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Gary Sherman Discusses Death Line

December 1972, a low budget British horror film opens in London. Shunning the comfortable supernatural Gothic of Hammer, Death Line goes for something primal, something far more visceral than the cosy Brit horror movies had gone before. Conjuring fear from the all too familiar Death Line’s monsters were not ethereal beings or the product of mad science, but the descendants of workers trapped in a tunnel cave in during the construction of London Underground and left to die at the end of the Victorian era. With a taste for human flesh their existence has been hushed up to avoid embarrassing the establishment, but when a senior civil servant goes missing a police Inspector (Donald Pleasence) gets too close to exposing their secret. 

Loathed by the popular press for its graphic violence and general gruesomeness, Death Line has since been recognised as a horror cinema classic, a film that changed the genre’s trajectory and directly influenced further generations of filmmakers including Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright. The film’s director was a young American with a background in advertising by the name of Gary Sherman. Sherman would surprisingly only direct a handful of films during his career including the highly regarded black magic/zombie horror Dead and Buried (1981) and cop drama Vice Squad (1982). Having recently lectured about the film at London’s Horse Hospital, a venue just around the corner from the scene of Death Line’s opening atrocity at Russell Square Tube Station I caught up[ with Gary to chat about his career. He had quite some story to tell, starting with the Chess record label and legendary rock ‘n’ roller Bo Diddley.

“Growing up in Chicago, music was always a big part of my life from being a little kid. I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn’t sure of my media. So from when I was eight years old, on Saturdays I went to art school, then on to music lessons and that was my growing up drawing, painting, playing and singing.’ Gary said ‘Then when I went to college at The Institute of Design (at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago) I needed to earn money to pay for school. I had a band and we were approached to make a record at the Chess studios. So we went in to make our record and they had Ron Malo who had been the Chess engineer for all the time as our engineer. 

When we finished, Ronnie came up to me and said “You read music don’t you, what’s your range?” I told him five octaves’, Esmond Edwards the A & R man and Billy Davis Jnr, who wrote Money for Barrett Strong were there too. And I was really into black music and I love gospal music completely from an atheistic point of view and I love blues and jazz and R & B.

So they handed me this music and I sang it and they said “Boy you sound pretty black for a white boy, would you be interested in doing any session stuff?” It paid $45 dollars an hour, which was a fortune back then, When my group played record hops we’d be lucky if we walked away with fifty bucks a piece, but this way I could go in and make $45 an hour, just blocks away from my home. It was mostly black groups I sang with, but everybody wanted to record at Chess including The Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. I actually sang on Shapes of Things “Come tomorrow” that’s me. 

You can hear me in all of my films too. I’m a background player. In Death Line I voiced the guy who directs Norman Rossington up the stairs to Alex Campbell’s rooms. In Vice Squad I’m one of the voices on the police radio and in Dead and Buried, every time you hear a zombie say ‘Welcome to Potter’s Bluff’ that’s my voice.”

Getting back to how he got started as a filmmaker Gary continued: “So I’m studying photography as my major under Aaron Siskind, the father of modern photography and I found a World War Two Arriflex movie camera in a school closet. I got it running and I ask Aaron if I can shoot an assignment about work on film and he says “Yeah”. 

So I’m booked on a session with Bo Diddley, we’d worked together before and he was just the nicest man in the world. I go in with Bo and I was shooting the footage with a blanket wrapped around the Arriflex to keep the noise down and Marshall Chess (the son of label founder Leonard Chess), comes in and cries “Sherman what the fuck are you doing?” and I say “this is just for school” and he replies “I wanna see what you are doing.” Two days later I’m carrying a 16mm projector under my arm, I go to Marshal’s office and throw the image on a wall. He says “Wow, this stuff is great ” and goes to get his dad and his uncle (label co-founder Phil Chess) and a whole bunch of other people. I run it again and everybody says “wow yeah let’s make a movie” and I say “I don’t know how to make a movie.”  

Marshall says “I’ll hire everybody you just do what you are doing”. So I just wrote, shot directed everything and he hired sound crew and production people to point me in the right direction. Then he hired a cutting room and someone to teach me how to use it. So I made The Legend of Bo Diddley (1966) and Marshall sold it to 75 television stations all around the world and put it into film festivals and it won a whole bunch of awards. Then other companies started coming to me and asking me to make films for them and this is way before anyone thought of music video.

I did a film on Sonny and Cher and one on the Seeds. I did Up in Her Room and The Thousand Shadows and my work got shown at the Aspen Design Conference. Then I started doing commercials and that’s what brought me to the UK, aside from getting arrested at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Conference. My mother is British, one of seven sisters so I have more family in London than any place on the planet and London was very welcoming.

