“There are numerous products you can buy to keep flies away from the jam and mice away from the cheese. Here is something to keep audiences away from cinemas … The director responsible is Gary Sherman  and I would like to sentence him to the Circle Line.” ― Anon, Daily Express, UK, 1972 
Seedy and corrupt politicians, bankruptcy, mass unemployment, foreign policies, sanctioned bombings, and squeezing the welfare state… it would seem nothing much has changed in the UK since 1972. Indeed, none of this is limited to a “Little England” mentality ― the rich stuffing their pockets (and bellies) as they feed off the poor ― as the rest of the world consumes itself in chaos. It is, therefore, no surprise that cannibalism and colonialism are so intrinsically linked, offering the starkest of analogies during times of collective trauma under conservative rule. Often in these stories, the ignorance of modern man encroaches on something we have left far behind that will consume us all. Native, indigenous, primordial; “uncivilised”. Gary Sherman’s carnivorous debut Dead Line ― having delivered its fierce warning half a century ago ― still manages to bring the threat close to home, picking at the marrow of Britain and “the Establishment.” A step away from the stale effects of Hammer and Amicus productions, this is H.G. Wells by way of George A. Romero’s gritty realism  and social awareness; a biting underground satire that chews the scenery and picks at the bones in bloody detail.
Released only a couple of months after Umberto Lenzi’s The Man from Deep River ― often considered the first cannibal movie ― and almost a decade before Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Death Line concerns itself more with commentary on the class system than the wider aspects of imperialism. Such themes were often displayed in the infamous Italian exploitation films (for better or worse), most of which became defining examples of the subgenre. Less of the jungle, we are in urban legend territory here, harkening back to stories inspired by the first tunnels dug under the industrious cities of the 19th century.
Death was everywhere, and the cities grew, along with all the problems catering to the masses. After the Great Stink of 1858, British Parliament finally realized the urgency of redirecting waste away from the Thames ― a river of piss ‘n’ shit ― setting out to resolve the problem and create a modern sewerage system . Construction would coincide with the beginnings of the London Underground; the opening of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 signaled not only the first tunnel but also the first underground railway ― expanding throughout the century ― delving deeper and wider around its capital. From this point on, Victorian legends grew; the influx of mass print (and their stories) inspired by the constant digging of tunnels ― that would see everything from Penny Dreadfuls to editorials spurning the imagination ― and, in turn, stoking fear and frenzy.
Take the “Black Sewer Swine of Hampstead,” in which people believed the sewers of London were full of monstrous pigs. Some believed that these creatures would one day find a way out of their squalid home and riot throughout the city ― it was one of many stories ― this one based on the barmy idea of a pregnant sow finding its way into the sewer, its offspring mutated by the sewage they fed on. Not too dissimilar to the US urban legends of alligators roaming New York’s sewers during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Of course, as already alluded to, there are classic examples in which Death Line shares other parallels. The satirical observations of H.G. Wells’ novella The Time Machine ― the (evolutionary) division of the Morlocks and Eloi ― was a keen metaphor for class divide. Wells also dove deep into the mythic potential of the underground systems that fed into the public consciousness. “In Victorian England such fiction played on general anxieties about the cost of industrialization and the logical outcome of capitalism…”  Indeed, the rich get richer while the downtrodden working class is relegated to live underground. A “subhuman” condition eloquently referred to in the following passage:
“So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.” Conditions that would lead to cannibalism as the “rich” pickings of the passive Eloi became their food source. Familiar territory…
The time travel here involves Victoriana by way of London in 1972. From the offset, the camera focuses on a man with his back to the camera wearing a bowler hat ― a picture of respectability ― juxtaposed by the lurid Technicolor of a ’70s Soho flesh show; stiff brolly in hand, this is (apparently) a “geezer with a lot of stick” as he leaves a striptease cabaret, mingling with the riff-raff. It later becomes apparent that he’s a civil servant by the name of James Manfred “OB bloody E,” played by James Cossins; one of several (staple) British sitcom actors in the film. After an altercation with a prostitute at Russell Square station, he is attacked by an unseen assailant and, subsequently, found unconscious by a couple of students, American Alex (David Ladd)  and his British girlfriend Patricia (Sharon Gurney). When they return with a police officer, Manfred’s body is gone.
