The death of director Bob Clark in an automobile accident (which also took the life of his young son) in April of 2007 came as a major shock, and this tragedy cut short the career of a talented individual who surely still had a few good films left in him. Clark’s 1972 opus, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, became a major cult hit that would make way for more competent genre works, including DEATHDREAM and BLACK CHRISTMAS, but the director also had a penchant for comedy (as easily witnessed with the box office smash PORKY’S and A CHRISTMAS STORY, one of the most delightful holiday films ever), and fortunately he was never typecast in one specific arena. Memorably blending both horror and black comedy, the long-time late-night favorite CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS now gets the Blu-ray special edition treatment from VCI Entertainment.
A theater group of twenty-somethings led by their obnoxious director Alan (Alan Ormbsy) take a boat ride to and island which serves as a secluded graveyard. Others in the troop include macho Paul (Paul Cronin), flirty Terry (Jane Daly), wise-cracking Jeff (Jeff Gillen), strange and troubled Anya (Anya Ormsby) and no-nonsense Val (Valerie Mamches), who really has issues with their flamboyant leader. With the help of two gay actors (Roy Engleman and Robert Philip) made up as corpses, Alan scares the crap out of his comrades when the cheap thrills of grave-digging becomes more than they bargained for (making Jeff urinate himself). Soon after, Alan reads from an ancient satanic book in an attempt to raise the dead, and fails miserably. Always contradicting him, Val shows how it’s really done by performing her own black magic chant. As the group takes back the freshly dug body of one Orville Dunworth (Seth Sklarey) to shelter for a night of morbid antics, they soon realize that “children shouldn’t play with dead things.”
CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS was one of the earliest films to capitalize on George Romero’s groundbreaking NIGHT OF LIVING DEAD, and the concept of flesh-eating zombies would soon embrace a number of gore-laden productions from around the globe. Shot on 35mm (not 16mm as some believe) on location in Florida in 1971 on a reportedly $50,000 budget, CHILDREN takes place entirely at night, in and around a fabricated cemetery and a nearby rat-infested shack. This might seem minimalist, but the film conveys a definite mood of darkness, doom and isolation, offset by a handful of quirky characters in very loud, gaudy clothes, leaving no doubt that this is a product of the early 1970s (a magical time for cinema indeed).
The cast of newcomers make their characters well-defined, with Ormsby’s Alan being one of the most detestable oddballs ever seen in a horror film, and he models the appalling fashion statements to go with it. Most of the first two-thirds of the film is a slow build-up (which might add up to a lot of tedium, depending on the viewer) to the final act; zombies literally crawling out of their graves to ambush and prey on a half a dozen hippy types. If anyone has a problem with CHILDREN’s pacing, the unleashing of the undead certainly makes it all worthwhile, and these scenes are augmented by the chilling, low-lit cinematography of Jack McGowan and truly eerie music effects by Carl Zittrer. Best of all are the homemade zombie make-ups by Alan Ormsby himself, which give the film its distinction and are impressive even in close-up. CHILDREN doesn’t rely on heavy doses of gore, and it got away with a PG rating, but it’s one of those cinematic experiences leaving you with the feeling that you saw things far more graphic than what actually occurred on the screen.
VCI has a long history with CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, first releasing it on DVD back in 1999, and then in 2007, they produced a “35th Anniversary Exhumed Edition” that was quickly recalled and repressed after a problematic transfer was used. VCI now revisits the popular cult title again on Blu-ray after an extensive digital restoration and a new 2K scan. The 1080p HD VC-1 codec transfer presents the film in its original 1.85:1 ratio, with colors now looking correct and distinct, and there’s some nice, revealing detail in such scenes as the indoor cabin shots as well as the various zombie stomping/attacking sequences in the graveyard. Much has been done in terms of dirt and debris removal, and it’s apparent that digital noise reduction was done to get rid of the excessive grain that the film is known for. The DNR here doesn’t smear or smoothen over the image too badly, so facial features retain decent textures and flesh tones also look good, complementing the improved color schemes. There is a noticeable amount of crush and pixilation exhibited in the blacks which can be distracting. The English LPCM 2.0 sounds quite nice, with dialog and sound effects (including evidence of the camera cranking) and music all being distinct, but there’s a number of instances when the voice synchronization looks off on screen. Optional English subtitles are included.
Most of the supplements from VCI’s 2007 DVD edition have been ported over here, including an entertaining running commentary with Alan Ormsby, ex-wife Anya and Jane Daly, moderated by David Gregory. The participants all have a good sense of humor, share a number of amusing anecdotes, and remember much about making the film, especially Ormsby, who can even point out most of the supporting players under their zombie get-up. A standard def presentation of the UK version (from a choppy faded print, running only 75 minutes) is also included as a bonus, likely because its secondary track has an audio commentary with Ormbsy, moderated again by Gregory (conducted for an Anchor Bay UK DVD released some years ago). Here, Ormsby shares a number of his personal stories of working on the set, recalling that Clark didn’t give the actors much direction, the scenes where they built their own sets, the uncomfortable humid conditions of the Coconut Grove location, and that they likely didn’t have permission to shoot on the island (the PAL speedup of the version being watched here prompts Ormsby to ask “why do I sound like I’m on helium?”).
“Memories of Bob Clark” (10:08) is a featurette which begins talking about his career, followed by the three participants from the commentary giving their recollections on Clark shortly after his passing. Unfortunately, it’s not accompanied by video, only a single still photograph of the three. “Grindhouse Q&A” (11:27) was videotaped at a 2007 Hollywood double feature screening of CHILDREN and DEATHDREAM, which has Alan Ormbsy, composer Carl Zittrer, construction chief Ken Goch and Albert Fisher, who was the set decorator on DEATHDREAM, sharing their Bob Clark-related film experiences in front of an enthusiastic audience. “Confessions of a Grave Digger” (9:08) has Ken Goch back for a sit-down interview, talking about his memorable experiences with Clark (including a story about an oversized prophylactic on the set of PORKY’S). Other extras include several music related videos by The Deadthings and Freak (which seemed to have been tossed in as filler), a photo gallery (which milks images from the lobby card set and the pressbook), the great theatrical trailer, and something new to this Blu-ray: a series of amusing radio spots for the film, courtesy of Ormbsy, with bits of text trivia on the film and its stars (including mention of the recent passing of Valerie Mamches in November of 2015).
The packaging offers a choice of three different covers (including the original one-sheet poster art devised by Ormsby himself) and the insert booklet includes excellent liner notes by Mike Kenny of the Mike’s Pop Culture Playhouse website. (George R. Reis)
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