Good life advice, but perhaps the scope of said advice should be broadened to adults too.
This review contains spoilers.
The zombie subgenre was forever changed by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). It altered what the common perception of zombies was, so much so that flesh eating is generally assumed to be typical behavior, despite it being a characteristic adopted only half a century ago. Four years After Night was released, another horror icon in Bob Clark would try his hand at this brand of zombie movie. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things was the result, a movie that lacks the timelessness of Night, but has a style that is all its own.
The plot follows a theatre troupe led by the egomaniacal Alan that enter a graveyard with the intent to raise the dead. He chooses the grave of a man named Orville Dunworth as the site of the ritual. As it turns out, the body in the casket is just another actor who was put there to scare the rest of the troupe. The actual Orville is dragged back over to bear witness to the occult happenings. Two séances later, however, the dead remain dead. Alan, unsatisfied, takes Orville back to the cottage where they’re staying. There, he jokingly marries the corpse and continues to verbally abuse the other actors when they object. Just as the troupe decides enough is enough, the dead rise, and Alan and the troupe quickly find themselves trapped in the cottage.
What I’ve described sounds like the first half of an ordinary movie. The second half would hypothetically play out like Night of the Living Dead, with zombie encounters sprinkled in with human conflict. Children is not that way. The first hour is almost exclusively devoted to the finely-dressed bunch of actors, and the zombies aren’t active until the final twenty-five minutes. With such an insufferable character as Alan owning the spotlight during that first hour, the movie’s focus should be the killing blow. But it isn’t, at least not to me. The foggy graveyard setting paired with the atonal electronic moaning created by Carl Zittrer provide a chilling backdrop for the séances and stories of murder told by Alan. The music is subdued and rarely rises to anything as grandiose as a theme or melody. It lingers in the air like an evil spirit, before finally rising into monstrous roars and piercing stings when the zombies awake. The atmosphere generated is important, because it makes dealing with Alan a little easier.
You see, Alan (played by co-writer and makeup effects Alan Ormsby) is a pretentious tyrant who loves the sound of his own voice. He subjects his underlings to cruel jokes and threatens their employment the second they question his authority. To his credit, Alan plays Alan well. He’s downright unlikable, and his theatrics are believably over-the-top. The rest of the troupe is colorful too, or at least their wardrobe is. Anya (played by Alan Ormsby’s sister Anya—real original character names, Bob) wanders about wide-eyed, and is accurately described by another character as likely to float away at any moment. She’s in her own little world and is also the first to sense that they’ve done something horribly wrong. Val (played by an actress named Valerie) is the only character who can seemingly stand up to Alan’s behavior and not be berated. There’s no stated reason for this, but it’s fun to watch Alan smolder when Val knocks him down a peg. Jeff (Jeff Gillen) is the comic relief character, and he does a pretty decent job of it when he isn’t repeating the same line over and over about peeing in his pants. There are some other supporting characters, such as the stereotypically gay actors Roy (Roy Engleman) and Emerson (Robert Philip—wait, why do characters get different names now?!) as well as Paul and Terry, but they’re not as memorable or important to the plot. The last character of note is Orville Dunworth, the corpse and zombie subjected to Alan’s will. Seth Sklarey plays the part remarkably well. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have assumed he was actually a corpse that was resurrected by Bob Clark and Co. for this movie. That may explain why this is Sklarey’s only film role.
Being stuck with this collection of characters makes for a slow hour, but the atmosphere and writing do make up for it. The script, penned by Clark and Ormsby, has some witty exchanges every once in a while, as well as creepy lines about the dead and the supernatural. Characters are well-defined by their dialogue too, especially Alan, who, as I said before, loves to talk. The plot is simple and straightforward, though it leaves the supernatural elements of the plot somewhat ambiguous. The reason the zombies rise is implied to be because of Alan’s séance. Val blames it all on him as the zombies surround the house, and the counter-spell he reads also suggests that it was his ritual behind it all. It seemingly repels the zombies, but it doesn’t work completely because Orville’s body is not returned to its grave. Then again, that may not have worked either. After Alan finished his incantation, Val tried her own in much more dramatic fashion. Perhaps that was what caused the zombies to awaken. Or, there’s always the possibility that there is some unexplained phenomenon that no one is aware of. It’s highly speculative, but that bit of ambiguity in the plot makes what happens slightly more interesting than if it could all be explained away.
The third act is what makes the rest of Children worth sitting through. If Clark had mishandled it, the movie would be a total flop. It isn’t. The ending is nightmarish. The cottage can barely keep the zombies out even when it is fortified. Alan, normally haughty, is reduced to a quiet survivalist. He does nothing to redeem himself, and in a desperate attempt to stay alive, he shoves Anya to the zombies, who all look up at him like they’re surprised. Anya looks horrified as she’s quietly floated back down the steps and out of sight. It’s a great moment, followed by another in which Alan comes face-to-face with his monster—Orville. Orville’s design is simple but awesome. Alan Ormsby was responsible for the makeup work here, and it is great. He doesn’t skimp out on the other zombie’s makeup either. Some are more decayed than others, but nearly every one of them is creepy. Clark does a good job making the zombies feel like a threat. They’re not ones you can just run by. They’re slow, but they’re strong, and some of them are even agile. It makes scenes where the characters are trying to escape tenser because the zombies feel like they pose an actual threat, unlike in, say, some Italian zombie movies that’d come out later in the decade.
Writer/director Bob Clark would go on to do more successful and critically acclaimed films, like the iconic slasher film Black Christmas (1974) and the cult-film-turned-classic A Christmas Story (1983). Given that there’s a throwaway reference to Christmas in Children as well, I’d say he had a thing for the happiest time of the year. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things isn’t his best film, but it is an experience all its own, standing out in the saturated subgenre of zombie films thanks to its atmosphere, dated fashion, and chilling ending. I like to consider Children a prequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). The zombies that set sail at the end of the movie went on to create the zombie outbreak in Night. All that death and suffering because some hippie theater director wanted to see if he could raise the dead. Thanks a lot, Alan.