With further reports of missing individuals in the same location, police Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence) of Scotland Yard and his partner, Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington), begin investigating the situation further. It is soon brought to light by another colleague, Inspector Richardson (Clive Swift), that the tunnels under London have a history, one of which involved Victorian railway workers, who in 1892, were trapped by a cave-in and never rescued by the company they worked for due to cost. Breeding and feeding off society above ground for generations, it would now seem they survived; by the end of the film, a mausoleum of mummified cannibals to prove it. Immediately after Calhoun learns this story, we cut to a crucial scene…
Filmed in a disused tunnel in Shoreditch, a stunning seven-minute sequence provides a tracking shot that begins to circle and draw us into the grim close quarters. Revealing flesh and bone, a rat gnaws on a maggot-infested arm strewn on the dank floor. The dripping of water mingles with a heartbeat that heightens the anxiety of the shot further, and as the camera continues to circle the space, we recognize Manfred ― is this his heartbeat or our own? ― before other cannibalized victims are shown hanging from the walls. It is pure Madame Tussauds until we meet the “Man” and the “Woman” responsible.
All the while, as the cavernous and carnivorous activities of the Man are revealed, we are shown a stark contrast ― home comforts and discomfort ― between Manfred’s luxury apartment and the forgotten underground. On top of this, there is the bureaucracy, stretching up to (and revealing) Christopher Lee’s cameo as a mysterious MI5 agent; his government cover-ups a call-back to those responsible for discarding the workers 80 years previously but also eerily reminiscent of the paranoia we have all faced the past three years.
Presented by Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr. ― working outside of the studio system ― Death Line’s transnational tone resulted from remaining a British film production with an American producer (Paul Maslansky) and director at the helm. Watching the film and understanding those involved makes complete sense that it aligns itself more with the more nihilistic US horror of the period. At times it feels like a natural precursor to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while other moments remind you of Dean Cundey’s incredible cinematography that captured Rob Bottin’s amorphous and nihilistic effects of The Thing. There seems to be a similar relationship between Death Line and John Carpenter’s classic. Here, the special makeup effects by Oscar-winner Peter Frampton (his veteran father Harry on designs) also holding up to the extreme close-ups throughout. Photographed by the late Cinematographer Alex Thomson whose work included Excalibur, Labyrinth, and Alien 3, set the bar high for most in his field. The artistry doesn’t end there. Underneath its disturbing premise is so much to love about the film; a pre-Loomis Pleasance leaning heavily into the cockney stereotype; his little quirks of blowing his nose throughout and demanding his “tea!” keeping his proceedings fairly light-hearted. The score by composer Jeremy Rose and prog rocker Wil Malone is also a signature, hitting an odd grove of kitsch cacophony ― a whiff of Roy Budd’s Get Carter score ― subsiding to haunting echoes of screams amongst the collapsed earth of the tunnels.
Then there is Hugh Armstrong’s performance as the Man. Originally offered to Marlon Brando ― who had to pull out of the role due to his son being ill at the time ― it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role, with Armstrong delivering one of the best horror performances you will ever see. There’s a Groot-like innocence and limitation at play as he expresses the only words he can articulate ― “Mind the doors” ― repeated with varied delivery and tone in what, ultimately, becomes a desperate attempt to communicate and connect with the world above. Despite his grim surroundings, there is a sympathetic nature on display as we begin to witness the emotional and physical pain as he tends to his sick bride, a dose of vulnerability akin to Karloff’s classic monster. Armstrong’s physical acting as he attempts to comfort his dying partner is disturbing yet equally endearing, a lynchpin scene in understanding the development of the character.
