Truly loving a film genre, particularly when it comes to horror, often means digging through surface layers and uncovering more and more bizarre history as you go along. RAW MEAT is both an example of, and a metaphor for, that experience. RAW MEAT is a horror film made and released in the UK in 1972 under the title DEATH LINE. For reasons I’ve not yet been able to track down, RAW MEAT is the title that was given to the movie for its United States release, a title by which it seems to be better known today. It is the first film of Gary Sherman, the American-born filmmaker who nine years later made 1981’s DEAD & BURIED. I’ve been familiar with DEAD & BURIED for a long time, but I learned of RAW MEAT‘s existence only recently. This is what I mean by the movie being a living example of the experience of genre-spelunking.
The poster for RAW MEAT tells you what we’re dealing with: Cannibals in the London underground. But that wasn’t a common movie subject in 1972, and certainly not in the UK, where things were generally more genteel. The Hammer films could get pretty bloody for their time, but I don’t remember many of them being willing to deal with the increasingly-relevant cinematic topic of inbred cannibals. RAW MEAT arrived a year or two before THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), a decade before C.H.U.D. (1984), two decades before CREEP (2004). I can pretty much guarantee that John Landis saw RAW MEAT at some point before shooting the spooky underground scenes in 1981’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Its focus on the sleazier aspects of British nightlife also predated Landis’ movie, which, as we all remember, notoriously staged pivotal scenes in a porno theater.
RAW MEAT opens with an officious-looking gentleman in a trenchcoat checking out the dirty magazines in a sex shop, then getting rejected by a hooker in the underground train station. The opening credits music by Wil Malone and Jeremy Rose is awesomely sleazy and porny, and quite frankly, it promises a little bit more decadence than the movie ultimately provides. Things scale back and slow down a little. But not so much for this high-society fellow on safari, whose name is Manfred — he is attacked and left lying on the steps below. A disgustingly-in-love young couple, Alex (David Ladd) and Patricia (Sharon Gurney), walk past the body — he dismisses the man as a bum sleeping it off, but she has more of a conscience. After a debate that goes on a little too long, Patricia persuades Alex to find a cop — sorry, a bobby — and go to check on the poor sod. But when they get there, the body is gone.
Enter Inspector Calhoun and his assistant Rogers, who are tasked with cracking the case. Rogers is played by Norman Rossington, a British character actor who appeared in films such as THE LONGEST DAY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Calhoun is played by Donald Pleasence, who is no strange face to readers of this site. But if you’ve only seen Donald Pleasence in movies like THE GREAT ESCAPE, HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and even PHENOMENA, you’ve seen a far more reserved and authoritative version. This is a Donald Pleasence a tad closer to the late scenes of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the buggin’-out “A-numbah-one!” version.
Calhoun is a sardonic and somewhat belligerent style of policeman. There’s a single scene where the great Christopher Lee makes a cameo as an MI-5 agent who butts heads with Calhoun over jurisdiction, and that scene seems to exist only to show that Calhoun is an anti-authority kind of guy (and to serve as under-mentioned manna to horror fans). Pleasence is the guy who keeps the movie alive anytime we’re above ground, since Alex and Patricia are a bit of a drag. (She won’t see THE FRENCH CONNECTION because “it’s too violent.”)
Our recap has gone off the rails and neglected poor Manfred. Well, he’s indeed been abducted by carnivorous underground morons — one in particular. The monosyllabic killer, who is so hairy it’s hard to tell where the fur ends and the tattered clothing begins, is referred to as “The Man” in the credits and is the next-to-last of his kind. He’s keeping the female of the species alive — she’s ailing – in a horrific room full of dead and decaying bodies and body parts. Manfred is alive but catatonic from a blow to the head. In a series of disturbing scenes, The Man’s process becomes clear, including one still-graphic moment where he slices open Manfred’s neck so that the Woman can drink.
Eventually, Alex and Patricia get separated by hijinks involving closing subway doors, and The Man grabs Patricia and absconds with her to his underground charnel house. Alex has to convince the cops to join up with him and head down there to find his girlfriend before she gets eaten up, or worse. The abduction and rescue scenes all the way to the climax are very PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, owing to the old Universal tradition while remaining very freewheeling and atmospheric in that uniquely 1970s way. The film ends on a weird, unique tag that I won’t ruin here.
RAW MEAT is a film that isn’t too well-known but seems to have had profound influence in key places. It’s one of the first killer-cannibal movies that I can name, kicking off a genre that has been lurking within the horror ranks ever since. The brief routine where The Man bites off a rat’s head predates all manners of rodent-biting incidents in heavy metal history. Members of the crew went on to big things as well:
Make-up artist Peter Frampton went on to record the talk-box-guitar heavy album Frampton Comes Alive!…
And of course we all know about Propmaster Tony Teiger:
However, the work of director Gary Sherman would seem to deserve reconsideration. RAW MEAT is a rough, imperfect movie, but a powerful and still-effective horror debut. I’m not sure why it took him over a decade to get to his next movie, 1981’s DEAD & BURIED, or why that movie didn’t lead to a bigger career (I’m reading that the unfortunate experience of POLTERGEIST III may have been a factor), but between those two movies alone, he surely deserves more credit in the books of cult horror. (His 1982 action film VICE SQUAD has plenty of fans as well.)
One last intriguing fact: RAW MEAT was co-produced by Paul Maslansky, who has since produced every fucking single POLICE ACADEMY movie to date. You tell me what’s scarier.
Go spelunking with me on Twitter: JON ZILLA.
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