“Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”: 50 years of a zombie cult classic…

Rise and Dine.

The late George Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” reimagined zombies from their previous incarnation as mindless victims of voodoo magic into rotting, flesh-eating corpses, reanimated from death itself. Romero’s reinvention of zombies has become commonplace today (“The Walking Dead”, and countless other imitators), but it was still a shocking novelty in the late 1960s. Armies of animated corpses eating the terrified guts of suburbanites from the ‘safety’ of their homes was an apt metaphor for the social unrest and anxiety of the times (Vietnam War protests, the draft, struggles for Civil Rights, etc).

1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” launched the career of George Romero (1940-2017) and created the modern zombie genre.

A few years later, the then-recent conviction of Charles Manson and his murderous “Manson family” cult added yet another layer to that anxiety. That image of demonic death cults arguably led writer/director Bob Benjamin Clark (credited as “Benjamin” Clark), along with cowriter Alan Ormsby, to create a bizarre horror satire called “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things” (1972); a horror-comedy where a devil-worshiping theatrical troupe of young actors gets a nasty comeuppance when they tamper with the forces of darkness.

Bob Clark used this micro-budget horror flick as a stepping stone to legitimate filmmaking success, which he achieved long before his untimely death in 2007 at age 67. Clark created such diverse works as “Black Christmas” (1974)–the arguable inspiration for John Carpenter’s “Halloween”–as well as the teen sex comedy phenomenon “Porky’s” (1981), which spawned two sequels (!), before releasing his masterpiece, “A Christmas Story” (1983); a movie all but ignored upon release, only to become a holiday classic in the decades since its release. All of that more or less began with this little zom-com…

“Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.”

The movie opens with a terrified cemetery groundskeeper encountering a bloodthirsty corpse late one night, just before the title card and credits appear. Enjoy this moment, because it’ll be the last jump-scare this movie has for much of its running time.

Voyage of the Damned.
On a boat ride over to the cemetery, Alan (Ormsby) makes grotesque overtures to Terry (Jane Daly), as Paul (Cronin) watches.

Alan (Alan Ormsby) is the sadistic young director of a theatrical troupe who lords much personal power over the actors he’s employed. As the story opens, Alan has invited his troupe to join him on an island cemetery off of the Miami coast for a little bit of dark magic mischief. His actors, living with severe employment insecurity, agree to join him. On the late night boat ride to the island, we meet the company players. Jeffrey (Jeff Gillen) is a jovial jokester with hideous taste in clothing. Anya (Anya Ormsby) is a spacey hippie girl. Val (Valerie Mamches) is a cynical, long-suffering veteran of Alan’s antics. Paul (Paul Cronin) is a tough guy actor whose soft spot is his desperation for a steady paycheck. Terry (Jane Daly) is Paul’s girlfriend, and a new member to the troupe, who, in Alan’s view, needs to prove herself by allowing her lecherous boss “primal juncture” (yes, kids, sex). We learn most of this on the short boat ride to the cemetery.

Note: As you may have guessed, most of the actors in the movie use their real names for their characters, which gives the movie a ‘friends with a camera’ feel to it, at times. Alan and Anya Ormsby were married in real life during the production of the movie. Alan Ormsby is also the cowriter of the film, and his character is the kind of bitchy, flamboyant persona stereotypically imagined by non-theater people as a theatrical ‘type.’

Co-writer/lead actor Alan Ormsby creates one of the most insufferably obnoxious characters in horror cinema.

Arriving at the island, Alan tells his actors stories of former island caretakers who’ve killed their families, and how they might encounter a murderous hippie cult on the island, all in an attempt to get under their skin—little more than campfire ghost stories. With most of the company seeing through Alan’s theatrics, they walk through the dark cemetery towards the caretaker’s cabin…

Note: The movie’s cinematography, which looks like it was shot on 8mm or 16mm film stock, has the appearance of being photographed with car headlights. The color also looks particularly garish in the opening reels, for some reason. I cut some slack for this movie, of course, as it’s clearly a micro-budgeted shoot, but these grindhouse visuals might be jarring to younger viewers who are used to a certain slickness, even with amateur productions shot on iPhones or GoPros. It would be difficult to make a modern movie look this scuzzy, that’s for sure; it’s a testament to another era of moviemaking.

