Horror Retrospective: Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972)
[Thanks for this one Derek ... this brings back some great memories for me as well as a young boy watching this one late at night on my trusty UHF channel 48!! - AnythingHorrorScott]
It is with belated sadness that I learned this week of the death of director/writer Bob Clark. Quite belated, in fact; he died in 2007, along with his 22-year old Ariel in a head-on crash. Bob had worked steadily in film since the late 60s, directing some fine work (BLACK CHRISTMAS, MURDER BY DECREE), successful work (PORKY’S, PORKY’S II), and, uh, BABY GENIUSES. As a matter of fact, when he died he was planning on a remake of one movie of his I remember more than any of the others: CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. I caught CHILDREN after midnight on WOR-TV in New York as a boy while my parents were out for the night; such was its effect on me that I spent the summer with a kitchen knife hidden under my bed. Bad enough when my mother caught me with those Playboys…
CHILDREN was one of Clark’s earliest movies, shot back to back with the Monkey’s Paw adaptation DEATHDREAM (aka DEAD OF NIGHT), as part of a two-picture deal, both shot in Florida and featuring several of the same cast members. In the DVD commentary for CHILDREN, writer/actor Alan Ormsby basically says they wanted to rip-off the recently-released NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. In fact, CHILDREN turns out to be one of the first movies to appear in the wake of Romero’s classic, and though it has since received negative critical reaction, it’s best to remember that we have been pretty much spoiled since DAWN OF THE DEAD and the literally hundreds of zombie movies which followed. CHILDREN deserves to be remembered more fondly.
We open on a fog-bound island graveyard, and a grizzled Caretaker straight out of a Scooby Doo mystery. He spots a cloaked, top-hatted character. Digging up a grave. At midnight. Rather than run away or call out, he approaches it, almost deserving the pummeling and uncertain fate he consequently receives. A second ghastly figure appears, and together they finish unearthing and removing a body from a coffin, before the second one takes its place and is buried (the sounds of the dirt hitting the coffin lid are unnerving to say the least).
We then spy a boat approaching with our cast of zombie food: obnoxious theatre director Alan (Alan Ormsby, who later worked on screenplays for such diverse projects as CAT PEOPLE, POPCORN and Disney’s MULAN(!)), and his troupe: flaky New Age hippy Anya (Anya Ormsby, Alan’s then-wife), Tony Danza-a-like Paul (Paul Cronin), his girlfriend Terry (Jane Daly, who still works steadily on TV today in shows like THE MENTALIST and COLD CASE), sardonic Jewish yenta Val (Valerie Mamches), and obnoxious fat guy Jeff (Jeff Gillen – yes, most used their real names). Very quickly Alan proves to be a creepy, loathsome, pretentious prick, as he insults and bullies the others into doing what he wants. Some have called him “over the top,” but having dabbled in theatrics in my day, I know there’s a few like him out there; I get the feeling that the others put up with him only because his family owns the theatre where they work. Of them all, only Val refuses to take any crap from him, and one suspects this is because the characters had been an item once (in fact, Valerie Mamches and Alan Ormsby had been involved in real life, and the history can be felt).
Alan leads them into the graveyard, offering exposition on the island: a former resort turned Potter’s Field, where the past caretakers have had a habit of killing themselves or their families (shades of Stephen King’s THE SHINING). And he assures them the island is uninhabited – but tell that to the top-hatted ghoul watching…
Once established in the boarded-up caretaker’s house (why was it boarded up, if there really is a caretaker there?), Alan reveals his master plan: within his “warlock’s war chest” there’s candles, a cloak, and a grimoire, with which he intends to raise the dead to do his bidding. Jeff and Paul dig up one grave – the grave where we saw the first ghoul get buried – and, like anyone woken up in the middle of a dirt nap, he’s not too pleased. The group panics, and the second ghoul appears, to attack Terry…
And Alan… bursts out laughing. The “ghouls” are Roy (Roy Engleman) and Emerson (Robert Philip), stereotyped gays who are more of Alan’s troupe, who arrived earlier to play this elaborate practical joke on the others (the body they removed was left beside the poor tied-up Caretaker). Alan must be truly influential, or the cast truly desperate for fame, if one of them is willing to let himself be buried alive for a joke, not to mention risk arrest for assault on the Caretaker and grave desecration. But it turns out Alan wants to give the whole resurrection thing a go after all, and with the real corpse they dug up, Orville (Seth Sklarey) he sets about performing the ceremony…
And Alan… fails, to the ridicule of Val and the others. But wanting to regain the upper hand, Alan has the others bring Orville back to the cottage for a few Weekend at Bernie’s hi-jinks, including Alan “marrying” Orville (I’m all for mixed marriages, but Douchebag/Corpse is going too far), humiliating Terry and the others, and emotionally abusing the fragile Anya. Anya, who was already crazier than an outhouse rat, breaks down at the disrespect shown the dead. But the pompous Alan’s personal philosophy (“The dead are losers. If anyone doesn’t deserve respect, it’s the dead.”) ensures that Anya is pushed over the edge, and Alan is ready to take things further with his new “bride”, if you know what I mean, and I think you do (all together now: Eeeuwww…)
Fortunately we cut back to the graveyard, where Roy and Emerson have been left to clean things up. Why? You’re about to find out, as Alan’s spell turns out to have needed more time to work (either that, or the threat of Alan’s imminent necrophilia was enough for even Satan to get his ass in gear). Now, until now, we’ve had a couple of shocks and some spookiness, but otherwise we’ve been criminally short on zombies for a zombie film. That changes here, as we are treated to a full-blown nightmare of the dead rising from their graves, accompanied by insane music, lighting and camera angles. They make short work of Roy and Emerson (and the Caretaker, which to my 12-year-old sensibilities seemed the height of unfairness) and head towards our, err, heroes, to prove right the advice given in the title…
Okay, looking back at this with adult eyes, it’s a far from perfect movie. There are long slow stretches of weak jokes and eye rolling, there’s no nudity or sex, though there’s plenty of nipple action (and one of the zombies grabs Terry by her boobs, something else my 12-year-old self couldn’t fail to notice). The gore is non-existent, and the blood seen is after the fact. (While looking for pictures for this article, I was amazed to see it had originally been rated PG!)
But you know what, kids? This was the way movies were back then. Shot for a mere $70,000, it looked good, had atmosphere, the zombie makeup by Ormsby (reminiscent of the ghouls of CARNIVAL OF SOULS) was varied and remarkable (and better and more detailed than I’ve seen in some modern efforts), the electronic soundtrack is unusual, and the genre was still fresh that the “rules” hadn’t been established yet (those the zombies kill don’t rise themselves, for instance).
And though it seems to polarize reviewers, I find myself agreeing with both sides. Yes, the movie is dreadful, the acting abysmal, the pace slow, the production spotty. It’s also fun. It’s available from numerous sources, including YouTube, but if you can, get the 35th Anniversary “Exhumed Edition” DVD, which features, among other goodies, commentary from Ormsby and several other cast members. This is a piece of genuine Grindhouse which deserves to be remembered.
Director: Bob Clark
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 3 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien