Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is one of those movies I’d always heard about, but had never seen until about a year and a half ago. Over the years, Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s first flick has developed a cult following, who consider it a minor classic that lurks in the shadows of Dawn of the Dead and Zombie. I’d heard so much about this flick that once I joined Netflix, it was one of the first zombie flicks I made sure to see. To my disappointment, Children did little to live up to what that cult had made it out to be.

The movie starts off in promising fashion. A caretaker is strolling along through a graveyard one night when two zombies attack. The lighting, editing and filming all establish a chilling tone. But as soon as the credits end, any creepy mood all but falls apart. Enter Uncle Alan, essayed by co-writer Alan Ormsby himself, with a crew of local theatre actors. Uncle Alan is putting together a production, and has brought his troupe to an island off the coast of Florida, in order to dig up a dead body. This gives the film its cool tagline, "You’re invited to Orville’s coming out party." It also leads to much bickering between Alan and his troupe, and way too much talking. In fact, all the characters do in the first hour of this film is talk. And talk. And talk more. And follow that with talk. There’s so much talking, the film should really should be titled Bad Amateur Actors Shouldn’t Talk an Audience to Death. That most of the chattering breaks down to Alan and the group bitching back and forth doesn’t help the matter. There’s little to like in any of these characters, especially Alan, who takes his position as smalltime theatre director and transforms it into tyrant lord; that these people have subjected themselves to him for a measly sum makes them no better than him. Nor does it do the movie any favors that most of the bitching takes place in the static location of the graveyard. Film is a dynamic venue, but such heavy dialogue in one place precludes any motion in the plot.

And then there’s the matter of Alan Ormsby’s performance. His overacting is so severe, it’s only to be outdone by his flamboyant shirt. He overemotes so much, it’s a performance that one must see to believe. Because his is the central performance of the film, his lack of any restraint hijacks the story with histrionics. As for his character, though it’s never outright stated, Uncle Alan is definitely gay. His flamboyant mannerisms and position in the theatre suggest he’s not straight. His choice of clothing, including the aforementioned shirt and his neck scarf, scream gay. And any argument of his heterosexuality goes right out the graveyard entrance with his mock marriage to Orville, the corpse the troupe digs up. Aside from the fact that what it implies is creepy, the wedding makes him perhaps the only homosexual necrophile of record on film.

He’s not the only one overacting, though. Anya Ormsby, Alan’s wife of the time, bulges her eyes out, as she runs around in a weird trance. As Jeff, Jeff Gillen is overly clownish, especially when he informs everyone, "I peed my pants" nearly a dozen times. As Val, Valerie Mamches acts as a counterbalance to Alan, but she’s just as mean and overbearing as he is. As silly as it seems, the only actor who escapes with any dignity is Seth Sklarey as Orville Dunworth, the corpse. The very fact that he keeps a straight face while these fools carry out great sins of dialogue is a testament to his acting ability. And there’s definitely something genuinely creepy in his appearance. None of this really matters, though, because having Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep as the leads would never have saved this film.

By the time the zombies rise just past the hour mark, they’ve come too late to make the movie worthwhile. The film then turns into another Night of the Living Dead siege film, as so many zombie flicks do. If one has invested this much time in Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, it makes sense to sit through the end, so one can see Uncle Alan meet his some. All who do will see the highlight of the film, as Alan does something so scummy and self-serving, even the zombies look shocked.

I certainly don’t understand why Children has such a cult following, but because it does, I was scratching my head at the severe lack of extras. The trailer, which actually says it’s Smedley’s coming out party, and shows an altogether different corpse, is the only real bonus on the disc. It’s been rumored for years that Children will someday get a special edition, but that day has yet to come. I may not like the flick, but the cult of fans that do deserve better than this.

Before Bob Clark’s tragic death a little over a year ago, he was in talks to remake Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. Even though I despise the "reboot" craze in today’s horror genre, I would have liked to see what he would’ve done differently. As it stands, I’m left only with the original. That film certainly has its fans, but it’s far too talky for me to join the cult.

NOTE: Usually, I finish a review with a closing paragraph, and leave it be. But I cannot deny the irony that Bob Clark’s killer was sentenced to six years in jail, one year to the day before I wrote this review. Perhaps there is some justice left in this world, and we don’t need zombies to overturn the social order after all.

–Phil Fasso

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