Val (Mamches) and Jeffrey (Gillen) watch as Alan gets into character for his impression of Mickey Mouse from “Fantasia.”

Arriving at the seemingly deserted cabin, Alan’s cruel and taunting mind-games with his actors continues, as the push-and-pull against their director’s control turns this late night getaway into one very unpleasant trip for all. The cabin’s kitchen is filled with rats—which the creepy Anya welcomes, of course. Alan then dons a blue wizard’s robe, and tells his actors that they are going to attempt a dark arts’ resurrection of the dead at exactly midnight (as you do). Humoring their egomaniacal director, the troupe goes along with it, of course…

Note: Just how much is Alan paying these people to be so slavishly subservient to him, anyway? The troupe tolerates an unusual amount of crap from this man, even for starving actors. Is Alan independently wealthy? Is his theater super-successful? The movie maddeningly avoids these questions, which would’ve supplied much needed motivation for the actors to put themselves through so much for their twisted director.

Terry, Val, Jeffrey, Anya (Ormsby), Paul and Alan unearth a new party favor.

Arriving at the grave, Alan instructs his right-hand man Jeffrey to dig up the shallow grave of a corpse named “Orville,” who only died the year before. Prompting Jeffrey to remove the corpse, Jeffrey has the life scared out of him when the corpse–dressed like Count Dracula–lunges for his neck! Jeffrey instinctively punches the corpse in the face, bloodying its nose. The “corpse” begins to throw an enraged hissy fit. This, as well as Alan’s insane laughter, makes Jeffrey and the troupe realize they’ve been had. The bloody-nosed corpse is ghoulishly attired troupe member Roy (Roy Engleman), who, along with his partner-in-crime Emerson (Robert Philip), arranged to be buried and dug up an hour or so beforehand. These two ‘zombies’ are the same undead creatures who terrorized the caretaker (Alecs Baird) in the pre-credits sequence. Jeffrey, still terrified from Roy’s practical joke, mindlessly repeats to no one in particular, “I peed my pants!”

Note: Roy (Roy Engleman) and Emerson (Robert Philip) are both played as painfully cliched gay stereotypes, complete with matching lisps and swishy demeanors. Yes, it’s embarrassing to watch today, but in 1972, it’s noteworthy that neither of these characters were mocked for their sexuality, and both are welcome members of Alan’s troupe. Having seen this movie around age 12 or so, it was probably the first time I remember seeing gay characters in a film where their sexuality wasn’t an issue, or otherwise significant to the story. In an imperfect way, that was progress.

Early to dead, early to rise.

As the actors cool down from the admittedly effective practical joke, Alan announces he’s serious about his intention to raise the dead. To that end, he produces an envelope of dried unborn infant’s blood (taken from a hospital safely, without infanticide), as well as a book of Satanic incantations, including a ritual for raising the dead. Alan then asks Paul and Jeffrey to retrieve the ‘real’ Orville’s corpse (whose grave Roy temporarily occupied). Orville’s body was placed out of sight near the constricted caretaker, who is largely forgotten. Paul is startled when a barely-buried corpse pops out of a nearby shallow grave. Alan takes it as a “sign” that the dead want to rise. Pragmatic Paul points out that it was merely a tree root forcing the long-dead corpse to the surface.

Note: The makeup effects, many of which were designed by actor/cowriter Ormsby himself, are colorful and grotesque; a generation above the minimalist work done for the (still superior) “Night of the Living Dead.” However, viewed today (even at DVD resolution), you can see the crude makeup seams. However, for the time, their shock value was considerable. This was also the first time I remember seeing zombies in color, too (Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” came out six years later, in 1978).

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, plan me no plans…”
Valerie Mamches does a curious mix of unholy incantation and “Fiddler on the Roof” audition.

