By Peg Aloi
Remember when Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was remade in color? To be fair, its chromatic transformation was the least of its problems: the heroic protagonist of Ben, played by African American actor Duane Jones, was replaced with, um, a white woman, thereby completely altering the original film’s wonderful undertones of racial unrest. Hello, it was released in 1968! But it was Romero’s choice to work in black and white (prompted by lack of money, and we should be thankful for this, otherwise we’d have had a Blood Feast-like gore-fest on our hands) that helped elevate this strange and deeply-layered film to both classic and cult status. It was the prototype of flesh-eating ghoul films that later spawned many imitators and led Romero to engage in some delightful self-referential parody in later years.
Yes, I said “flesh-eating ghouls.” NOT “zombies.” Listen up, you people who call yourselves horror buffs, I am not going to tell you again: ZOMBIES AND GHOULS ARE NOT THE SAME THING. Wanna see a zombie film? Try Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie or Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. At my most pedantically generous, I might grant you can refer to Romero’s creations and those based on them as ‘the walking undead.” But then this risks confusion with vampires. Best to just adopt the correct terminology now. Thank you.
Perhaps the most inspired and delightfully entertaining film spawned by the unwitting genre created by Romero is 1972’s collaboration between writer-director Bob Clark and his co-writer and lead actor Alan Ormsby, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. (Subsequent reissue titles were Revenge of the Living Dead and Things from the Dead, while its original working title was Zreaks) This film understood Night of the Living Dead’s camp appeal and added an occult overlay that delighted audiences who thought Rosemary’s Baby (1966) was the ultimate horror film. Now I am not comparing Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things with Rosemary’s Baby in quality of cinematography, acting, writing or direction. But the two films do share a similar camp aesthetic that, frankly, we should see more of in the horror genre, especially films dealing with the occult. If Rosemary’s Baby showed us the devil-worshiping witches in the swanky Central Park West flat next door, within the context of a psychological mindfuck on pregnancy anxiety (ah, Polanski); then Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things gave us starving New York hippie actors eager to make relevant art who see dabbling in devil worship as an appropriate component to their weekend, uh, burial island getaway.
In a deliciously obnoxious performance, Alan Ormsby pays Alan, the theatre troupe director who masterminds the excursion, channeling a gaunt Marjoe Gortner-esque sadist who fancies himself a theatrical genius and a master of the black arts. He surprises the actors by bringing them via rowboat to a remote island that has little but a ramshackle cottage and an old cemetery, ostensibly to rehearse a play. But once there, Alan digs up a body (named Orville) and proceeds to perform a necromancy ritual. But his ego prevents him from raising any real power and fellow thespian/satanist Val disdainfully tells him, “Get out of the grave, Alan. Get out of the grave and let an artist show you how to call a curse down on Satan!” She improvises an invocation that shames Alan into sulking alone with the corpse. But, funny thing, it works! The undead rise up and, well, storm the house and chomp on everyone’s vitals.
You’ve seen this scenario before, but like I said, this is the first color imprimatur of the flesh-eating ghoul template. What’s more, we at last see the countercultural context that was simmering beneath the surface of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. I mean, Ben was dressed like a very well-paid caddy, but his inflection and use of “man” gives a nod to his coolness. But Barbara and Johnny are straight-laced bourgeois wankers in madras and Buddy Holly horn-rims, the Coopers are a nuclear family from hell (as evidenced by patriarch Harry’s obsession with staying in the basement cum bomb shelter–the radiation from Venus that is reanimating the dead is certainly a commentary on runaway science and the threat of the atom bomb–oh, and did I mention the ghouls are metaphors for the Viet Cong?) and the only hint we have of hippiedom is in Tom and Judy, who are really more heartland hicks in need of haircuts than real emblems of Haight-Ashbury.
But hippies are nothing if not colorful, and so their authentic costumes add a clownlike appeal to the proceedings, underscoring their childlike naivete and victimhood. And color added a challenge in terms of the make-up effects. Bosco chocolate syrup was blood’s body double in Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things; and it looked mighty tasty too! But in the early 1970s fake blood was also a sugary substance which usually looked too red to be convincing. But the parade of entrails does not disappoint, and we should not take this for granted in an age where we have become inured to expensive, high-tech visual effects and state of the art make-up in horror films. This film is a product of its time, and though to most critics is merely one more piece of B-quality dreck, I submit there is no other film that can even compare to its (admittedly confusing) combination of originality and flat-out derivative copycatting.
Are Clark and Ormsby making some sort of comment upon the popularity of the occult in America? Maybe pointing out that occultists were just trendoids who were actually shallow drama queens? Or were they making a more serious point, that those who traffic with supernatural forces should be cautious? Or maybe this is a treatise on filmmaking itself, like that other no-budget work of genius that came two and a half decades later and sent the horror genre sprawling on its ass, The Blair Witch Project. Maybe at its bloody heart Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things intimates that all film fictions are on some level expressions of our fear of death, our ego-driven self-delusions, our desire to dance with the devil.