Tuesday 21 June 2011

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973)

It's almost impossible to overstate the influence of George Romero's 1968 landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Not only is it responsible for the ubiquity of the zombie in popular culture but it also provided inspiration to countless filmmakers as a high quality, low budget, hugely successful independent feature.  Of course some of the films which followed in its wake were dreadful, as there will always be those looking to make a quick buck, but there were also minor gems like this one.

CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS was directed and co-written by Bob Clark in 1973.  It stars co-author Alan Ormsby as Alan, an egocentric leader of a theatre company, who takes his actors to a remote graveyard as part of a prank to fool them into thinking he can raise the dead.  But when they actually manager to do just that all hell breaks loose.

What I like about it is that Clark has the confidence to hold back on the horror for ages, taking care to establish his characters and setting, building the atmosphere and slowly increasing the tension; I'm struggling to think of another horror film which keeps the actual horror in reserve for quite as long as this one.  But I say "actual horror" advisedly because there is horror of a different kind in this part of the film.  Alan is a monster: he takes pleasure in belittling and humiliating his actors, thinks nothing of abducting the graveyard janitor, and sees exhuming corpses as harmless fun.  The entire 'Orville' sequence which starts out as black comedy turns into something far darker, more unpleasant and downright perverse.  More than anything, this part of the film reminded me of Brian De Palma's early films, particularly HI MOM! (1970).

When it does come though, the horror is swift, brutal and unstoppable.  No holing up in a farmhouse for days here; the living can only manage to fight off the dead for about twenty minutes before they succumb.  It's worth mentioning the make-up effects which were done by multi-talented Alan Ormsby.  They're really good for the most part and even more impressive considering the numbers of zombies shown.  A lot of films and TV series skimp on the effects by having only showing a few monsters onscreen at any one time (DR WHO and ALIENS are two examples that spring to mind); however, this movie has loads, which makes the final onslaught all the more impressive.

That said, I can understand why people don't like CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS.  The build up is very slow and will turn a lot of people off.  Even if you make it through that section you might feel the payoff wasn't worth waiting for.  It's also very much of its time with garish clothes, ugly hairstyles and would-be groovy dialogue.

Bob Clark, who died in 2007, had a patchy career but did make some memorable films.  BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is a highly regarded early entry in the slasher subgenre, MURDER BY DECREE (1976) is a terrific Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper period thriller and most lads of my generation will have cause to thank him for PORKY'S (1982).  TURK 182! (1985) has its admirers too.  Alan Ormsby went on to have a wildly varied career in Hollywood mainly as a writer of films including MY BODYGUARD (1980), Paul Schrader's remake of CAT PEOPLE (1982) and the Tom Berenger schoolteacher / vigilante flick THE SUBSTITUTE (1996) but he also directed the Ed Gein biopic DERANGED (1974) and did the make-up effects for underwater Nazi zombie romp SHOCK WAVES (1977), a review of which will appear on this blog imminently.

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