Alan pours the dried infant’s blood, and then proceeds with the spell, passionately and fervently imploring Satan himself to raise the dead. The group holds their hands together in an inverted prayer. After Alan’s long-winded, melodramatic incantation … crickets and silence. The silence is then followed by a wisecrack from Jeffrey, “Maybe he was out to lunch.” Jeffrey’s quip breaks the tension, but enrages Alan, who lashes out at Satan himself, accusing the prince of darkness of being a two-bit fraud, cheat and con artist. Val, who is Alan’s equal in intensity, watches her ‘fearless leader’s’ colorful tantrum, and decides to show him how it’s really done. She steps into the grave, and begins a hilarious, Yiddish-flavored mockery of Alan’s invocation; laying bare the pretentiousness of his ‘beliefs.’ Needless to say, Jeffrey and Val’s mocking don’t help with their director’s foul mood.

Note: Valerie Mamches’ mocking of Alan’s Satanic rites is chockfull of Yiddish humor, and almost feels like her sideways audition for a part in “Fiddler on the Roof.” While many can argue (not without validity) that the first hour of this movie is terribly slow-paced, it does give each member of this admittedly obnoxious ensemble of characters a chance to shine. Each actor gets their moment in the spotlight. Bob Clark’s later works would better reflect his innate skill of bringing out the best performances from his actors.

Stereotypes R Us.
Roy (Engleman) and Emerson (Robert Philip) discuss the finer points of zombie makeup over grave-defiling.

Alan, Jeffrey and Paul carry the stiff pale corpse of Orville (Seth Sklarey) back to the cabin for what Alan promises will be the next phase of his blasphemous performance—a wedding between Orville and himself. Necrophilic nuptials that are bound to shake the very foundations of good taste, naturally. Leaving Roy and Emerson to refill the holes left behind from their grave defiling, the two pranksters immediately begin cattily one-upping each other about which of them had the better zombie makeup, of course. With the caretaker still gagged and bound to a tree, neither Roy or Emerson notice the ground beginning to tremble underfoot, or the faint movement in the hand of a nearby corpse…

Note: There are several insert shots of the bound/gagged caretaker (Alecs Baird) before the zombie rampage begins in earnest. We don’t see the character in relation to the other characters, which leads me to suspect that the caretaker character was possibly forgotten about during filming, and was hurriedly reinserted into the film to remind us exactly why he didn’t seek help from the authorities; after all, his gag wasn’t that tight, and as we see later in the zombie attack, he could’ve easily broken free of his bindings if he just put his back into it.

Groom of Doom.
Alan and Paul prepare “Orville” (Seth Sklarey) for his wedding night.

Meanwhile, back at the cabin, the blasphemy continues as Alan prepares for his wedding to the corpse Orville. With an eye-rolling Jeffrey performing the ceremony, some of the troupe have had their fill of Alan’s bulls#!t. Anya screams in psychic agony over Alan’s defiling of the “beautiful” corpse of Orville, with the tearful Anya pleading for Orville’s (and God’s) forgiveness, while Paul and Terry both threaten to quit the troupe over their boss’s vile and repulsive behavior. A mutiny begins, with the actors threatening to take the boat and leave for Miami.

Note: The late night melodramatics and acidic repartee of the characters reminded me of the drunken antics with the character quartet of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or of Mart Crowley’s birthday party ennead in “Boys in the Band.”

Alan and Orville listen to Terry’s tearful attempt to save her acting career.
Seriously, how much could Alan possibly be paying these people to routinely humiliate them like this?

Calling their bluffs, Alan threatens to cut them loose. Realizing they aren’t willing to sacrifice their status as working actors (a rare enough privilege), the company demurs, as Alan declares their little revolution dead. Twisting the knife, Alan now demands that Terry grovel and apologize to his insulted “bride,” Orville. Terry then shamelessly debases herself and sits next to the putrid corpse, tears streaming, as she begins a heartfelt performance to get her job back. After this humiliating episode, Alan then takes the corpse upstairs for their honeymoon. It’s during this emotional tumult that Anya begins to feel a heavy psychic disturbance, as she presses her perpetually wide-eyes to the nearest window…

Note: Kudos to Anya Ormsby, who is utterly believable in her role as the permanently ditzy, wide-eyed hippie girl “Anya”; her breakdown over the troupe’s blasphemy is so intense, it’s almost hard to watch. Anya Ormsby gives a fearless, memorable performance.

Alan’s obnoxiousness is enough to wake the dead.

