Exploitation’s Bergman: A Career Conversation With Gary Sherman

Jacob talks at length with one of genre cinema's greatest workmen.

Gary Sherman is one my favorite filmmakers. Full stop. No qualifiers necessary.

From his earliest days helming the English horror freak out, Death Line (a/k/a Raw Meat [‘72]), to his work on the Dan O’Bannon/Ronald Shusett (Alien) New England Horror haunt, Dead & Buried (’81), to the sleaziest cop movie ever made, Vice Squad (’82), Sherman amassed a resume that reads like a genre nut’s wet dream. His movies are full of tradecraft – spooky and grimy and littered with character and world building details that weren’t common in his contemporaries’ pictures. When you sit down to watch one of Sherman’s films, it becomes instantly clear that you’re in the hands of a master; each performance balanced with the right amount of nuance and B-Movie histrionics that would seem out of place in any other AIP or AVCO Embassy product. That’s because he was a genuine workman, fine tuning his lo-fi exercises in preparation and execution while still coming in on time, under budget and with an odd sense of humor all his own.

Needless to say, when I was offered the chance to call Mr. Sherman up to talk about Blue Underground’s recent Blu-ray release of Death Line, all they had to do was tell me when. What transpired was a lengthy discussion regarding his greatest hits, and whether we’re ever going to see one unreleased movie of his that’s rumored to be so horrific, Sherman’s cautious to let anyone watch it without his supervision…

BMD: You know, I’m a big cop movie guy. For years, whenever anybody ever asks me what cop movies they need to see before they die, my first response is “Vice Squad. You gotta see fucking Vice Squad.” I actually have an Australian day bill from the movie in my living room.

Gary Sherman: [laughs] Oh my God, thank you. To be honest, Vice Squad is my favorite, too. It’s funny – I did Vice Squad coming off Dead & Buried because we ran into all kinds problems on Dead & Buried. It had been sold from one company to the next, and the last company just did not agree at all with what we were doing with the film, and they fucked with it a lot. So, the studio sent me a pile of scripts and said “get away from Dead & Buried. Leave it alone, and pick a script.” The script I picked was Vice Squad, and I worked with the writers [Sandy Howard, Kenneth Peters and Robert Vincent O’Neill] a lot, thinking it was my chance to move a little bit further away from horror.

There was eight years in-between [Dead & Buried and Death Line] because I was really upset with AIP’s treatment of Death Line – so I went back to doing commercials and television. I stayed away from movies until [co-writer of Alien] Ron Shusett came around and got it in his head for me to do Dead & Buried. I went into Dead & Buried thinking I would be protected by the studio, and protected by the producers, and Dead & Buried ended up getting recut in the end. Though I’m happy with about ninety percent of that movie. It’s about ten percent I’m not happy with. I was ready to say “screw it” and just stick with television, where they seemed to have more respect for my work.

But that’s when Bob Rehme [head of AVCO Embassy] said that I should make Vice Squad, which I love, but a lot of the critics said “well, Gary Sherman’s trying to get away from horror, but he didn’t quite make it.” [laughs] Ramrod’s one of the best screen monsters of all time, which I guess made it a horror film for many critics.

BMD: You mention the huge gap in-between your first two films, but you even started out with a large amount of time before your first feature narrative [Death Line]. You made [music documentary] The Legend of Bo Diddley in the mid-'60s. What’d you do between Bo Diddley and Death Line?

GS: Commercials and music videos. Well, they weren’t called “music videos” back then. They were “music performance films”, which basically was what The Legend of Bo Diddley was, only it got its own distribution. Most “music performance films” were just segments within other television shows. I used to shoot a lot of musicians. That’s what I did. That and commercials, which was my mainstay.

Commercials were what brought me to London. While in London, everyone kept saying to me “you should shoot a feature”, to which I’d say “but how do I shoot a feature?” And they’d tell me “well, you have to have a script.” So, I started writing, and my producer was a guy named Jonathan Demme [Jacob’s note: yes, that one]. Jonathan and I had worked together for years in commercials, and he had no desire to direct, or do anything other than make music stuff. So, Jonathan and I wrote a couple scripts together that never got made. Well, one of them sold, but nothing else.

Thing is: I was very, very political, to the point that most of my scripts read like glorified student movies. Nothing really happened with them, and everyone told me to do a horror film, and I love horror films. My earliest movie memory is watching [Andre DeToth’s] House of Wax (’53). So, I had an idea, and it became Death Line. It was only a couple of weeks where [co-writer] Ceri [Jones] and I wrote the movie, and we gave it to Jonathan, and he passed it along to (producer) Paul Maslansky, who he knew from New York. Then Paul gave it to (agent) Jay Kanter, and the before we knew it, we were making a movie.

BMD: Then you were part of – for lack of a better term – that entire exploitation class that Demme was part of, as he made Caged Heat (’74) for Roger Corman.

GS: That was the year after we did Death Line. Jonathan also helped produce a movie with [early writing partner and director] Joe Viola, who made Angels Hard as They Come (’71). Jonathan then worked on a few other movies that Joe directed or wrote (The Hot Box [‘72], Black Mama, White Mama [‘73]), so then Roger suggested that Joe produce the next one and Jonathan direct, and that became Caged Heat. The rest is history, as they say.

BMD: But then the “political” elements of your work make sense, because there was always a socially minded bent to most of [Demme]’s work, as well.

GS: Absolutely. Jonathan and I were '60s hippies who left the United States because, between the Democratic National Convention and Nixon getting elected, neither of us wanted to be there anymore. We ended up in London working together, and everything we did was political. Hell, even Death Line is a political treatise inside a horror movie, and I think that’s why it’s still relevant forty-five years later.

BMD: How did the original concept for Death Line come about? Because it's not derivative of any other horror movie from that period or before, really.

GS: 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. 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.

If you think about it, The Man (Hugh Armstrong’s subterranean cannibal) is the only sympathetic character in the movie. He’s a victim of society. He was born a victim of society. And that’s what Death Line is about.

BMD: 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?

GS: 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. [laughs] 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.

BMD: Wow.

GS: 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.

BMD: When the film came to America, it was re-edited and retitled Raw Meat. How did you feel about that cut of the film?

GS: 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. Robin Wood, who was one of the more important film critics back [in the '70s], wrote a whole piece in the Village Voice titled “Butchered: Turning Death Line Into Raw Meat” that basically told everybody not to go see Raw Meat, and wait for Death Line to actually be released in the States. To him, Death Line was a great movie, and Raw Meat is a piece of crap. Unfortunately, it took forty-five years for it to be released in the US.

BMD: But your version of Death Line has been available in the States before this new Blue Underground disc, correct?

GS: The people who knew about Death Line in the States saw it through pirated prints. Though in 2003, MGM acquired the rights when they inherited the AIP library. I knew some people at MGM and got them to go back to a second generation inter-positive, which they got from AIP when they bought the picture. That’s what they struck the 2003 DVD from. So yes, it is Death Line, but it's Death Line three generations removed from the original negative. It looked awful, sounded awful, but it got Death Line out there for the first time in North America and Canada.

But then a year and a half ago, MGM’s deal ran out, and nobody had the rights. Jay Kanter and I came in and scooped them up, found out [Blue Underground founder and exploitation legend] Bill Lustig was interested and, with the help of the BFI, found the original negative. We took that to Deluxe in London, and now people can really see what Death Line was supposed to look like.

BMD: That’s the wonder of places like Blue Underground and Severin or Synapse – they’re these boutique labels that really work to get us genre stuff that was almost lost for one reason or another. They’re helping to rescue the original visions of filmmakers like yourself.

GS: Bill is just unbelievable. Between Bill Lustig and William Fowler over at the BFI – the two of them really made this possible. Both worked tirelessly and had no stake in it other than they love Death Line. Bill Lustig went to the ends of the earth to help make this happen, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am.

BMD: He’s one of the greatest, man.

BMD: So how did Dead & Buried come to be? Because I know there was some meddling on that movie, as well, as the producers disagreed with your choice of tone, initially.

GS: Well, it wasn’t the producers, but rather the production company – the Executive Producer level. Ronny [Shusett] and I had very similar ideas as to what Dead & Buried should be. He brought the story to me – the script was almost done, so we sat down and polished the screenplay to a final draft.

One of the reasons Ron brought it to me was because he loved Death Line, particularly the comedic aspects of Death Line. He really wanted to stay in the serio-comic mode to do Dead & Buried, because it was originally written as a black comedy. When we got into [the script], we made it an even darker comedy, but the comedy shined through, which is why we cast Jack Albertson to play (kooky mortician) Dobbs. Playing the comedy against the horror was a big element of what attracted us both to it.

You know, there are a lot of cerebral levels to Dead & Buried, and when we put the original deal together, Richard St. John (producer, The Final Countdown [‘80]) was running the Guinness Company. He understood exactly what we wanted to do, and his group was running the production from pre-production up until we started shooting. But then Guinness pulled out because they were a beer company who decided they didn’t really want to be in the film business, so they sold the production to Aspen Productions, which was run by John Hyde. Now, John and his people understood the project, but they wanted to keep the budget down a little, so we got pushback in terms of financing, but we were still shooting the same script.