Death Line came about with no planning whatsoever. I never plan anything except what I shoot. Initially I was with Hardy Shaffer Associates, a company owned by Robert Hardy who directed The Wicker Man and Peter and Tony Shaffer. I hooked up with Jonathan Demme who became my producer and I was doing commercials quite successfully and Jonathan said “you’re a good director you should do a movie” so Jonathan and I started writing scripts together and we sold a couple, but none of them actually got made. Then we met Ray Davies of the Kinks and Ray wanted to do a movie.

So we wrote this movie for Ray called Turned Over about this middle class kid who steals for a living. It was a very kind of anti-establishment thing and Ray loved it so we all got excited about it. Now I had become buddies with John Daly who was David Hemming’s partner in Hemdale and I brought it to him. John loved it, but then Ray pulled out because his brother says “You go make a movie and the groups done”. So John says ‘I’m not going to make the movie without Ray and it’s too political why don’t you go away and write a good horror movie?”

I thought. ‘fuck, I could write a horror movie and hide a political message in it and nobody would know except those who were smart enough to work it out.’ So I’d been riding the tube and had read about how they bored the tunnels. I thought about the disasters that happened because of the competition between companies to build it as cheaply as possible and the companies just didn’t care about the workers building it because we’re just fodder and it pissed me off. In the meantime I had also read about Sawney Bean (the infamous Scottish cave dwelling murderer) who started eating his victims and I thought that any underground cave-in survivors would do the same. I put that all together and I wrote the story for Death Line.

Then I got this huge deodorant campaign with Ceri Jones as producer and we went to the South Downs for three weeks to make these commercials with a budget about four times as large as the one I got for Death Line. While we were shooting Ceri read the story and loved it. Then we wrote Death Line‘s script together and gave it to Jonathan who says ‘”This is fucking great I love this” Now I’d promised to give it to Jon Daly, but Jonathan says “No Paul Maslansky is going to be in London because he’d just produced a movie for Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jnr. and they’d be much more fun to work with.” Daly had wanted to shoot a big production at Elstree with Rank Fox, but I wanted to do it on a shoestring over three weeks because I’m booked to make commercials for the next year and I’m making £1000 a day doing that. Maslansky reads the script, gives it to Laddie and Jay who also loved it and wanted to buy it, but Jonathan sells them the idea of me directing it. So I told them that Lewis More O’Ferrall (Assistant Director) and I had been looking at abandoned tube stations since before I’d even written the story because I wanted to see what these locations really looked like. I say that I can put a great crew together with Alex Thomson as director of Photography and shoot the whole thing in a couple of weeks and it’ll cost less than £100,000 to do it. They told me I was crazy, but they said yes and gave me a budget of £86,000, which was small even for those days (1972).

Then they asked me who I wanted to play Calhoun (the investigating detective) I mentioned Donald Pleasence and they said “Now we know you are out of your mind, Donald’s not going to do a movie like this”. At the time he was a major star and in Man in the Glass Booth on Broadway, but somebody had told me that Donald really wanted to do a comedy. So I thought “if we only send him the pages that Calhoun is in, maybe he would take it” Donald read it and wanted to meet this Gary Sherman guy, so I flew to New York and over dinner Donald said he’d do it. Once Donald said yes everybody else wanted to be it too. Norman Rossington’s agent called us and with Jack Woolgar, James Cossins, and Clive Swift we had every great character actor in London.

Then Paul was having dinner with Christopher Lee (Lee was making The Creeping Flesh at the time) and Christopher asks him what he is doing. When Paul says he’s making a film with a young director called Gary Sherman who had the audacity to ask Donald Pleasence to be in his first  movie. Christopher says “where’s my offer?”.  Paul laughed and replied “Christopher our budget is less than you’d get for an entire picture” because back then Lee was the highest paid actor in England. But Christopher says “Here’s the deal. You give me a one on one with Donald and I don’t have to wear fangs and I’ll do it for scale” (the basic union agreed day rate for a movie actor) Paul asks him if he is serious and Christopher replies “I am 100 per cent absolutely serious” so Paul calls me and tells me to write a scene! 

So Ceri and I took gave Stratton Villiers, the MI5 official trying to cover up the story of the abandoned workers and gave him a screen face to face with Calhoun. Christopher loved it, but as we had no money left to shoot the scene, we moved all the furniture out of Jay Kantner’s dining room and dressed it with expensive stuff that we borrowed. Then I realised that Christopher was six foot seven and Donald was only five foot six! That’s why I shot it all in singles, starting off with a tiny Christopher and a giant Donald, then the camera pulls out from Donald and closes in on Christopher until I get Christopher to sit down. That’s when you finally get to see them together in one shot. I was terrified working with Christopher and Donald, I’m like 24 or 25 and never made a movie before, but the two of them were so kind to me. 

