Gary Sherman has been working in the film and TV business for many years, but it is for his 1973 horror Death Line (AKA Raw Meat) that many fans may be familiar with his work. Forty years on, the film – which was set in the depths of the London underground – is still a massive cult classic and has a huge fan following. The director, writer and producer told me that his directorial feature debut came about quite by chance when we spoke recently.
This interview is ready to depart … so mind the doors!
Having worked, up to that point, on music films, documentaries and commercials, Sherman was keen to make a feature and had been told that the way to do it was to write a script. He was working with Ceri Jones on a commercial in England – one which incidentally had a much bigger budget than Death Line would go on to have – when Sherman told him the story he had thought up and the pair then went on to write the screenplay. That screenplay was passed up the ladder until the call came through that they wanted to make the film and were happy to have Sherman direct.The film has managed to become a cult hit with older and younger audiences alike. Sherman himself laughed that “probably 98% of [the fans] were not born when I made that movie”. He also said that “because of this whole resurgence of zombies … Dead and Buried found a whole new audience … they’re all in their twenties!”
Death Line was filmed on a part of the underground that had already been closed before the war – a phenomenon once again in the news after the recent Sherlock episode focused on a disused station. Sherman tells me that looking into the history of the underground was what sparked the idea for the story in the first place.Any scenes in the film with actual trains were shot at Aldwych station – which at the time was closed during the weekend – but it was not an easy job getting permission to film on these platforms and in these tunnels. London Transport, Sherman tells me, refused to let them shoot because they thought the film was rather derogatory. Sherman took an old script, added in a couple of scenes that had to be shot on a tube platform, and tried again. That is how they got permission … but it meant they had to have people on hand to keep the London Transport representatives out of the station!
“because of this whole resurgence of zombies … Dead and Buried found a whole new audience … they’re all in their twenties!”The casting is something of which Sherman is evidently still immensely proud. At one point, the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, was considered to play the ‘man’ character – with the proviso that he be unrecognisable. Jay Kanter, executive producer on the film, was very close to Marlon Brando and had the idea of including him in the film. Nobody was ever going to know, Sherman tells me. Kanter talked to Brando about it and he thought it was a pretty funny idea. Sadly, Brando was forced to head home after a family emergency and the timing just didn’t work out.
So, I asked, if Marlon had been in it, would he have not been credited? “We would have put a funny name,” Sherman laughs, adding that Harry Frampton was doing the prosthetics and would have had a ball disguising Marlon.One of the key actors in the film is, of course, Donald Pleasence, who Sherman says he wanted for the part from the time he wrote the script. He sent a copy of it to New York and flew over there to meet with the actor, who was delighted to be offered the comedic role, claiming that nobody ever offered him comedy.
“Getting everybody else was like cake once we had Donald,” Sherman says. “All these great British character actors – who you never would have thought would have done a little horror film like this – were all game to do it because Donald Pleasence was in it.”Fans of the film will know that Pleasence’s was not the only recognisable face in the film. Producer Paul Maslansky asked Sherman what they could get Christopher Lee to do because they were great friends and Sherman was only too happy to oblige. The MI5 scenes, which had previously been written as a one-sided phone call, were written in just so Lee could be part of the film. According to Sherman, Lee was game to join in – if only to do the scene with Pleasence – but did check that it didn’t involve wearing his [Dracula] teeth.
“All these great British character actors – who you never would have thought would have done a little horror film like this – were all game to do it because Donald Pleasence was in it.” – Gary Sherman casting Death LineSeeing as it was his first feature film, one thing Sherman had not factored in was that Christopher Lee was very tall and Donald Pleasence was far shorter. When he got them in to rehearse, he soon realised that putting them in a two-shot together was just not possible. Sherman then decided to do the whole sequence in singles and adjust the eyelines – and then get Lee to sit down. See what you think of the end result…
When I asked Sherman what it was he felt made people love Death Line so much he complimented his cast and added that, “It makes a political statement. It pokes the class system in England right in the eye. The ‘Man’ is a sympathetic character – he’s not an ‘evil’ monster. He’s just trying to survive.”
“Death Line was the first of its kind” he explains. “There had never been anything like it before …. I’m very proud of it! … Death Line was just a really fun film to make.”