Director Bob Clark had a pretty varied film-making career. His filmography spans everything from B-horror movies to more serious, dramatic fare (Tribute). Arguably, horror fans know Clark best for the classic Black Christmas. But he’s also the director responsible for the beloved Christmas classic, A Christmas Story. In addition, Clark popularized the teen sex comedy with raunchy 80’s cult class, Porky’s. We’ll ignore the fact that he also directed Baby Geniuses … and SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2. While not as widely known, Clark’s early directorial effort, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, didn’t make much of an impact upon its release. But years of late-night television showings turned the low-budget zombie flick into a modest cult classic.
Alan, the narcissistic director of a theatre troupe, sails his cast to a small island. The uninhabited island was once used as a cemetery for deranged criminals. Now Alan uses the island and its graveyard to subject the company to his cruel whims. As a sick joke, Alan forces the cast to dig up the corpse of a man named Orville for a Satanic ritual. Though it was only intended as a prank, Alan’s incantation awakens all the corpses from the island’s cemetery. Trapped and surrounded, the troupe must find a way back to their boat and escape the island.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things Amicably Shuffles Along for its First Half
George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead clearly influenced Clark’s directorial debut. In all fairness, Romero’s classic invented the contemporary zombie movie. Though Clark’s movie takes a more roundabout approach, it still ends with survivors boarded up in a house surrounded by the ‘living dead’. Where Clark sets his movie apart is with its earlier comedic tone. Intentional and unintentional. But largely intentional.
Fortunately, Clark’s willingness to not allow his movie to take itself too seriously goes a long way.
In fact, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things spends much of its first 40 minutes or so playing for minor scares and laughs. Most of the laughs come courtesy of the troupe’s ridiculously self-absorbed director, Alan. Some patience is required of the movie. Fortunately, Clark’s willingness to not allow his movie to take itself too seriously goes a long way. With a few scares liberally spread out and an amicable low-budget tone, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things does just enough to keep you watching until the ‘living dead’ finally appear.
Clark Strikes a Fun ‘Midnight Movie’ Vibe
Where Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things carves out its cult status is with the same ‘Midnight Movie’ vibe Romero previously achieved. Ultra low-budget, grainy picture quality, and mostly amateur cast – Clark’s early feature is a grimy viewing experience. And it’s all the better for it. Though it takes its time introducing the ‘living dead’, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things achieves a weird creepiness. All the low-budget aesthetics just make the movie’s back half a little unsettling. Not necessarily scary, mind you. Just the fun late-night haunts you expect from the era. It’s a tonal shift from the movie’s first half, but that’s also part of its effectiveness. You don’t expect the movie to turn so serious.
Aside from John Landis’ video for Thriller and Return of the Living Dead, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things may have the best zombie graveyard scene ever. Regardless of the micro-budget, Clark shows flashes of the skill that would turn up in his later work. Some of the zombie make-up effects – which often consist of blue-tinted make-up – are spotty. But quite a few of the zombies look like rotting corpses with what looks like tattered masks or makeup. True, the gore effects from most of the deaths are minimal. Yet what Clark puts on the screen is appropriately gruesome, pushing the bar a little from Romero’s work. Moreover, the movie’s ending delivers an absolutely satisfying catharsis.
Amateur Cast Is All Part of the Midnight Movie Charm
None of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things’ actors are familiar. Most of the cast are probably amateur actors. Some of the actors may not even be actors. Not surprisingly then, you’ll find a couple of stiff performances. Alan Orsmby is a little maniacally over-the-top. The less said about the dialogue, the better. Fortunately, none of the performances are distracting – no one drags the movie down. In fact, the performances are all a part of the ‘Midnight Movie’ charm.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things a Zombie Cult Classic
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is low-budget 1970’s horror that probably has limited appeal. Critics weren’t impressed with Clark’s early directorial effect. But fans of horror schlock and/or vintage ‘Midnight Movies’ will likely appreciate the genuinely eccentric zombie movie. Perhaps its final act shares too much in common with Night of the Living Dead. But Clark’s zombie mayhem works, even if it feels off-key from the movie’s first half. Besides, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things has a great horror movie title.