My main reason for making Deathline was to poke a stick in the eye of English society and classism. I never really considered the genre, but I had always been connected to my own level of fear from when I was a kid, growing up in Chicago – murder capital of the world at the time. I remember I was about ten when three boys went missing and their nude mutilated bodies were found dumped in a ditch in a forest reserve near where I grew up. The Peterson Schuessler murders were committed in 1955, they were horrible and not solved for about 40 years With that kind of dread I was very in touch with my own kind of fear and I realised that what really scares people is what is common to them. Creating fear amongst a commonality, in places where you are used to being, rather than, say an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, Death Line is set in the middle of London. I rode the tube everyday and it wasn’t a scary place, it was just a place in a major city where you don’t expect this kind of thing to be going on. In Death Line there is not a single conventional weapon used, no guns, no knives, no axes. All the killing instruments were familiar objects, and that didn’t happen in Hammer horror movies at the time. The first time you see a killing in the movie it’s with just a jagged piece of metal that the man picks up from the ground and the next are with a shovel and a broomstick. I just wanted to make the killings in Death Line as believable as possible, so that anybody could identify with a victim.’ 

One of Deathline’s most noted features is an eight and a half minute tracking shot that guides the viewer through the cannibal’s underground lair taking in all his gruesome trophies. It’s a cinematic trip that has been emulated in many genre movies since in both technique and content. ‘A lot of people have stolen from Death Line, which is fine because I made it for the rest of the world I didn’t make it for me and I learnt a lot making it.’ Gary continued: ‘That infamous tracking shot – well it’s only brilliant because it works. I had written that shot in the original script and Jay and Laddie let me do it even though it took an entire day to shoot and you don’t normally shoot eight minutes in a day. I’ve always been a big Orson Welles fan. I love that opening shot in A Touch of Evil and there are some great dolly and crane shots in Citizen Kane. We didn’t have the budget for a crane or even for a dolly on Death Line so Alex Thompson along with Colin Corby the operator and David Cadwallader the dolly grip, and I did it with the camera on a four wheel pedestal. It didn’t have an up or down movement, so we rigged a mini jib and it’s Colin Corby’s genius as an operator that meant he was able to make the move as smooth as it was in the days before video assist. I was there right next to Colin with my head alongside his and we were shooting through a 50mm lens, so what he was seeing through the camera was what I was seeing with my eye. I knew exactly what we were getting and we were really fucking lucky that it worked. 

It took a day to set the shot. Jay and Laddie were very upset that I hadn’t shot an inch of film on a whole day in a film with a budget under £100,000, so I said “we’ll shoot it in the first hour tomorrow morning and I’ll make up everything else for the rest of the day” and they said “OK but we’re gonna daylight it” So as soon as the shot was done it was sent off to the lab and as soon as we wrapped we went to Cubby Broccoli’s  screening room at Audley Square. Laddie had invited lots of people including Roger Moore, who Laddie was doing something with at the time. We put up the take I thought was the best and the lights went down. Laddie says “I hope this is going to fucking work.” We ran the one shot uncut from  beginning to end, the lights came back on again and everybody looked to Laddie. “OK it works” he said and everybody started cheering. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

The people I have met who are serious fans of Death Line include Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright, Alice Lowe. Dario Argento and Martin Scorcese, although Marty’s favourite of my movies is Vice Squad. Edgar Wright told me Quentin Tarantino is a fan and is arranging for me to meet him.”

 However it was some time before Sherman got to make another movie: “When Death Line got sold to AIP in the USA, they recut it and named it Raw Meat. I thought ‘fuck it’, I had a very successful career making commercials, so I just kept shooting commercials. I didn’t get too emotionally involved with them, could do all kinds of fun things technically and it was great. I was making a lot of money and had a fun lifestyle. Then Laddie became president of Fox and Jay became president of First Artists and they kept saying “come on you gotta make another movie” but there was nothing I was that interested in doing. Then I moved back to the states around 1978 and Jay asked me to run the television wing of First Artists. I hadn’t done television, but I enjoyed it and it allowed me to do anything I wanted to do.’ 

As a producer and director Sherman has worked upon some of the most successful shows on US TV including, Missing Persons, Barefoot in Paradise and Poltergeist: the Legacy, but when the right material came along he was only too willing to be tempted back to the silver screen. ‘I’m at my house in Los Angeles one day, when there’s a knock at the door. This weird looking guy says “Hi. My name’s Ron Kuset and I wanna make a movie with you because I saw Death Line and I love it.” So I invited Ron in and he handed me this pile of scripts that he was working on and one of them was Dead and Buried. It became my second classic movie. 

