Retro-View: Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

One of the best unsung cult zombie movies of the 1970’s also has one of the greatest genre titles ever: CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. Directed by Benjamin “Bob” Clark, who would have an unusual career arc, from this to PORKY’S (1982) to CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) to BABY GENUISES (1999) to his untimely death along with his son in 2007; and co-written by and starring Alan Ormsby, who eventually scribed the delightful MY BODYGUARD (1979), this was their first film and CSPWDT stands in a grave all its own. I’d heard about this movie all through my misspent monster youth, as its unforgettable title and wicked poster popped up in various genre magazines. The reviews tended to be critical, especially for Ormsby’s scene-chewing and the comedic tone that pervades the first half, but most reviews noted the efficacy of the sequence with the zombies rising from their graves. Michael Weldon aptly summed it up in a classic Psychotronic blurb: “When the dead rise, the scares begin.”

The unpredictable Bob Clark directed four unique 70’s horror films (with Ormsby co-writing), the other three being DEATHDREAM (1974) a moody Vietnam era version of “The Monkey’s Paw”; DERANGED (1974), the best Ed Gein-based thriller; and the influential slasher hit BLACK CHRISTMAS (1975), (here’s my review from Tarantino’s 1999 festival). Clark did have an ability to shift between humor and horror, with CSPWDT being the most broad. The plot is simple and improbable, as an egomaniacal theatre director brings his cast of slavish actors to a remote island just to perform a voodoo ceremony involving the local graveyard — and its inhabitants. The director, also named Alan, is one of the most obnoxious leads in any genre film — of course, he is intended to be an overbearing ass. And his striped pants are incredible. Imagine John Waters writing James Lipton as a 1972 stage swinger and you’ll adore Ormsby’s apt, enjoyable performance. The young cast accurately captures the jealous vanity of a theatrical troupe, replete with awkward bantering and nervous laughter.

The film takes its sweet time before kicking into Zombie Attack Mode, and this suspenseful build-up is what makes CSPWDT so memorable. You almost forget you’re watching a horror film except for the genuinely creepy electronic soundtrack by Carl Zittrer underscoring the action. The make-up on Orville (called “Smedley” in the trailer), the deceased, rotting ceremonial subject (also by renaissance man Ormsby) is quite effective. And once Alan’s voodoo benediction turns out to raise far too many of the dead, CSPWDT does becomes a scary, unrelenting horror film for the last 20 minutes.

As noted, the lengthy scene with the zombies crawling from the earth is still the best ever captured on film. Clark expertly conveys the unsettling atmosphere with a wonderful tracking shot of the undead rising from their graves. Harsh silhouettes frame them as they surround and grapple their victims. My favorite moment in CSPWDT is when Alan actually pushes back one of his actors into the zombie horde to save himself, and even the ghouls pause to note his cowardice. Rest assured that Alan gets his due in the final nerve-wracking moments of the film. The last chilling shot could almost be seen as a prologue to Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBI (1980) if one wanted to program a cool walking dead double-feature.

Although there’s little gore (rated PG!), there’s enough suspense and visceral shocks in CSPWDT to satisfy any genre fan. As it stands, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS is easily in my top five echelon of zombie films. The lo-fi enthusiasm of the cast and filmmakers gives it a special place in genre exploitation and I dare you to watch this 70’s gem alone late at night…or like Alan, you could invite a few friends over…

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5 Responses to “Retro-View: Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)”

  1. halmasonberg Says:

    I, also, have a real fondness for this film. Very funny, very scary.

  2. Mmm, I have to see this one. Terrific write-up.

  3. christian Says:

    Some people hate this, but they are wrong. It cost about 70 grand and was shot in two weeks — not bad!

  4. […] QT is a big fan of Clark and talks about his quadrant of memorable 70’s horror films, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS; DEATHDREAM and DERANGED (which is a pretty amazing genre run before Clark unleashed the dismal […]

  5. […] QT is a big fan of Clark and talks about his quadrant of memorable 70′s horror films, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS; DEATHDREAM and DERANGED (which is a pretty amazing genre run before Clark unleashed the dismal […]

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