When you think of the elements that make up a typical zombie horror movie, what comes to mind? Zombies, naturally, but what else? Maybe a cemetery where the dead rise from their graves? A group of diverse people, usually fairly young, trapped in an old house that they have to try to barricade? Probably some cheap makeup effects? Well, that’s what I usually think of. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things fits my image of a typical zombie movie perfectly, and even though it’s not the most well made zombie movie in existence, it has a charm that has made an indelible impression on me and makes me want to keep coming back to it year after year.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things was directed by Bob Clark, the same man who would later direct Porky’s and the Christmas classics A Christmas Story and Black Christmas. With a resume like that, one can imagine that there would be a fair amount of comedy in this movie. There is, but the horror, when the movie gets to it, is taken pretty seriously.
The story follows a group of young theater actors and their director, Alan, as they take a trip to a wooded island in the dark of night. Alan is not a nice person. He uses his power as director of the troupe to manipulate everyone into doing whatever he wants, repeatedly threatening to fire them if they refuse, and what Alan wants to do is decidedly reprehensible. His plan is to spend the night at an old abandoned house on the island and play around with satanic spells using a dug-up corpse at a nearby cemetery. His main goal seems to be to scare everyone and make them all feel as uncomfortable as possible, but when his spell to raise the dead doesn’t seem to work, he gets genuinely upset and forces the group to take the corpse of a man named Orville back to the house. Alan might have acted prematurely though, because his spell might not have been a dud after all.
Everyone in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is a comedian. Well, except for one girl, Anya, who is kind of spacey, but otherwise they are all very sarcastic and banter back and forth throughout the first two-thirds of the movie. Most of their jokes are kind of groan-worthy, but in a fun kind of way that makes the movie enjoyable as everything is being set into place. The sarcasm does kind of wear on your nerves after a while, but it works well in Alan’s case because we’re supposed to dislike him. While others might poke fun at him a little, Alan is quick to respond and his jokes are all very mean-spirited and get worse as the night moves along.
Even though there are a lot of jokes and there are some genuinely funny moments, I would be hesitant to say this movie is a full-blown comedy. The sets and atmosphere are sufficiently creepy, so when most of the characters are joking around it feels like they’re doing it more out of nervousness than anything else. It’s like when people laugh after a big scare when watching a horror movie. They’re not really willing to accept that they’re scared and are reacting the only way they know how, with humor. When you look at it this way, it makes perfect sense that everyone in the movie laughs even at the bad jokes, and it helps the audience accept them.
Later on in the movie the jokes happen less and less as everyone, except Alan, gets more scared and disgusted with what’s going on. There is a nice, slow progression from light-hearted to tense as Alan demands more and more of his actors and they begin to get fed up with his antics. It does take quite a while for the zombie action to start, but by the time the first rotten hand reaches up through the dirt, the audience should be very eager for it. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is surprisingly good at building tension. Also, the time spent building up to the later part of the movie helps define the characters so the audience should have a very good feel for how all of the them will react when their lives are in danger.
The movie was made with a low budget, so not all of the zombies look all that great, but they’re not terrible either. Some of the makeup work is better than others, but overall I like the look of the zombies. They’re the classic, slow moving, arms stretched out in front of them type of zombie with rotten faces and filthy clothes. Some look like they’re obviously wearing masks while others just have some pale makeup and blood, but it’s not really all that distracting.
Speaking of blood, there’s not a whole lot of it in the movie. There’s certainly some, especially when we see the aftermath of an attack, but the zombie attacks themselves often feel more claustrophobic than bloody and brutal. People tend to disappear into a horde rather than be ripped apart, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I think for me, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things reminds of why I like zombie movies so much. It came out in 1972, just four years after Night of the Living Dead, so I would say that Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is part of the reason why we tend to think of spooky graveyards and barricaded houses when we think of zombie movies. Sure, its story has a lot in common with Romero’s groundbreaking movie and some might see it as unoriginal, but I like to think of it as classic. There’s no reason to mess with a classic formula.
6 – Pretty Good
Personally, I love this movie, but I understand that others might not see the same charm in it. If you like low budget zombie movies, then you have no reason not to watch this. Others might not enjoy it as much, but I think the characters, especially Alan, will grab the attention of many movie watchers. He’s a great guy to hate.
RECOMMENDATION FOR FURTHER WATCHING
Dead of Night (1974)
Dead of Night (also known at Death Dream) was also directed by Bob Clark and written by Alan Ormsby (who played Alan and co-wrote the script for Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things). It’s about a young man who is shot and killed in Vietnam only to come back as a sort of vampiric zombie. There’s horror in it, but it’s also about how Andy’s family is affected by everything that is happening.
English Title: Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things
Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Alan Ormsby, Bob Clark
Featured Cast: Alan Ormsby, Valerie Mamches, Jeff Gillen, Anya Ormsby, Paul Cronin, Jane Daly, Seth Sklarey
Run Time: 87 minutes
Availability: Available on DVD