But then, just when the film finished shooting and we were in post-production, Aspen got bought out by PSO – which was run by a guy named Mark Damon. I had just finished my Director’s Cut, and we had a screening of it. Mark Damon comes up to me after the screening – right after Bob Rehme from AVCO is telling me he loves it, and it’s a fantastic film. Damon puts his arm around my shoulder and takes me into a corner and says to me, “OK, well, if I wanted [Ingmar] Bergman to make a horror film for me, I would’ve hired Bergman. So, now let’s go make this into a horror film.” I was stunned. Just stunned. That led into an entire series of fights between the studio and the production company, and my agents. Jay Kanter – who has been my mentor since Death Line and, at that time, was President at Fox – just advised me to walk away from the movie, which is what I ended up doing. I went and made Vice Squad. I was really upset. I’d put my body and soul into making Death Line, and then along comes Samuel Z. Arkoff, who fucks it up. Eight years later, I finally got it together enough to make another feature film, and Mark Damon comes along and pulls a Samuel Z. Arkoff on me.

But Bob Rehme told me, “we’ll let you do Vice Squad, and we won’t touch it.”

I love Vice Squad, but what I didn’t like about Vice Squad is that people took it the wrong way. I never meant for it to be an exploitation film. I made it as a film to really focus on violence against women, so I wanted to make the violence against women in the film as ugly as possible.

BMD: Well, you definitely succeeded. How did you reach that level of authenticity? That movie just drips grime, and you feel every act of violence committed in it. It’s why it’s one of my favorite films of all time – Top Ten, really. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and visceral.

GS: When Bob Rehme handed me this pile of scripts and I picked Vice Squad, the problem was I thought it needed a lot of work. So, I told Bob that and he said “well, go do the work.” But the issue there was I wasn’t terribly familiar with police procedure.

Bob knew that the guy whose story [Vice Squad] was based on was a commander in the LAPD, and he put me together with him to see what he could teach me about police procedure. I went and met with him, and he said, “well, why don’t we put you in the Police Academy?” He put me through an accelerated course at the Academy to make me a reserve officer. I spent my nights riding as a second man in a two man vice car in Hollywood. I did that for about eight weeks, and was out there every night before going home and working on the script. I was on the streets of Hollywood, issued a badge, and could work with a sworn officer to make arrests, question suspects, talk to prostitutes. I really saw the streets, and then went back and kept doing it after I finished Vice Squad.

I also saw crime from both sides – one night, they pretended to arrest me, took me down to Hollywood lock up in cuffs, threw me in the tank, chained me to a bench. It was then that I got to talk to people who actually thought I’d been arrested, and I’m a pretty good actor, so I convinced them I’d been busted. It was there that I talked to prostitutes, and also in the squad car when we’d pick them up. They were used to this, and would talk without reservation. This was just part of their life. The girls and the bun boys were incredibly helpful with my research in making this movie.

When I got to shooting Vice Squad, the guy who was my partner on the street – he was a Sargent named Doug Nelson – became a technical director on the movie. He was there while we were shooting watching scenes and going “yeah, that’s real” or “yeah, that’s bullshit.” [laughs] He wouldn’t say this on the set, but we’d go talk on the side and he’d give me pointers on how to make this movie real. I’m a real stickler for reality. I want to stay within the realms of believability and research everything to the Nth degree.

BMD: Which renders my next question all the more terrifying – Ramrod, where did that monster come from? How did Wings Hauser get to that level of intensity? I hesitate to even call him “the pimp from Hell”, because I feel like he’d scare Satan.

GS: Ain’t that the truth? When I was out working the streets for those eight weeks, the people who came off like the biggest monsters were white pimps. White pimps are the scourge of the earth. A lot of people of color go into illegal activity because society has pushed them into a corner when they’re not born with the privileges that white folks have. For a man to want to become a pimp – one of the most evil occupations a person can choose – it’s only because they’re sick, and they enjoy power, and fear, and the pain they can implement on these women. I met a bunch of white pimps, and they’re just scum.