In the graveyard, the ground opens. Reanimated corpses begin to force their way up through the dry leaves and dirt, their motions stiff and unnatural, their faces rotting and pale. The gagged caretaker witnesses the surreal event transpiring, but it powerless to act. As the collection of reawakened zombies begins to move, one of them turns toward the caretaker’s tree, and begins feasting on the terrified older man…

Note: It’s a full hour into this 86 minute film before the zombie rampage actually begins. This movie is not for the patience-challenged.

Roy leaves the caretaker (Alecs Baird) and his friend Emerson behind as zombie chow, while he makes a run for it.

Soon, a small army of unearthed dead are clumsily marching in the direction of the caretaker’s old cabin, as Roy and Emerson become their next victims. Emerson is killed immediately, as the zombies (being of the flesh-eating Romero variety) begin feasting on his entrails. Unable to help Emerson, Roy is bloodied and nearly killed in the nightmarish attack as well, but manages to flee just short of his own death. He then runs back in the direction of the cabin to warn his friends…

Note: The eerie, tonal musical score by Carl Zittrer (a deft combination of organic and electronic) is one of the most effective elements of the film, and still holds up. Zittrer’s music, especially in the rampage sequence, reminds me of Gille Melle’s groundbreaking electronic music for Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery,” which was one of the most terrifying TV shows of its time (a great deal of that effectiveness was due to Melle’s eerie music).

Shot in Bug Light vision.

A bloodied, dying Roy makes it back to the cabin, screaming “They’re coming!” before collapsing on a couch inside. The troupe then sees the collection of ghouls moving towards the cabin. With few options, the actors quickly try to barricade the doors and windows with whatever wood and other materials they can find, in a desperate attempt to keep the advancing horde of undead outside. As the barricades begin to creak and fail from the constant pounding of undead fists trying to barge in, Alan freezes; the fearless leader now reduced to an indecisive mound of jelly.

“I thought dabbling in the Black Arts would be good for a chuckle, how wrong I was…”

Thinking on his feet, Paul suggest Alan try a reverse spell to put the dead back in their graves. Lacking some of the materials to do the reversal, Alan tries anyway, using leftover dried baby’s blood and chanting the spell repeatedly. Val looks through an opening in a boarded window, and notices that the zombies appear to be retreating. This might be their chance to make a run for the boat. Not knowing how many zombies might still be out there, Paul volunteers to make a run through the back door while the others create a diversion up front, so that he can get to the boat for help.

Note: Paul (Paul Cronin) is perhaps the closest thing the movie has to a ‘hero’ type, but none of these characters are worth rooting for, even if they’re well-acted and memorably obnoxious.

Terry learns that selling your soul to work in Miami dinner theater may not have been worth it, after all.

While the others succeed in distracting a large number of zombies to the front of the cabin, Paul’s attempted run for the boat fails miserably, as his girlfriend Terry hears his agonized moans coming from outside. Shining a flashlight in the direction of Paul’s cries, she sees a zombified woman munching on the entrails of Paul’s freshly-killed corpse. Terry’s own agonized cries of mourning attract zombie attention, as the mindless undead monsters destroy the barricade at the backdoor and drag her away to be eaten as well. After a brief while, the outside zombie commotion subsides, and Val wonders if this might be their window of opportunity to escape. Survivors Val, Jeff, Anya and Alan tentatively wander out the front door, only to find no resistance. They slowly make their way into a thicket of nearby trees, only to be instantly ambushed by zombies, lying in wait. Immediately, Jeff and Val are killed in this latest attack as Alan retreats back to the cabin with Anya.

Note: The fact that Alan was unable to properly cast the counter-spell for lack of the original materials meant that the zombies were only pretending to retreat when Val thought his incantation was working. That, and their planned ambush of the survivors during the movie’s final moments indicates that, given enough time, the zombies’ cobwebbed gray matter begins to work as well. The zombies of this movie are a step closer to the thinking zombies of Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 zom-com, “Return of the Living Dead,” which was the first movie to feature the undead’s distinct appetite for “braaaaaains!”

