Updated: Mar 10
Review by : Jessica
Synopsis: A police inspector (Donald Pleasence) discovers that descendants of survivors of a cave-in in the early 1900s are eating London subway riders.
Death Line is a 1972 British-American horror film directed by American filmmaker Gary Sherman (Dead and Buried,Poltergeist III) and stars Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee. Many horror fans recognize this film from its other title of Raw Meat as the film was cut differently and then distributed under this title for 45 years in the United States. This was due to the lack of success the film found in the US and Canada despite the film being a hit in the UK. The film’s title and imagery was marketed in a way that deceived the audience into believing it was something other than what it was. This was done by changing the title to Raw Meat and release poster artwork of what looks like a crazed man reigning over a bunch of half naked women. However, in 2017, Gary Sherman regained legal rights to the film and with the help of Blue Underground restored and released the film under its original name. Gary Sherman, in an interview with Rue Morgue Magazine Issue 177, described that he was inspired to do a film focused around a Scottish folktale about a clan of highwayman turned cannibals, the class division in London and the history of the building of the London Tube system and the hundreds of deaths that accompanied it.
I watched Death Line for the first time to talk about it on my previous podcast The Dark Spectrum. I had not seen any cannibalistic horror films at this point because I considered them too gory and the subject matter disturbing. I remember going into the film thinking it was going to be some crazy sexualized gore fest from the 1970s based on its original poster art that the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa used to promote the re-release in 2017. However, what I got was a really interesting film about classism, police work influenced by political and economic cover-ups and the discovery of humanity in those we considered inhuman and vice versa. So when Kelly and I chose to do cannibalism in horror for the month of August, I knew I wanted to revisit this film.
For me Death Line has many elements making it a strong film; from it’s sordid history, to the amazing effects and technical details, it is brilliant despite the budgetary constraints and that it explores the taboo topic of cannibalism. It was also nice to see Donald Pleasence in a role that is not associated with his infamous character of Dr. Loomis in Halloween and watching him go head to head with MI5 agent Sttraton-Villiers played by Christoper Lee.It looks awkward to watch but it adds to the idea of division among classes when it looks like there is a standoff between an MI5 agent and the Inspector. The two men are not shown in the same frame (this was due to Lee’s height) but the camera goes back and forth as if they are squaring off against each other.
The issue of class division is highlighted prominently in Death Line. There has been a constant struggle between the English upper and the working classes. In the film, Inspector Calhoun (Pleasence) during his investigation of a missing politician and others at the Russell Square station, finds out about a story of Victorian railway workers who were buried alive during construction and never rescued. This is indicative of how people of the working class were regarded in Victorian culture as it would cost too much to rescue these individuals and it was also seen as a natural solution to the overpopulation situation in London. There is a casual disregard of human life described because they were not members of an upper echelon. When the Inspector asks how anyone could have survived, it is explained that it would have been through air pockets in the tunnels and for a food source he describes that the group would have resorted to cannibalism. At this comment, the Inspector gives a look of disgust. Not only are these lower class citizens of London society but to engage in cannibalism would have made them inhuman.
Thus this leads me to talk about the cannibalistic element of Death Line. As the investigation of the missing persons and involvement of two suspects, students Alex and Patricia, continue above ground, we are introduced to the “The Man”, a cannibal living under the London Underground with his dying pregnant partner, “The Woman”. The politician was the next meal for “The Woman”, who both end up dying. The Man in his desperation after losing the last descendant of his cannibalistic family, kidnaps Patricia and attempts to make her his new wife. However, Alex rescues her and the police descend into the Man’s underground home to find the missing politician dead and a whole generation of dead cannibals. The acts of cannibalism are subtle in this film. You call tell from the mutilated corpses in what looks like a “pantry” that those bodies are a food source. The only time you see any ingestion of human flesh or blood is when the throat of the politician is slit by The Man to feed to his dying pregnant partner.
This is what I appreciated about this film; the acts of cannibalism were not in my face nor did it make me uncomfortable. It is his story that intrigued and saddened me the most. While we learn more about the relationship of Alex and Patricia and how the Inspector treats his own team, to me the characters all felt fake. They are more concerned about daily routines, inconveniences and lack empathy when trouble in a relationship arrives. Whereas “The Man” represents raw emotion, doing whatever he can to help his partner survive as she was his life. This desperation to help her survive was not only to help as an individual, but as a “race” as we see when he kidnaps Patricia. You are moved by his plight and saddened by his end.
This film is a really interesting study on classism and humanity. Death Line was my introduction to the sub-genre of cannibalism in horror and I felt it prepared me for films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. I would recommend this film to horror fans who appreciate horror of the 1970s, as well as anyone who is new to the horror genre interested in dipping their feet into cannibalistic themes.