DEATH LINE (1972) Blu-ray
Director: Gary Sherman
Blue Underground

Shot in 1972, DEATH LINE is the debut feature of Gary Sherman (DEAD AND BURIED, VICE SQUAD, LISA), a young American commercial director living in England at the time who also conceived the original story (with Ceri Jones). This British horror effort has often been critically cited for its originality and importance to the genre, belonging in a class with the innovative 1970s genre films of Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. Originally distributed theatrically in the U.S. by AIP as RAW MEAT, it never showed up on regular TV (until more recent cable airings) and never even got a home video release here until MGM issued it a barebones DVD in 2003; it now gets the special edition Blu-ray treatment that it so richly deserves via Blue Underground.

The premise of DEATH LINE goes back to the end of the 19th century, when a group of construction workers fell victim to a London Underground cave-in and were trapped and never rescued. Presumed dead, some survived but turned cannibalistic, feeding on the others to sustain life. Now some 80 years later, a diseased mutant known only as "The Man" (Hugh Armstrong, GIRLY) and his female mate (June Turner) are the only survivors of generations of underground dwellers, and while the male preys on unfortunate Tube pedestrians for food, the weak and sickly female slowly terminates.

American college student, Alex Campbell (David Ladd, R.P.M.) and his English girlfriend Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney, CRUCIBLE OF HORROR) discover a man passed out on the stairs of the Russell Square Underground station. He is reluctant to do anything about it (proclaiming how common such a site is in New York) but she insists; when they bring back a policeman to investigate, the man has disappeared. Turns out he was James Manfred, an OBE high society type (played by familiar British character actor James Cossins, THE LOST CONTINENT, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN) who was just robbed by the prostitute he tried to solicit. His disappearance has opened up a can of worms, as this comes on top of a number of “less important” people who have been reported missing in the same subterranean transit line recently, and both Alex and Patricia are continually interrogated while being inquisitive at the same time. The sharp-tongued Inspector Calhoun (Donald Pleasence, THE MUTATIONS) and Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT) are on the case, but soon Patricia becomes the next missing victim of "The Man" when a mishap separates her from Alex, and she’s held captive in his nightmarish hidden labyrinth.

Produced by Paul Maslansky (CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE SHE BEAST), Gary Sherman's maiden voyage is an intriguing gore film in both sights and sounds, setting a proper mood of modern England and a realistically decaying view of the cannibal's habitat which definitely feels detached from the rest of the world (this is highlighted by Dennis Gordon-Orr’s terrific set design). The film was made some years before homegrown Americana “cannibal” treats such as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and DERANGED, yet there’s a comparable visceral level that never seems gratuitous within the context of the film (the fine make-up effects were done by the talented team of Harry Frampton and his son Peter—who also worked on Amicus’ I, MONSTER, among many others—along with uncredited special effects man John Horton). Effectively long tracking shots (well, namely a single spectacular 7-minute one-take) reveal rotted corpses, the eyes of a suffering victim, half-devoured fresh bodies hung like cattle, and rats and maggots feeding off human limbs before the camera makes its way back to the outside world. The character of the nearly-mute cannibalistic "man" is grotesquely Neanderthal; a sore-infested drooling mess, that kills viciously out of necessity. Hugh Armstrong gives the pathetic ghoul some Karloff-esque "Frankenstein" pathos, even in the character’s thoughtlessly savage moments, and it’s one of the most underrated cinema monsters. As “The Man” is generations down from the original survivors, his crude, secluded lifestyle includes being deprived of a vocabulary, aside from his nearly indistinguishable chantings of “Mind the doors”, apparently the only English he ever picked up (and a saying that will stick in viewers heads long after seeing the film).

Forget 1978’s HALLOWEEN, as this is possibly Pleasence’s best performance in a horror movie, and it’s a real standout. Pleasence injects spirited life into a character that could have been one dimensional; a working class officer of the law who is cynical with an edge of sarcasm at the same time (his telling Alex to get a haircut as he's leaving his office is more of a satirical social obligation, as he makes a funny face after saying so). His getting annoyed at having his tea made with a tea bag (which he digs out with a dart), complaining about low wages or making a late-night scene in a local pub illustrate this likable/unlikable copper as only Pleasence could play it. Cast in the film is horror movie legend Christopher Lee, which if anything, added more marquee value. As Maslansky was friends with the actor since back when they made CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1963, Lee was hired for one morning’s work (around the time he was making THE CREEPING FLESH), and he appears as M.I.5’s Stratton-Villiers, a high-ranking official who intercepts Calhoun’s investigation. “Guest star” Lee only appears in the film for a matter of minutes, but his opposing, class-clashing exchanges with Pleasence (it was smart to at least have them in the same scene together) are indelible. "Keeping Up Appearances" star Clive Swift (FRENZY) plays the inspector who comes up with the theory of the descendants of the original disaster becoming cannibalistic in order to survive. The music by Wil Malone and Jeremy Rose appropriately starts off with raunchy striptease harmonies, but then moves onto other levels, including some haunting violin strings which accent the horror and themes of deterioration significantly. In America, the film played on a 1973 double bill with Ivan Reitman’s CANNIBAL GIRLS, and years later with Ruggero Deodato’s JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (which was retitled CARNIVOROUS).