I knew Wings Hauser [who plays psycho hillbilly pimp, Ramrod] before Vice Squad. Nancy Locke, who plays the mother of the little boy in Dead & Buried, was Wings’ wife. While we were doing Dead & Buried, Wings was on set a lot. So, I got to know him and got to be friends with him. I realized – behind Greg Foster on The Young and the Restless, which is the role Wings was famous for at the time – there was an anger way down deep inside of him. On TV, he was the nicest guy in the world. But I knew I could tap into this well of rage that was hiding behind that façade. I told him “you got a lot of frustrations inside of you, and I think we can do something with that.” I gave him the script, and there was years of rage he poured into it.

When I told the studio I wanted to cast Wings, they thought I was nuts. Everybody looked at me and said “you want Greg Foster to play Ramrod? Are you kidding?” And I told them, “Wings is ready to do this. He’s tired of being Greg Foster. He’s ready to be Ramrod.”

BMD: That’s so terrifying.

GS: I brought Wings in for a reading with the entire staff of AVCO Embassy, including Bob Rehme. Wings asked me what scene I wanted him to read and I just told him “I want you to come into that room and be Ramrod.” We played with it the night before, and Wings walks into this room and scowled at everyone there before saying “I hear you motherfuckers think I can’t play this role.” He just whispered it; he never raised his voice. He walks up to Bob Rehme and grabs him by his tie, yanks him across the table and goes “I guess you’re behind this bullshit, aren’t you?” [laughs] Then a few other things went down and Bob threw his hands up in the air and said “you win.” Right there, Ramrod was born.

BMD: Dear God.

GS: Let me take you one step further. As you know, Vice Squad was shot entirely at night. We’d shoot from six at night until five in the morning, and when we’d wrap, I’d have to take Wings to these bars that would actually open at 5 AM. This was during a time when you could actually still do that in Los Angeles. But he made me promise to never take him home to his wife as Ramrod, so we’d go drinking after each day of shooting so that he could get rid of that character and basically exist as a person. I’d talk him back down to being Wings Hauser.

BMD: And if you’re seen five frames of Vice Squad, you know exactly why this was necessary.

BMD: Now – after Vice Squad, you made Wanted: Dead or Alive (’87), Poltergeist III (’88), Lisa (’90), worked in television helping to create Missing Persons (’93 – ’95), but then you also made 39: A Film By Carroll McKane (’06). I’ve heard from folks who saw 39 at Fantasia and were devastated by it, but it hasn’t seen the light of day since. What’s going on with that movie?

GS: I don’t know. 39 was a film that I made on my own. A friend of mine and I did it together, and financed it together. He came to me and said he wanted to learn how to make a film, and I told him the best way to do that was to just make one. He owns a record company, so he has plenty of money, and I just said OK, I’ll put up half the money, and we made something really experimental that we weren’t sure we would ever do anything with.

I set out to make the most disturbing film that I could make. That was absolutely my goal. I wanted to make a film that was completely disturbing and outside of any kind of genre that anybody had ever tried before and that broke every rule. I think one of the main rules of making a horror film is that you have to give the audience a rock that they can hide behind, so that they can watch it voyeuristically and believe that they’re not in danger. That’s what we do when we make horror movies. Even when I made Vice Squad, that’s what I did. But the idea [with 39] was to remove that rock completely. I wanted the audience to be directly involved; almost like an interactive film. Unfortunately, I achieved my goal.

I screened it at Fantasia, and I screened it at Fangoria Fest in New York, and screened it at one other festival. I watched what it did to audiences and people were just terrified. People sat through the film and didn’t move. If people had to pee, they didn’t because they were too frightened to get out of their seats. I felt like I was there to warn the audience before it played, and it to talk to them afterwards. I felt a responsibility to not let people see this on their own.

It’s funny, I’m going to be a judge at Sitges [Film Festival] this year. I’m on the International Jury. They’re going to premiere the new restoration of Death Line there, and show a few of my other films. Àngel Sala, who is the director of programming at Sitges – I had dinner with him and he asked me to show 39, and I told him I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that. I’m still thinking about it, but I’m not sure I’m interested in watching it, or having anyone else watch it. People keep calling me and asking if they can see it, and I’ve had a few offers to distribute it, but I’m just not sure.

Jacob, I don’t know if I’m ever going to direct another movie, and I don’t know if I want 39 to be the last film that I directed. Just like people missed the underlying message of Vice Squad, I’m sure people will miss the underlying message of 39 because it’s so disturbing.

BMD: To be honest, I hope you change your mind. It’s the only movie of yours I’ve never seen, and it’s become a holy grail picture for me. Everything I’ve heard is that it’s totally fucked up.

GS: It’s a very disturbing movie. And yeah, “fucked up” is a pretty apt description.

Death Line is available now on Limited Edition Blu-ray from Blue Underground.