As highlighted, there is much to lift the film above B-movie territory. Deftly directed, it delves deep; the “raw” commentary itself helps to reveal one of the most sympathetic monsters put to screen as the Man mumbles and shuffles his way through his lair, the realization that he is the last of his kind taking hold. Although Sherman’s original influences are rooted in much of the same gruesome inspiration as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes ― by way of Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic clan ― Sherman still (miraculously) managed to veer away from treating him as an animal. The Man has known no different, cut off from society, lending him some semblance of humanity we are (strangely) able to empathize with. What becomes an exploration of the base fears inherent in Victorian fiction and its obsession with humanity’s contradictions is clearly showcased in the duality of Jekyll and Hyde and the primal fears of Frankenstein’s monster.
A moderate success at the time, Death Line has remained somewhat of an overlooked cult classic; Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright amongst the most well-known devotees. Its relative obscurity over the years may be attributed to how US distributors (arriving almost a year later on October 3rd, 1973) handled the release. To avoid an X rating, American International Pictures retitled the film Raw Meat, employing an aggressive marketing campaign, a poster, and a pressbook pushing the exploitation angle with something closer to a zombie movie: “… land of the HUNGRY DEAD!” From other inaccurate taglines referring to a tribe of cannibals ― their scantily clad bodies painted with glaring white eyes ― to the copy venturing so far as to outline how the cinemas should set up their lobbies with meat trolleys, freezers, and butcher store tie-ups .
All of this did the film some disservice while on its way stateside losing any sense of its heritage; including the Gothic origins and commentary. It certainly deserved better. As Laura Mayne points out: “Gary Sherman’s film is a harrowing, brilliantly shot, and genuinely terrifying example of the genre but it’s also so much more than that; it is a richly detailed, highly engaging film which develops complex themes about class, corporate irresponsibility and the alienation of modern living.”  It sounds somewhat pompous to suggest a horror movie could be “elevated” rather than just dismissed as a gorefest (which is an inherent commentary in itself), but Death Line ― unlike the critics and politicians ― has always proven to be ahead of the curve.
End of the line
The influence of Death Line on other filmmakers also appears to be obvious. Direct comparisons to An American Werewolf in London and its iconic Underground scene ― “I can assure you this is not in the least bit amusing” ― would be the most transparent as we witness, once again, a pompous Brit about to be eaten alive. Christopher Smith’s Creep is another film that shares obvious links ― subway killer for sure but minus the subtext ― along with Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories. This latter film, although it has an underlying black sense of humor, shares a similar claustrophobic tone and tragic sympathetic (human) monster left to rot in a sewer, who reveals himself by way of a shocking final twist.
Looking at the film as both an assault on the senses and censors, it even seems to challenge the bureaucracy of the (British) film industry itself that has also been long associated with the Establishment, remaining in control of what we “see.” Fifty years may have passed, but as a cult classic, it continues to show (uncensored) a clear message about social inequalities, from which Britain’s “leaders” ― in the fallout of a plague-ridden world ― refuse to learn. To remind ourselves once again via Jonathan Rigby, the Man “though riven with septicaemic plague and given to biting the heads off rats, is an intensely sympathetic figure in comparison to the shriveled lives and warped values of those ‘above’ him; amid unimaginable degradation, he’s infinitely more human than any of them.”  You would think there has been some progress, but it only draws further parallels to the social inequality that still runs rife; from the Grenfell Tower fire ― the rich once again deserting the poor with a lack of safety measures reminiscent of the underground workers costing too much to be dug out ― to the constant political and economic shitstorm that’s followed a fUKd island floating further and further away from Europe.
It would seem the Establishment ― during those lurid opening moments ― are just as hungry for flesh, their corruption and carnal activities hinting at the cannibalism to follow; the politician, for a moment unconscious, carried off into the darkness by a monstrous product of their own greed and neglect. Obviously not in the literal sense, but if ever there was a time the Establishment were to be eaten alive by the “buried” and forgotten, the silenced ― the backbone of Britain considered society’s rejects ― it would be now. Death Line may not be the subtlest of films to deliver such an important message, but it only reinforces what an overlooked “underground” masterpiece in British horror the film remains.