Gary Sherman’s Raw Meat (known as Death Line in the UK, where it was originally released) is a film so ahead of its time that watching it now it seems to echo the other films that came after. Perhaps most important is the fact that Raw Meat is an inbred mutant cannibal movie that came out a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and five years before The Hills Have Eyes. While it’s unlikely that Tobe Hooper saw the film before he made his movie (it didn’t come to the United States until 1973), there seems to be no way that Wes Craven could have missed it.
Raw Meat doesn’t take place in the remote rural corners of the UK but rather right beneath the streets of London. Surprisingly mixed gender subway excavation workers were trapped during a tunnel collapse in 1892; their offspring have continued living in disused subway tunnels, getting more inbred and developing a taste for human flesh.
Alex and Patricia are a young, hip couple coming home on the last train of the night. They stumble upon the prostrate form of a posh man named James Manfred, a man who the audience had just seen trolling SoHo’s flesh clubs and trying to pick up a prostitute on that very subway platform (this prologue is set to really awesome and funky electronic music). He’s not just any guy but an OBE, and a high-ranked intelligence type.
Patricia is worried about the guy, who is splayed out on the stairs (left there by an unseen attacker in the prologue), but Alex - who is one of the most bafflingly irritating main characters I have come across - couldn’t give a shit. Patricia is a good, wholesome British girl (she doesn’t want to go see The French Connection because it’s too violent) but Alex is an American, who says that in New York City it’s a holiday when you AREN’T stepping over the lifeless forms of the homeless on the subway. He just can’t be roused to any level of human decency - except by the continuous nagging of Patricia. They summon a constable, but the body has disappeared.
This all comes to the attention of Donald Pleasance, playing Inspector Calhoun. It’s a big statement to say that this is one of the best roles of Pleasance’s career, but it most certainly is. Calhoun is a weird character - one part crank, one part prankster, one class warrior, one part excellent policeman. And Pleasance is astounding in the role, funny and warm and occasionally grumpy in the most endearing ways possible. He snottily imitates a high society snob on the phone, he gets drunk because why not, he butts heads with MI5 as they try to get in the way of the investigation (incarnated in Christopher Lee, showing up for all of 160 seconds and still getting a major billing. And, one assumes, paycheck). This is a character who deserves a whole series of films about him, but Raw Meat is Inspector Calhoun’s one and only appearance.
Pleasance’s scenes are made even better by the fact that Norman Rossington plays his right hand man, Detective Sergeant Rogers. I don’t know what he’s most famous for in the UK, but to me Rossington is and always will be Norm, the Beatles’ road manager in A Hard Day’s Night. In Raw Meat he has an impeccable chemistry with Pleasance, playing Rogers as a man who has worked with the blustery and unpredictable Inspector for a while and who can roll with the punches.
David Ladd plays Alex, the American student. Ladd comes from Hollywood royalty; his father was Alan Ladd, one of the most beloved Hollywood stars of all time. You know, Shane. His brother, Alan Ladd Jr, was running Fox when two of the most important science fiction films of all time got made - Star Wars and Alien. Ladd himself went on to a hugely successful career as a Hollywood executive as well, and he was married to Cheryl Ladd.
But as an actor... it isn’t that Ladd is bad, it’s that he plays Alex as utterly unlikable. Low energy, a pain in the ass and with a silly head of hair, Alex is a character who spends most of the movie not wanting to be in the movie. That’s the exact opposite of how Sharon Gurney plays Patricia, who gets almost hysterical about the case of the missing upper class twit.
Recently Raw Meat has been rediscovered as not just a landmark horror movie but also a really good film in and of itself, but it’s got a glaring problem right in the middle of act two: Raw Meat is one disposable character away from greatness. The film goes into a stall as Calhoun and Rogers investigate the missing persons case. There’s a second act cannibal attack that’s quite good, but that’s all we get until the ending. One more character or set of characters to get killed would really help liven up the middle section.
Truth be told Sherman doesn’t seem wildly interested in giving us more attacks, though. We first meet the main inbred cannibal - called only The Man in the credits - as he weeps over the body of a mutant woman. It soon becomes clear that she’s his mother or his wife or both, and that she’s the last of their kind. He tries to rouse her by slitting Manfred’s throat and tenderly dripping blood into her mouth, but it’s no good. She’s dead, and he’s alone.
Sherman approaches The Man with a serious level of pathos. When The Man eventually kidnaps Patricia to be his bride (of course she would get mixed up in this again), he doesn’t come at her all rapey, as we expect from American inbred mutant freaks. He’s kind of tender and, in his own grunting, unintelligible way, sweet.
That sweetness doesn’t stop him from plunging a spade into a man’s head, of course.
The Man’s lair is one of the highlights of Raw Meat. It’s a disgusting, skeezy pit filled with the half-eaten remains of surface dwellers; one particularly nasty shot tracks along a partially devoured arm crawling with maggots. But there aren’t just meals down there - the cannibals have their revered dead rotting in plain sight as well. The Man himself is covered in scabs and gooey spots; we learn that he carries the Plague, which surely accounts for some of his buboes. He’s filthy and disgusting and has a pretty great beard.
There’s a real Sweeney Todd-esque class consciousness to Raw Meat (“Those up above will serve those down below!”). Manfred wasn’t the first disappearance at the tube station over the years, but the other missing persons were grocers and such - nobody who got too much attention. Calhoun finds himself at odds with the higher ranks of ossified British society as he attempts to investigate; again and again he says that ‘This is my manor and the villains in it are mine” as MI5 and the upper crust try to get in his way. Alex is the American middle class, simply ignoring problems laying about. And of course The Man is the last of the Victorian semi-serfs, poor people laboring in all but indentured servitude, whose lives weren’t worth a simple rescue mission. The city of London is literally built upon these people.
Sherman went on to direct the very atmospheric Dead & Buried which, like Raw Meat, has a somewhat troubled ending (Raw Meat’s ending seems anticlimactic, while Dead & Buried’s ending just makes no sense at all). After that he directed the sleazy classic Vice Squad, which is due for a Schlock Corridor itself. Some will hold up Wanted: Dead or Alive as a great film, but I wouldn’t be one of them; Sherman’s next notable work is Poltergeist III, a movie perhaps best known because young Heather O’Rourke died during shooting.
I’d say that Sherman never again matched those first three films. In a lot of ways he never quite matched Raw Meat again. While it contains exploitation elements it never feels like an exploitation film, and it has more of a sense of character and place than most other ‘straight’ movies. I don’t fall into the camp that finds Raw Meat to be a hands down classic, but I do think it’s a damn good and damn original horror movie.