Using a freshly transferred and fully restored 2K transfer from the original uncensored camera negative with the original DEATH LINE title, Blue Underground now packages this great British horror film as Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the film's many darker scenes have more life and detail than ever before, but the show on the whole looks fabulous. The original Eastman colors are very well saturated and the source negative is in excellent shape. Black levels are pretty strong, as are the flesh tones, and fine grain is filmic and stable throughout (the previous MGM DVD was overly grainy in the darker scenes and had some edge enhancement, so needless to say this is a vast improvement). The English audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. Dialogue is clean and easy to hear throughout, and sound effects (the frequent dripping water) are distinct, while the score also comes through with nice clarity. English SDH subtitles are included, as are optional French and Spanish subtitles. Like MGM's previous DVD, this version restores some bloody violence not seen in the U.S. release print, so this is the fully uncut version. A standard DVD is also included with the same HD transfer and same extras.

An audio commentary is included with co-writer/director Sherman, producer Maslansky, and assistant director Lewis More O'Ferrall (joining the others from London via skype), moderated by David Gregory. Sherman (who more than once here confirms what a gentleman Pleasence was) starts things telling how he originally gave the script to Jonathan Demme (who was producing a commercial he was directing at the time) who in turn gave it Maslansky who did of course accept to produce. He also tells that the film was originally sold to Paramount for U.S. distribution, but it ended up being sold to AIP, something he wasn’t too happy about. This is a very thorough and entertaining commentary, loaded with anecdotes and production info, including that Cossins was getting stopped for autographs during the shoot, descriptions of shooting the scenes in the tube and the underground wreckage locations (the entire film was shot on location), a lot of spot-checking the supporting players on screen (and they point out some surprise cameos by the crew, including Sherman and Maslansky), and much more. O’Ferrall even tells a great story about running into Christopher Lee years later in Los Angeles at a David Bowie concert!

“Tales From The Tube” (18:51) is a featurette with Sherman and executive producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr. sitting down for a friendly chat. Sherman confirms that the original intention was to have Jonathan Demme produce (but he went off to work with Roger Corman), Kanter—who envisioned Marlon Brando to star as “The Man”—recalls the difficulties with getting financing from American companies at the time with the Rank Organization putting up a large part of the budget (the scene with Christopher Lee was shot in his living room) and Ladd—who was originally against the 7-minute tracking shot—offered a part to his brother David who was living with him at the time (Maslansky comes into greet all three gentlemen at the very end). “From The Depths” (12:41) features a dual interview with star David Ladd and producer Maslansky. Maslansky talks about the film’s short schedule and low budget, while Ladd describes how well-layered he thought the script was and his pleasurable experience working with Pleasence. You easily got the impression here that everyone got along great on the set, as well as the admiration of Sherman’s leadership. Maslansky remained friends with Lee up until the time of his death, and recalls that the film came up in their final telephone conversation. “Mind The Doors” (15:36) is an interview with star Hugh Armstrong, who sadly passed away in 2016. He begins by recounting his entrance into army after school (he wanted to travel) and eventually leaving, knowing he wanted to be an actor and ended up attending drama school. After that, he got a lot of theater and TV work, eventually getting the part in DEATH LINE. He talks about "The Man" character and how he decided to portray him, and also touches upon the underground locations, how well he got on with the crew and his cast mates (though he never met Lee or Rossington), being in the make-up chair for about four hours every day and the film’s stunts (some of which he did himself). Rounding out the extras is a British DEATH LINE trailer, the American RAW MEAT trailer, three RAW MEAT TV spots, two RAW MEAT radio spots (both with reimagined dialogue by very American-sounding voice artists, and the second one is actually for its pairing with CANNIBAL GIRLS) and a poster and still gallery. A booklet is included with background information on the film written by Michael Gingold, as well as bio info on Pleasence written by Chris Gullo, author of the essential book, The Films of Donald Pleasence.
(George R. Reis)