Greene Screene: Death Line
This movie doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be. Or, more accurately, its producers didn’t know what kind of movie it was. Gary Sherman’s film was released as Death Line when it originally came out in 1972 in the UK, but was subsequently renamed Raw Meat to attract hungry cult film fans stateside.
As such, I didn’t know what kind of movie I was in for — which is normally my favorite scenario in which to discover a film, but last night I was far from captivated by this Criterion classic.
The next day playing it back in my head, I have an entirely different understanding and estimation of this film.
On one hand, this is a snapshot of the desperate, lonely, grimy people who populate a desperate, lonely, grimy 1970s London, where the two young students’ relationship at the heart of the movie is far more volatile and questionable than that of the two murderous cannibals hiding in the bowels of underground London.
On the other, this is a movie with broom impaling where the male cannibal bites the heads off rats and features a distracting Christopher Lee cameo where his mustache steals the show.
On one hand, the police inspector played by Donald Pleasance (six years before Halloween) immediately sniffs out that something’s wrong following a fairly innocuous tip on a potential missing person. On the other, the inspector is belligerent and ignorant from there on out, not listening to a single thing someone else says for the rest of the movie.
On one hand, the male cannibal kidnaps lonely travelers after the last train at Russell Street station and devours them. On the other, he’s doing so to survive, to sustain his dying pregnant wife, the last two members of an underground tribe that has clung to life after being abandoned and forgotten in the bleak burrows of London following a cave-in 70 years ago.
On one hand, the male cannibal is a gibbering rapist fool muttering the only English words he’s heard in his life (“Mind the doors!”). On the other, this is a man who grew up like a rat, with rats, and who knows absolutely nothing else. Raw Meat isn’t just what he eats; we are all raw meat in the gristle of society.
Death Line/Raw Meat is a rare midnight film that attempts to show that the world isn’t simply black and white. But it does so by oscillating between the two extremes, unable to completely conceive of a cohesive gray middle. But perhaps that’s asking too much, given that we as a people have been stuck on black and white for centuries.
Death Line/Raw Meat is the only movie I’ve encountered that not only is brave enough to dare attempt to find empathy for cannibals, but is actually able to find some, however small. Gary Sherman seeks to understand and explore the morass of humanity, the only way out of the endless dark tunnels we face.