A relatively forgotten artifact of early ‘70s British horror made at a time when the Hammer and Amicus boutiques were still going strong, Raw Meat (1972; known in the UK as Death Line) delivers on the acrid and seedy grindhouse promise of its evocative, near-tactile title while at the same time easily surpassing trashy contemporaries like Shriek of the Mutilated, The Corpse Grinders or any given Herschell Gordon Lewis romp in terms of directorial and storytelling integrity. Its director, Gary Sherman, would go on to make the disappointing Dead and Buried (1981), the vicious exploitation hit Vice Squad (1982), which introduced many of us to the singular charms of Wings Hauser, and the wholly unnecessary Poltergeist III (1988), none of which would lead any reasonable person to conclude that an early Sherman film, one in which the talents that led to those later mediocrities would presumably be even more crudely hewn, would be worth anything more than a cursory look. Perhaps this is why even after I became aware of Raw Meat it took me so long to make my way around to actually seeing it. But when I read Jim Emerson’s recommendation in 2006, it seemed that the time was finally right. The movie I saw shocked me, not only as a piece of sleazy, gory horror, but as a fairly sophisticated piece of filmmaking, one with considerable humor, directorial confidence—the young Sherman turns out to be quite enraptured by the long take, and damned if he doesn’t know how to use the technique to devastating effect—and astonishing sympathy for its mysterious subterranean devil(s). In his piece Jim talked about the thematic relevance of the film’s opening shot:
"The opening shot itself begins with an out-of-focus blur of colors, accompanied by a dirty, grinding, sluggish, metallic guitar/bass/drums riff that sounds like Angelo Badalamenti's score for the endless-nightmare Roadhouse scene in David Lynch's Twin Peaks; Fire Walk with Me. As the image comes into focus we see a Magritte-like silhouette of a British gent looking at dirty magazines. Then the shot goes out of focus again. The pattern is repeated throughout the titles sequence as the naughty fellow visits one unseemly establishment after another: out of focus (indistinguishable, unidentifiable); then in focus (ah, that's what we're seeing/where we are); then back out again. And, wouldn't you know it, that's the shape of the mystery (and the investigation) itself: Someone's whereabouts are unknown. Then he is seen. Then he disappears. The aim is to fill in those out-of-focus parts, to figure out where he came from, how he got there, and where he went."
Indeed, it seems that middle-aged Brit, a man of some sophistication and importance which is telegraphed in classic B-movie shorthand by his crisp suit, bowler hat and faint air of arrogance (he seems only to be missing a monocle), has just finished a gentleman’s tour of one of London’s red-light neighborhoods. His evening ends on an unexpected and rather inconvenient note, however, when he is viciously attacked by a growling, unidentifiable creature while waiting for a train at an Underground station. The man is soon after discovered by a young couple, an American named Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney), a Londoner who insists over David’s mild protestations (“In New York you step over these guys all the time!”) that they run up to get help for the man, who may still be alive. When the police arrive the body is no longer where they left it, and there’s no indication of evidence as to where it might have gotten off to. Enter Donald Pleasance, in what might just be his funniest, juiciest performance, as the cantankerous Inspector Calhoun, who attempts to investigate the man’s disappearance despite unusual resistance from the MI5 and comes to believe that this victim may be only the most recent of many. Calhoun soon discovers that the truth is far more grisly than he or anyone could have reasonably predicted, with awful implications that reach all the way back through the history of the Underground’s construction.
Just as in the Hammer science fiction classic Quatermass and the Pit, known in America as Five Million Years to Earth (1967), the secrets of Raw Meat lay just beneath the thrumming structure of this famously efficient mass transit system. (Before the film is over, the Underground’s automated warning to “mind the doors” will take on a chilling poignancy.) But where Quatermass would encounter evidence of extraterrestrial visitation, the horrors unearthed beneath the rails and from behind a pile of abandoned rubble in Raw Meat are the terrible result of human industrial indifference. Soon, a cover-up of a disastrous accident during construction of one of the subway tunnels some 50 years in the past will be discovered, one in which a group of exploited workers were buried alive and left to die. The film’s chilling central conceit is the slow and deliberate revelation of the perverse society that developed as a result of those workers’ unlikely survival—a cannibalistic group of underground dwellers who have produced a generation or two of ever-mutating citizenry that only emerge from the shadows to obtain the foodstuff referred to in the movie’s none-too-subtle American title.
In Raw Meat the gore comes right on schedule, and as a result it will likely satisfy even the most rambunctious and demanding midnight crowd raised on the various grotesqueries emblematic of the Saw era. But the movie distinguishes itself in the turns it takes once we’re allowed inside a sealed-off vault of nightmares that no “normal” man has glimpsed in over 50 years. Sherman, in collaboration with cinematographer Alex Thomson (who would go on to shoot Dr. Phibes Rises Again before moving on to big-ticket pictures like Excalibur, The Keep, Year of the Dragon, The Krays and Alien 3), introduces us to this underground society via a bravura, gasp-inducing tracking shot which slowly, with surprising precision and even tenderness, reveals to the most jaded viewer’s eyes much more than the expected chamber of horrors. To tell much more of what is revealed would be a gesture of bad faith; the less you know going in, the more likely you are to be bowled over by the degree of pain the movie conjures not only for the victims who have gone missing, but for those who took them away.
Suffice it to say that this flesh-eating society, to whom so much wrong was inflicted all those years ago by a bankrupt contractor (and, by extension, the British government) all-too-willing to sacrifice lives in order to save face and ensure the continued construction of their ambitious underground railway, has finally come near extinction, and the rituals of memorial and tribute in which this lone surviving wretch participates finally lends his underground dwelling all the trappings of what it really always was—a living tomb. The true audacity of Raw Meat is crystallized by what we discover about the hidden existence of the movie’s central fiend. Everything he does after he bids an agonizing farewell to his last companion is informed by the sadness and injustice of his fate and that of his fellow victims, as well as his desperation to save that companion. (I think that even includes his ill-fated attempt to communicate with Patricia once she finds herself wandering around in that awful lair, even after it becomes clear what he ultimately has in mind.) Sherman doesn’t use these revelations to justify the horrors perpetrated by this wronged monster, but instead to contextualize them, to expand them beyond mindless cannibalistic attacks (and the superficial jolts contained therein) and into a light in which they might at least be understood as something beyond animalistic instinct and hunger. This thematic concern is the meat, however raw, on the bones of Sherman’s disturbing, enthralling, at times even hilarious thriller, one that deserves its growing reputation as a horror film with more on its mind than just the frights it delivers with grimy style and a cruel and canny efficiency.
(Raw Meat screens in a rare 35mm print Saturday, May 8 at 11:55 p.m. at the New Beverly Cinema.)