Sunday, June 12, 2011

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1973)

Everybody remembers those first few movies that ever really got under your skin.  At first it was vampires that scared me, and other Universal monsters, but then along came zombies.  "Night of the Living Dead" particularly, which properly warped my eight-year-old brain when they broadcast it on television to celebrate the upcoming theatrical premiere of "Dawn of the Dead".  Everything about that movie was different, although I was too young to realize it at the time.  Previously monsters stalked castles and deserted moors, but in that movie, the most realistic monsters ever--dead people--invaded the real world.  The protagonists even watched breaking news about the zombie crisis on TELEVISION, no less!  "NOTLD" was a game-changer, but not too long afterwards there was "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things", a morbid little piece I caught when it made the rounds on late night television.  The two movies are very similar, both featuring a small group of people who are isolated by flesh-eating zombies and beseiged while they try to barricade themselves inside of a house.  But aside from that--oh, and I don't know, the fact that there's a freaked out girl who spouts gibberish, total infighting among the survivors, a failed escape attempt that results in cannibalism, and a nihilistic ending that finds everybody dead--they're two TOTALLY different movies.
Gather round, children, and I will tell you why you shouldn't play with dead things.  OK, so imagine it's 1972.  You're really worried about the unemployment rate, there's this thing about Vietnam that's been bummin you out, and you're an actor working for this stupid dandyman who wears striped trousers and spouts pseudo-Shakespearean gibberish in an attempt to constantly belittle you.  He's got you and a bunch of other fellow actors--apparently you all work for his small theater troupe--and he takes you to this small island off the mainland of what looks like Florida.  The island holds a decrepit graveyard, apparently there were a lot of unpleasant people buried there, like rapists, murderers, and members of the official Rebecca Black fan club.
Stop smiling.  You're about to be eaten alive by rotting corpses.
OK, so like, he takes you into this graveyard and tells you you're going to perform a Satanic necromantic ritual to raise the dead.  He makes you dig up a grave so you can use a body for the ritual, but his ritual doesn't work.  A snarky actress has her hand at it, and she does well enough to get a few thunderclaps, but even she can't make the dead rise.  So you all go back to the island cottage to party, and you take the corpse with you.  You continue to mock and defile the body, until finally the ritual seems to have worked: corpses start climbing out of their graves and converge on the cottage.  What do you do?

Well, you fight with each other and become zombie chow, that's what you do.  This is a movie from the early 70s, after all.  In case you didn't know, it was directed by Bob Clark, director of "Black Christmas", "Porky's", and yes, "A Christmas Story".  "Children", however, is a low budget freak out of the highest order.  It doesn't have the apocalyptic implications of "Night of the Living Dead", but it does add a few new features to Romero's blueprint, including a ghoulish color scheme that perfectly captures the look of EC horror comics.  It's also one of the earliest post-NOTLD zombie movies I can think of.  Let's face it, any movie that shows zombies eating people is an imitation of NOTLD, but "Children" does it really well.  It's not quite as graphic--this movie actually is rated PG!--but that doesn't really matter much to me. 

But there's a nasty, cruel edge to the human characters as well.  The leader of the morbid gang, Alan, bullies the rest of the people the entire time, belittling them and constantly threatening to fire them if they don't go along with his ridiculous whims. Apparently these people think nothing of kidnapping the cemetery's caretaker and tying him to a tree outside in the dead of night.  They also don't mind digging up a corpse and desecrating it.  At one point, Alan climbs in bed with "Orville" (the corpse) and insinuates that he's going to have sex with the body.  Later, after the zombie attack happens, Alan hurls his wife Anya into a crowd of ghouls to save his own ass.  Something tells me Alan would have made a fabulous politician, if Orville hadn't bitten him to death.

When people bitch about "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things", it's usually because of the pacing.  Modern audiences will definitely have a hard time dealing with the movie's limited pace and action, as it takes quite a while to get cranking.  There's no real zombie action until the final third of the film, where big things start poppin' all over.  It goes from talky and spooky to relentless and vicious; when zombies invade the cottage at the film's conclusion, even one of the dead actors is attacked and (presumably) devoured.  The doomy aspects of the film really make this a favorite for me, with nobody getting out alive.  The final scene of the film shows the zombies, having now killed off all the interlopers, wandering onto the deserted boat, which drifts away from shore toward Miami, full of rotting corpses waiting to chow down on the living.  Perhaps this qualifies "Children" as an unofficial prequel to NOTLD!
Can you wait? I'm eating my lunch.
Clark uses a few camera tricks to fill in the blanks left by the lack of budget, including slow-motion during the more frightening moments. The lighting is undeniably creepy, as is the graveyard set. The scene where the zombies come out of their graves is one of the best of its type, with numerous zombies emerging all at once from holes in the ground. It's both cartoonish and nightmarish at the same time. There's a great scene where, during the resurrection of the ghouls, one of the human characters (who happens to be dressed as a ghoul himself) is confronted in a shadowy grove by a real zombie, and the way it's filmed is pure spooky movie nirvana. The cemetery's real caretaker, whom the nasty theater people have gagged & tied to a tree, finds himself surrounded by ghouls, and there's this great moment where one of them slowly notices him, turns, and starts lumbering at him followed by others. Bound and helpless, he's total zombie bait. The ghouls in "Children" have more in common with Lamberto Bava's "Demons", with garishly discolored faces and demonic features. One zombie girl in particular gives me nightmares every time I see her.

The soundtrack is full of bizarre synthesizer noises and riffs instead of proper scoring, and it helps set the film apart from others.  Although the synths are dated, actual scoring would have been even more dated (such as the library music in NOTLD).  The otherworldly noises go perfectly with the action, particularly the scene where the graveyard starts spitting out the ghouls.  The trilling synths add a claustrophobic element, with multiple sound effects and swirling audio patterns.  It's disorienting; it works especially well with the slow motion moments.  I think Bob and the crew must have been doing a little acid.  It WAS the 70s, after all!


Jay Shatzer said...

One of my favorite films of all time. The atmosphere is just amazing. Great review!

Terry said...

One of those movies that used to terrorize me as a kid when it came on late night tv in the seventies. Just got done watching it again and I'm surprised by how well the last third holds up. The whole graveyard sequence is ridiculous with the crazy synth noises and groans, the tied up caretaker, the lighting yeah, I'm pretty sure I know which one of the zombie women freaked you out. That blue makeup is awesomely scary. Sure, it's silly and dated T most points, but as Jay S pointed out: the sheer atmosphere of it is just amazing.

Anonymous said...

Im such a huge fan of this movie.. Jay hit the nail on the head the cheesy keyboard sound effects are the best and add a very creepy Dead atmosphere and eerie feeling to the entire film almost like you know these kids are doomed from the start.. I also love the Bad acting and the way it pin points 1972 with neck scarves and striped pants. The Zombies are done Fantastic and very believable looking. exspecially the one that Pops up after his lid is accidently stepped on.. ITS A SIGN FROM THE GODS :) This is An American Underground Classic.. Ive watched it a thousand times and could watch it another thousand and never tire of its 70's cheesy greatness.. Cheer's

Unknown said...

nothing beats the 1970's creepy synthesizer noises.

Lee Abernathy said...

In my top 10 movies ever made. Watched it in 1980 on late night TV [channel 9 from Los Angeles] when I was 10....completely freaked me out. This was shortly after I discovered Night of the Living Dead the same way [on channel 5 "Movies 'til Dawn"]. I couldn't believe there was another movie with the same kind of theme - only it had this dark morbid/perverted humor, and the dead were so aggressive and angry...WAY ahead of it's time. 10/10