Orville isn’t too keen on having his sleep disturbed by Alan’s necrophilia…

Back in the cabin, Alan and Anya are unable to re-barricade the front door, as the zombies immediately pour through. Retreating to the high ground of upstairs, Alan tosses Anya to the zombies in an incredible display of cowardice. It’s so shocking, that even a couple of the zombies look back to Alan as if to say, “Really, dude? Wow, that’s harsh.” As the zombies feast on the helpless Anya, Alan then locks himself in the upstairs’ bedroom, where a new horror awaits—his reanimated ‘corpse bride’ Orville is waiting for some serious payback. Apparently, the living-challenged Orville was none too keen on being used as Alan’s necrophilic sex toy. Alan then screams, as he receives his richly deserved, bloody comeuppance.

Note: Actor Seth Sklarey gives a truly menacing ‘undead stare’ in those final seconds before Alan’s demise. The single overhead light source shadows his facial features, making him look absolutely horrifying (at least when I was a kid). Also worth mentioning that Sklarey does a helluva job as Orville during his ‘dead’ scenes as well; keeping his body nice and rigid when being carried, or when propped up against his own grave marker crucifix. It’s arguably the most concentrated ‘undead’ performance next to Terry Kiser’s lifeless “Bernie” in the 1989 comedy, “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Technically, Sklarey’s “Orville” isn’t accurate for a real corpse, but it’s a skilled pantomimic performance, all the same.

Dead Calm.
Weekend at Bernie’s, as directed by George Romero.

The final shot sees the zombies reaching Alan’s boat, and somehow, inexplicably commandeering it, as they make their way towards the distant lights of Miami…

The End.

Note: Yes, the zombies know how to sail a boat. Normally, this ending would solicit a few groans, but given that this is a horror comedy along the lines of “Return of the Living Dead,” or “Re-Animator”, some poetic license is allowed.

Post Mortem.

Hide and go reek.
While the makeup effects are certainly better than those seen in “Night of the Living Dead,” they are hopelessly dated now.

By today’s standards, “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things” shouldn’t work at all. The pacing is ridiculously self-indulgent. The characters are irredeemably obnoxious. Most of the grainy, murky cinematography looks like an 8mm snuff film shot at night by car headlights. The rotted zombie makeups, while effective in 1972, have long since lapsed into obsolescence. Even the climactic zombie attack itself only takes place in the final 26 minutes of this 86 minute movie. The nasty, pitch-black repartee of the first hour is pretentious, yes, though not unaware. Imagine if playwrights Edward Albee and Mart Crowley had somehow teamed up to write a drive-in horror movie, and you’ll get the idea. All of these legitimate issues aside, there is an atmosphere, mood, and spooky charm to this movie that makes it work in spite of itself.

Alan, Jeffrey and Anya put their guest to (permanent) sleep with their endless kvetching.

The film has the giddy feeling of nerdy college friends getting together on Halloween night with ‘borrowed’ school equipment in order to make a monster movie. An indefatigable can-do spirit, tenacity, and ‘members only’ vibe permeates this creepy little zombie flick. The late Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby crafted a movie seemingly designed mainly to entertain themselves and their friends at parties, and that sense of impish, devilish fun trickles down to the viewer, as well. Many horror fans may not get, or even like “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”, and that’s perfectly okay–this is a horror exploitation comedy that just forgot to mail off the invitations.

Where To Watch.

“Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things” is currently available to stream for free on YouTube (from Flick Vault channel) and Tubi.com. It is also available for streaming rental or purchase from AmazonPrime, and for sale on physical media (DVD/BluRay) from Amazon.com as well. Perfect entertainment for a Halloween party…

Images: IMDb/Retro Film Vault.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    The original Night Of The Living Dead will always be it for me in the zombie genre. Even though I admire how far it has come with shows like The Walking Dead, or wonderful comedies like Shaun Of The Dead, George Romero’s classic resonated with me enough to influence how I would see the isolated human drama at its most valued in horror films ever since.

    1. “Night of the Living Dead” is one of those seminal classics that others forever imitate, like “JAWS,” or “2001: A Space Odyssey.” George Romero’s NOTLD created the zombie genre as we know it today.

      And it scared the piss out of me when I was 10 years old, too! 😉

      1. scifimike70 says:

        The most pivotal movie and TV classics have indeed most easily motivated imitations. Even if they can find certain ways to refresh the elements as between The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, at what point do the homages finally become stagnating?

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