[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
I must confess to being one of those horror film addicts who occasionally even resort to the ozoners in search of the one sleeper that will justify all those wasted hours spent in the scurrilous company of Aztec mummies, moth-eaten werewolves, and green slime. Which is how I came to see Raw Meat—despite its title and the American-International imprimatur. Actually, the presence of Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee, not to mention obvious parallels—in what little I knew of the plot—to the notorious Night of the Living Dead, did nothing to shore up what little resistance I manage to maintain against a seemingly insatiable appetite for the usually tasteless additions to this genre.
Almost certainly, Raw Meat was not this film’s original title; it, plus the misleading ad blurbs (which suggest a horde of cannibalistic dead let loose on London), is probably the brainchild of American-International bent on selling a modest little British gem as a superduper blood-and-gore horror flick. What Raw Meat achieves in reality is a curious and moderately successful blend of humor (mostly contributed by the hilariously unhinged Pleasence as a harried police detective), horror, and tenderness. More of that in a moment; first, some necessary plot orientation. Mysterious disappearances in a London subway station alert Pleasence and sidekick Norman Rossington to something amiss in those subterranean environs. Eventually they unearth some gruesome past history about a group of male and female construction workers left for dead after a costly cave-in circa 1890.
Director Gary Sherman moves quickly from the aboveground irascibilities of Pleasence’s teabag-slinging wiseass to a strangely reticent and contemplative examination of the dark warrens in which those lost men and women somehow survived. Except for an occasional echoing roar of the passing trains and what sounds like the gurgling of a sick animal, silence pervades as the camera moves slowly through eighty years’ worth of litter and filth—the accumulated debris of an absolutely isolated pocket of humanity forced into cannibalism, decimated by the inroads of plague-ridden rats. A ghoulishly blood-stained figure moans over a prone female body. As the camera moves closer, we prepare for the worst and are consequently all the more vulnerable to the mixed horror and tenderness of the tableau which it reveals. For this last ghastly scion of several generations of man-eaters is grieving inarticulately over his dying—and very pregnant—mate. The gap between our warring emotions of pity and revulsion widens further as the man scrapes gobbets of flesh from his latest victim as sickbed nourishment for his rapidly weakening spouse. When later he reverently places her corpse on one of the last empty bunks in a room which apparently served as this grisly community’s crypt, we are forced to accept these vestigial but nonetheless sympathetic traces of humane, even civilized, behavior in a context of utterly unredeemable degradation. Meanwhile, aboveground again, Pleasence gets uproariously drunk, affectionately insults “hippie” students, and crosses swords with a snotty Christopher Lee (in a one-scene appearance as a big gun from Military Intelligence).
Although such entertainments are enjoyable, Sherman never really manages to completely integrate the two levels of his film—either in tone or in geography—and he stops short of developing some metaphorical potential inherent in a story which begins at least with an obvious contrast between London whores and lechers preying upon one another while beneath their feet a regressed species of Homo sapiens feeds on human flesh, but retains a strong capacity for love and affection in a veritable abattoir. Early on in the film, pains are taken that we should hear and especially note the recorded admonishment to “Mind the doors” as they slide shut preparatory to the train’s departure from the station. No one who has seen Raw Meat will ever forget the childishly high-pitched and bewildered garbling of those words echoing through endless underground corridors. This pathetic parody of human speech constitutes the first and last attempt of the only survivor of a nearly century-old tragedy to communicate with a world that callously condemned his parents and grandparents to an unspeakable hell, a world that can only crush him like the vermin with which he himself waged constant war. Raw Meat is no masterwork, but it does have its moments—and one resents its disappearance into drive-in oblivion while dreck like The Legend of Hell House and Sssssss is showcased, however briefly, in first-run downtown and suburban theaters.
RAW MEAT [original title: DEATH LINE]
Story and Direction: Gary Sherman. Cinematography: Alex Thomson.
The Players: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Clive Swift, Christopher Lee.
Copyright © 1973 by Kathleen Murphy