed at the drive-in market, the movie was shorn of about four minutes of footage and given advertising that suggested the film’s patrons would, witness the macabre doings of a whole tribe of blank-eyed Morlock lookalikes.
“That eight-and-a-half-minute tracking shot in the underground was cut into pieces in the American version, and they removed a lot of the comedy that they thought was too British,” recalls Sherman. “Mr. Arkoff and his bunch didn’t think that the American public ‘the great unwashed,’ and that’s a quote would understand the British humor. ‘Their advertising campaign was very misleading, too.”
Sherman’s directorial work following Death Line includes 1981’s Dead and Buried, which hangs upon Jack Albertson’s quietly ferocious portrayal of a small-town father figure harboring a disturbing life-after-death secret, along Vice Squad (1982), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), Lisa (1990) and the ill-fated Poltergeist III (1988).
Director Gary Sherman
Producer Paul Maslansky
Screenplay Ceri Jones (screenplay);
Gary Sherman (original story)
Cinematography Alex Thomson
Music Wil Malone, Jeremy Rose
Donald Pleasence as Inspector Calhoun
Norman Rossington as Detective Sergeant Rogers
David Ladd as Alex Campbell
Sharon Gurney as Patricia Wilson
Hugh Armstrong as The Cannibal (credited as “The Man”)
June Turner as Dying Cannibal (credited as “The Woman”)
Clive Swift as Inspector Richardson
James Cossins as James Manfred, OBE
Heather Stoney as W.P.C. Alice Marshall
Hugh Dickson as Dr. Bacon
Jack Woolgar as Platform Inspector
Ron Pember as Lift Operator
Colin McCormack as Police Constable
James Culliford as Publican
Christopher Lee as Stratton-Villiers, MI5