Trivia Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark went on to collaborate on Porky's II
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Children Shouldn't Play with Dead things (1972)
23rd Aug 05
A group of badly dressed early 70s theatre actors go to graveyard on a deserted island, play a few jokes, exhume a corpse, and accidentally raise the dead.
When someone says ‘zombie’ most of us horror fans have an image which leaps in to our head instantly. Some of us see Dawn of the Dead and the just-dead Stephen coming out of that lift, or perhaps the high foreheaded guy getting the chop-top treatment by Stephen’s helicopter. Some of us see the maggot faced zombie on the cover of Fulci’s classic Zombie Flesh Eaters. Others will see the manic zombies of Evil Dead, Return of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later and the Dawn remake, whereas others will see any of those late 80s comedy zombie movies which were brightly lit and a little too glossy to really be that scary.
But what about if you were asked what ‘zombie’ meant to you 35 years ago? Without all that history to fall back on, I’m sure most of you would simply have to resort to the image of Bill Heinzman stumbling around that black and white graveyard. And if you’d have asked Alan Ormsby that very same question at the time before they started shooting Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, he’d have said exactly the same thing.
I am of course cheating though in that statement; I’ve watched the DVD with commentary on and for once a film maker admits the truth. “Well…” says Alan Ormsby very early on, “I’d taken a whole bunch of friends to see Night of the Living Dead and we’d decided we were just going to rip it off, only this time in colour!” And that’s pretty much all there is to Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things; it’s silly campy colourful very early 70s rehashing of Night of the Living Dead by the creative team that went on to make the Porky’s movies. No – really.
Let’s talk plot. Obnoxious theatre director Alan (character’s name Alan – real name Alan, like most principal characters in this movie, i.e. are all called by their real names, not that they’re all called Alan obviously) ferries his disgruntled troupe out to a secluded island to work on his new stage act. His gang are disgruntled because a) Alan’s as obnoxious as anything and b) they’re all forced to wear really stupid overly-colourful outfits and c) no one has bothered to explain why they couldn’t rehearse back at the theatre. Unfortunately they have no choice but to follow him as they’re all employed by Alan so what he says goes. Anyhow, they soon find a graveyard where Alan unpacks his box of ye olde magic tricks (including a neat purple velvet cape and big magic grimoire) and reads out an incantation to bring the dead to life over a corpse they’ve found called Orville. Nothing happens and everyone gets pissed off, so Val has a crack at raising the dead too. Again nothing happens, so Alan orders everyone to the deserted house they’ve just found and for them to bring the corpse Orville for Alan to marry. Yes – marry. I know – I’d never seen a movie involving undead gay marriages either.
So, while Alan’s upstairs at the house whispering sweet nothings into Orville’s decomposing ear, the rest of the cast argue amongst themselves. Things like how Alan’s gone too far this time, that they should get out of here, etc, etc. And they do this for ages and ages, nearly an hour in fact, before the zombies finally gather the strength to rise from the grave and lay siege to the house - Romero style. And, of course, this is where the whole movie gets immeasurably better and a good time is had by all.
Now, I wasn’t expecting a great deal from Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, since I was never a fan of early 70s cinema, campy comedies or that very slow pacing that I always associate with Hammer-type Horrors (you know, where nothing happens for the first hour, before an unexpected trickle of action drags you to the end kicking and screaming). This movie too suffers from all those ailments but for many reasons it’s surprisingly watchable, if for no other reason than for its importance in the Big Book of Zombie Movie History. Released in 1972 (and made the year before presumably) Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things has no points of reference other than Night of the Living Dead, and as such it’s charming to see a zombie movie so obviously and shamelessly derivative of Romero’s early work and yet untainted by the zombie clichés to clutter us throughout the 80s in particular. No Dawn of the Dead, No Zombie Flesh Eaters, and we were still two years away from the release of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, so to get Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things made at all was quite a spectacle. And it’s amazing what comes together – most of the actors had never acted in a movie before and Bob Clark had only ever directed two other movies, both officially ‘lost’ (look it up on imdb.com – one of them was called She-Man!) so anything could have happened.
And if you have time to listen to the commentary, you’ll find out that it often did. Beautiful Anya (the freaky girl wearing a curtain who at one points hugs a bunch of cans while dreaming of meeting a ghost) was Alan ‘Alan’ Ormsby’s wife at the time, whereas feisty and argumentative Val was Alan’s real life ex-girlfriend, meaning all the snapping and arguing between them would have been easy to act out. Similarly, Peter was his brother-in-law and most of the other actors were college buddies or the like, and nobody got paid very much at all. In fact, it all stinks of going-down-the-pan, which is ironic since, 33 years after its first release, I’m sat here at my computer writing about it.
The script is clunky, meaning a lot of the gags are quite groan-inducing and a lot of the speeches go on for too long, especially Alan’s and Val’s. The clothes don’t help either, they’re all quite hideous, scarier than all the zombies put together in fact, and the music ranges for the weirdo-noise chilling to the down-right fucked up and fruity (a bit like that bonkers sound score to Forbidden Planet, although cheaper). But, you know, I can’t help but like the fact that it’s 1972, we have zombies rising from the graves (those scenes are good too), we have a house siege, we have doors and windows being boarded up, we have a resemblance of an attempt to form an escape plan, and we have a guy in stripy trousers and a gold shirt getting into bed with a male corpse for no apparent reason. It may not be the best zombie movie ever made, but it’s certainly not the worst, and all true zombie fans should have this in their collection just to say they have this in their collection. You know what I mean.
And keep an eye out for when Alan throws his then wife at the zombies in order to help himself escape. Needless to say they’re not married any more.
Versions The Anchor Bay Disc reviewed here is the Region 2 widescreen release, which contains a 5.1 DTS track and a commentary by Alan Ormsby.
This commentary is the reason to buy the disc as Alan warms the speakers with his self-deprecating style of humour. It's been over 30 years since this flick was made, but Alan can still remember all the actors names and has a funny line in calling them out when the zombie attack happens. "That's Bob... And that's Anne, she was very attractive but of course you can't tell because of all that make-up..."
He also goes on to talk about which bits were reshot and when, and which bits he thinks are crap. He also recalls how the zombies refused to act in one scene because they were sick of only getting meatball sandwiches to eat, plus he also talks about how girls didn't wear bras in the 70s! Zomblee's right, it was the best decade.
The US disc has neither the improved soundtrack or the commentary.
8th Jun 04 The film opens with a very similar voiceover narration to the original (see Trivia) but with different footage as we tour the furnace room, all fingernail scratches and blood-clotted hair, of the Hewitt residence.
Top Ten Women in Modern Horror 12th Jul 05 And we even had to leave out Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Natasha Henstridge in Species, and Marilyn Chambers.