Released as Raw Meat in the US, Gary Sherman’s cult debut feature Death Line works as both a gruesome exploitation horror set in the London Underground, and a surprisingly effective satire of the British class system. You’ll never hear the phrase “Mind the doors” in the same way again.
When student Patricia (Sharon Gurney) find an unconscious man at the bottom of the Tube station stairs, she rushes to alert the police, despite her douche boyfriend Alex’s (David Ladd) insistence that they just leave him to fate. But when they return to the body, he has mysteriously disappeared. The officer on duty dismisses the incident, but after it transpires that the man was high-ranking official James Manfred OBE (James Cossins), the case falls across the desk of Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasance).
Calhoun is initially suspicious of the couple who found him, especially given Alex’s amoral indifference to Manfred’s suffering, complaining that in his New York this is a routine occurrence. But it quickly becomes clear that there’s something more sinister happening than simple metropolitan apathy. As Calhoun conducts his investigation above ground, the old tunnels of abandoned Tube stations harbour a dark secret – for decades, people have been living underground, harvesting night-time commuters to feast on their flesh.
The colony, descendants of workers trapped in a collapsed, half-finished train tunnel, have been wiped out by a strain of plague. As the last woman dies in childbirth, covered in weeping pustules, her husband (Hugh Armstrong) is left as the last of this macabre society. The grubby setting, cannibalistic grue and exploitation aesthetics belie a surprising humanity at the heart of Death Line, and it’s hard not to feel a kernel of pity for the Man as he mourns his departed love. There’s more than a little of Frankenstein’s famous creature in Armstrong’s performance; the Man may well be a monster, but he is one of overground society’s making, created by the indifference of the Victorian industrialists who left his ancestors to die.
The satirical component of Death Line galvanises with the arrival of Christopher Lee (who himself played Frankenstein’s monster in Hammer’s 1957 film), here playing aristocratic Stratton-Villiers. The MI5 agent warns Inspector Calhoun to drop the investigation, implying that he knows what is really going on and that uncovering the dark secret risks upsetting the established order.
The climax is an effectively creepy chase through the dank and festering tunnels of the Man’s lair, made all the more haunting by his inchoate cries of “Mind the doors!”. It is evidently the only language left to him by his forbears, and a flickering glimpse of the humanity denied him by the outside world.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell