You guys know how robbing graves and desecrating corpses are the most fun things you can do? And you know how hysterical it is to perform satanic rituals to try to raise the dead? And you know how spending time with prissy theatre snobs is incredibly enjoyable? Well, brace yourself for a rough landing, cuz it turns out none of that stuff is true. I know, calm down; I’m as surprised as you, but we can all learn our lesson by watching the 1973 film, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, a movie that takes its time annoying us before finally unleashing hell. And, boy howdy, does it ever unleash hell!
The film was directed by Bob Clark (credited for some reason under his formal name “Benjamin Clark”), who later went on to direct Black Christmas, A Christmas Story, Porky’s, and the cinematic masterpiece that is Baby Geniuses, before dying in 2007 in a tragic motor accident. It’s the story of five actors in a theatre troupe who follow their leader Alan (Alan Ormsby, who also collaborated on the script and did the makeup effects) to a small island, on which is a big ol’ cemetery and some kind of cabin. This has “brilliant idea” written all over it. It’s Alan’s plan to exhume a body and perform some sort of black magic upon it to make it return to life, for no other purpose besides shitting and grinning. The incantation doesn’t work, and they take the dead guy, named “Orville”, back to the cabin and dress him up like a bride and proceed to do a fake wedding between the corpse and Alan, to the complete disgust of some of the members of the group. Just as the kids have finally had enough of Alan and are prepared to leave him there on the island, the entirety of the graveyard inhabitants rise from their resting places and descend on the cabin, all gnawing and gnashing-like.
This is an incredibly strange movie. On the DVD box, Leonard Maltin is quoted as calling it “Weird.” I concur, Mr. Maltin. It does a decent job of maintaining an unsettling atmosphere and macabre tone throughout, but for the bulk of it, it’s just people talking — arguing is a more appropriate term for it. The script is, I guess, supposed to be funny, with the people playing a series of jokes on each other, but ultimately it’s just an ever-escalating pissing contest in which Alan tries to exert his authority and the others try to not get demoralized. This very easily could have been a play, as verbose and actionless as much of it is. I have a strong suspicion the makers of The Blair Witch Project used this film as a jumping-off point, as both films make extensive use of characters yelling at each other in the woods.
The pre-credit sequence features a scare, and for the next half hour or so, there’s the tension of what this scare might mean, at which point there is another scare that is quickly revealed to be a planned joke by Alan and some broad homosexual stereotypes wearing monster makeup. Now, we’re about 40 minutes into the 87 minute film, and there has yet to be anything truly scary, despite the grotesqueness of digging up a long-dead body. It’s not until minute 62 that the zombies begin to rise, and then it’s a 25 minute, balls-out terror show until the end. There isn’t much in the way of gore, but the number of undead, and their quite effective makeup, compounds the horror. Being a very low budget film, it’s shot in a kind of snuff-film manner, not unlike the following year’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The end sequence often looks like we’re watching news footage of people getting attacked by ghouls. Is that on CNN? No, of course it isn’t. The media’s trying to hide the truth from us!!!
Alan may well be the most irritating, hate-inspiring lead character in film history. First of all, he’s a pompous windbag; he’s the head of a theatre troupe, so we’ll take that as read. One of the first things we see him do is proposition the new girl, Terry, for sex, right in front of her boyfriend, Paul. He says that since he’s the leader, he ought to get first crack at her. Charming. Then, every single time someone questions his increasingly insane and disturbing actions, he threatens to fire them. This is known as extortion, by the way. He’s always waxing philosophical about something or other, usually to do with the devil, and berates his followers about once a minute. When the zombies start a-coming, he actually tosses Anya, the only other survivor, to the horde to get away. He’s just such an unbelievable knob from beginning to end that the entire time you’re wishing SOMEONE would just punch him in the face. Or tear his throat out.
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is wall to wall strangeness, with one of the bleakest, out-of-nowhere third acts in horror. It’s hard not to wonder what exactly Clark and company were going for, or whether or not they succeeded. They certainly managed to make a memorable film full of atmosphere, although also full of incessant dialogue. It also succeeds in having one of the duh-est titles I’ve ever heard (obviously! Dead things and kids do not mix) and a lead character you want to smack with bits of wood. If you’re a zombie movie fan, or a fan of weird, ’70s mishegas, this is definitely worth a watch.