Bob Clark managed to direct two of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time in his career. What makes that even more amazing is that he directed them for two completely different audiences. The first being Black Christmas which came out in 1974 and starred Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussy and John Saxon. The story follows a group of girls being systematically slaughtered by a killer within their sorority house. Really gets you in the Christmas spirit, no? Well if that isn’t your thing (in which case why are you here?) then you have undoubtedly seen his other classic A Christmas Story in which the most horrific elements come from boyhood pranks and the overshadowing fear of permanent eye dislocation.
So Clark has had an eventful career to say the least and when I picked up Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things I was sure I would enjoy it. I wasn’t wrong, actually I low balled my expectations and I fucking loved it!
I’ll be the first to jump on the “zombies are old news” bandwagon but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them from time to time.Children, though a zombie movie, strangely follows the slasher movie formula. We have a group of young actors visiting a cemetery to entertain their tyrant of a director Alan, who is quite possibly the vilest of characters in movie history. He treats his troupe like dirt, even referring to one of them as “meat”. We have other formulaic characters as well such as the love struck couple, the funny fat guy, the bitchy girl, etc. However, though these characters all fall into some sort of typecast some still manage to be legitimately likable and funny except Alan who keeps insisting these people put up with his shenanigans lest they find themselves unemployed. Why they don’t just seek employment elsewhere I will never know. I guess times were tough in Miami for actors in 1973.
Now according to IMDB this is a horror/comedy which was basically unheard of back then. Sure, we laugh at a lot of horror movies from the 70s and 80s for their camp and bad acting but most of them weren’t funny intentionally. Writer Alan Ormsby (who plays the horrid director Alan) really nails it on dark comedy here while also balancing the disturbing factor. I laughed but I never lost the creeping feeling of what was going on.
Basically, Alan has his acting troupe sail to a, unbeknownst to them, (spoiler!) faux cemetery island that he and some of his friends have built in addition to the actual cemetery already there. After trying to raise the dead, and failing, Alan gives up and leads the group to a cabin but not before he digs up a real corpse named Orville to bring along with them.
And here is where the movie really takes a hard left and descends into lunacy. Turns out the dead really are coming back to life and when they do it’s a sight to behold. I will go on record and say that these zombies are the scariest I have seen. Romero/Savini zombie are all well and good but these zombies really look dead and some have been dead for a long, long time. And these aren’t your modern “virus” zombies either these are the real deal bursting out of their graves kind (read: the best kind).
I’ll admit the first part of this flick does sort of drag. There isn’t really any clear plot going on, it’s just these people going to a cabin on an island with their terrible boss. Essentially the first half hour is the worst team building exercise I have ever seen. Once it gets going though it’s a force to be reckoned with and I’m willing to look past a few flaws.
For instance, it doesn’t seem the zombieism is contagious in any way. Many characters are scratched and bitten but none of them turn. So at the end when the zombies climb aboard Alan’s boat to go back to Miami- ala Lucio Fulci’s Zombie– there really doesn’t seem to be a threat of spreading the disease. But really, that’s less of a “flaw” and more of a breath of fresh air and in a way Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is sort of the precursor to The Evil Dead. The zombies or more like deadites in that they are brought back by a Necronomicon-esque Grimoire. I definitely can see a lot of imagery and ideas that were spawned from this criminally underrated movie. After all both The Evil Dead and Zombie came out well after Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.
TLDR- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is well worth your time if you haven’t gotten around to it yet. It has the perfect feel for this time of year and really should be held among the top zombie movies of all time. It even almost makes up for Alan Ormsby’s other horror venture 1982’s Cat People…almost.