Bob Raimi who was the president of Abco Embassy just loved Dead and Buried called me into his office and Bob had a big pile of scripts, which included Vice Squad. I thought it was awful, but it was a great idea so I walked into Bob’s office the following morning and told him I wanted to rewrite it and Bob said “you rewrite it and we’ll make it” Then I spent six weeks riding with the police and attending Police Academy classes, sat down with one of the original writers and rewrote it. Bob green lit it and I finally got to work with John Daly as one of the executive producers. Raimi was so protective of me he kept the producers away and allowed me to deliver a Gary Sherman picture and I’m very proud of this film 

After Vice Squad I just decided to take some time off and concentrate on my life, so I did a bunch of TV pilots and produced some TV series. Then Bob Raimi called me and said “Gary, you have to write me a script called Wanted Dead or Alive (1985), I don’t care what the script is, just make it good and you get to direct it, oh and you got three weeks to write it because we have already booked it into the theatres based just upon the title. So I got together with Brian Taggart and we wrote the script.  Then I finished Wanted and Jay Kanter calls me and says he wants me to do Poltergeist III (1988) and I said “OK, but I want to do it in Chicago and I want to do the effects in camera” and they said OK.

There’s no CGI in Poltergeist III and the anti CGI movement that’s happened amongst horror fans has given the movie a new life. It’s my least favourite of my movies, but I’m very proud of the effects and I have recently been doing this three-hour lecture on how the FX worked. It’s all about smoke and mirrors and that’s what the magic in the movies is all about. Edgar Wright just loves Poltergeist III, and he asked me to help him to figure out the mirror effects in Last Night in Soho, because Edgar doesn’t think CGI fools the audiences anymore and it’s much more amazing to do the effects practically, but I don’t think Edgar really needed me he’s a pretty clever guy.

Then during Poltergeist III Heather (O’Rourke who played Carol in the Poltergeist films) died suddenly and I hated that. We didn’t want to finish the movie, but MGM forced us to. Jay and Laddie had by then moved to Warners and set up the Ladd company, so I was stranded at MGM and I was given the choice of finishing it or watching somebody else finish it. Dick Berger of MGM thanked me for finishing the movie by saying I could make any movie I wanted. So I wrote Lisa (1990) for my daughter because she kept complaining that all of my movies were R rated and her mom wouldn’t let her see them. We went into pre-production with Frank Yablans and I ‘m blown away over working with such a legendary producer, but then MGM goes into bankruptcy. Frank and I put up the money and sell it to MGM as a negative pick up, but since they had no money to distribute the movie that’s when I said “Fuck it I’m done. I don’t wanna do this anymore I’m done. TV has been good to me. I’m going back to TV”. I have done some stuff that I’m really proud of on TV, I’m still producing documentaries and stuff, but I may be back, so watch out.’

Well let’s hope Gary sticks to that threat, but what does he think about his career and Death Line‘s legacy. It’s kind of funny how having done so few movies that three of them are now considered to be all time classics so I’m very lucky. Between Death Line, Dead and Buried and Vice Squad I had a pretty good run and then there are the other movies I made, OK I made Poltergeist III. It wasn’t like Death Line was that big a deal for me at the time, it was just three weeks out of my life. I had a career in commercials and made it for a giggle. Who knew that 50 years later we’d still be talking about it and that the BFI would number it amongst the ten most important British horror films of the 20th Century. I still can’t quite believe it’s listed as one of the ten most significant films made in Britain by an American director, putting me between Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kubrick. Death Line is the movie that just won’t die. I understand it has never not been on a screen somewhere since it was made, I mean it’s nearly 50 years old!’

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Simon Ball

Simon is a child of the 1960s, his marmie liked Alfred Hitchcock and he grew up on a diet of classic Dr Who, Hammer Horror, Heavy Metal, Goth and Spaghetti Westerns. He cut his journalistic teeth in 1976 interviewing the bass player from an unknown band called Motorhead, now what was his name? Since then he wasted several years in corporate PR, edited heritage products and got an MA in the History of Science before he fell off the truck and returned to the world he loves best. Simon is Editor in Chief of the Horror Hothouse website and a regular contributor to the Spooky Isles.

One comment

  1. I worked with Gary on this Poltergeist 3- great guy. I was on set nearly every shoot and the only regret I have is that I missed the shoot when he set a new parking garage on fire… well I don’t suppose he actually meant to. – Bruce’s Mime-Double 😎

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