Monday, July 2, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" (1972)

I've often cited "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" as evidence of the breadth of my cinematic tastes. I grew up on pop culture movies, and cheesy horror was a particular favorite. This movie, which I probably first encountered on TV in the early '80s, is the cheesiest of the cheese.

One of the things I hate most is when people become very snooty in their film preferences -- lauding period costume dramas, for example, but denigrating scary movies. Folks should be able to love both "Lawrence of Arabia" and "CSPWDT," I'll say.

And I do love this movie. In fact, I'm not at all ashamed to say it's one of my favorite films.

Like a bit of Gouda left to mold at the back of the fridge, it's absorbed the flavors of other things over the years, leaving it as an odd but compelling totem for its time.

It's both extremely derivative and groundbreaking, stealing liberally from George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" while also introducing an element of comedy that would come to be intertwined with the roots of modern horror flicks.

Despite current misconceptions, "Night of the Living Dead" did not set off a sudden spate of zombie flicks. "CSPWDT," arriving in 1972, was pretty much the first American film to occupy the same space in the subgenre after Romero's breakthrough in 1968. Things really took off in 1973 and thereafter, and soon zombies were munching up screens everywhere.

The film was directed by Bob Clark, who surely must go down as the owner of one of the most eclectic filmographies in Hollywood history. Best known for the tart nostalgia of "A Christmas Story," he also made the soft-core "Porky's," the wellspring of all teen sex comedies, and its decidedly tamer sequel, which came out the same year as Ralphie and his iconic Red Ryder BB gun.

Clark actually got his start in horror, and often mixed existential or political themes into his early films. He followed up "CSPWDT," his first feature, with another zombie story, "Dead Dream," about a soldier who comes back from Vietnam as the living dead.

He scored a major commercial success with the 1974 slasher film "Black Christmas," then came the Mafia action/revenge story "Breaking Point," and then he went high-toned: a Sherlock Holmes adaptation starring Christopher Plummer, "Murder By Decree," followed by "Tribute," a screen version of the Bernard Slade play starring Jack Lemmon.

After "A Christmas Story," Clark became something of a mercenary director-for-hire, piloting mainstream comedies ("It Runs in the Family," "Loose Cannons") and genre films of often dubious merit: "Rhinestone," "From the Hip" (a legal comedy that marked Peak Judd Nelson), "Baby Geniuses" and its sequel. He also made the underappreciated "Turk 182!" in 1985, starring Timothy Hutton as a vigilante graffiti artist battling a corrupt mayor.

Both Clark and his son were tragically killed in a car accident in 2007, robbing us of what I'm sure would have been an interesting final act to his career.

"CSPWDT" was shot over a fortnight on a budget of $50,000, starring many of Clark's real-life college chums, often using their real first names. Despite its amateur-hour production values, the movie is bursting with mood and merriment, laughs often giving way to moments of pure blood-soaked terror and vice-versa.

At a brisk 86 minutes, the zombies don't even come alive until after the one-hour mark. The backdrop is a theatrical troupe from Miami traipsing into an island cemetery for the unwanted deceased to dabble in a little Satan-worship. The gleefully tyrannical leader, Alan, who holds everyone else's employment in his clutches, forces them to go through with a ritualistic summoning, which appears to be a total flop, until they insult the dark lord and the dead rise up to munch everybody.

If for no other reason, the film is amusing for its fashions. Alan, played by Alan Ormsby (who co-wrote the script with Clark), wears a neon orange shirt, patriotically striped tight pants, a frisky cravat and electric blue wizard's robes. The women all wear variations on brightly-colored peasant blouses popular during that era, while the men favor tight-fitting T-shirts, including one by the girthy Jeff (Jeff Gillen) that's white with pink flowers.

Alan is flamboyant and corrupted, always striving to bring out the worst in everyone else. He badgers and belittles, and responds to every suggestion that raising the dead isn't a good idea with the threat of firing. Alan projects mightily, always questioning the artistic talent and commitment of his fellows, when it's clear he's the true hack of the bunch.

Valerie Mamches plays Val, the matriarch of the troupe, and the only one to stand up to Alan's bullying. Paul Cronin is Paul, the handsome leading man who makes macho displays at resistance, but always backs down. Terry (Jane Daly) is his girlfriend, fretting and frowning. Anya (Anya Ormsby, Alan's real-life wife), is the timid waif who loses her shit about halfway through.

Roy Engleman and Robert Philip round out the group as Roy and Emerson, a pair of gay outliers tasked by Alan with dressing up as zombies to scare the others. They're among the first to get devoured, spraying stereotypical sibilant s's the whole way down.

Also notable is Seth Sklarey, in his only credited screen role, as the "boss" zombie, Orville Dunworth. The first to be exhumed, he has the perfect look for a ghoul: tall, curly widow's peak hair, gaunt face, impossibly long fingers. He even has what appears to be a bullet hole in his forehead, suggesting the method of his (original) death.

Alan continually insults and defiles the corpse, even dressing Orville up in a bride's veil and mock-marrying himself to it, so we know how his demise will go. At one point they lie in bed together alone, the others finally creeped out enough to leave the pair to their ersatz honeymoon.

"You're a great teacher, Orville. And a wonderful friend. And I think, in time, we may get even closer," Alan says, foretelling his own fate.

Watching "CSPWDT" for the first time in awhile, I was struck how little violence there is in it. There's a brief scene at the beginning of the grave caretaker being attacked by creatures, but this turns out to be our two fey thespians taking him hostage. There's not a ton of blood and guts, with Ormsby and a few others providing the special effects makeup.

Overall, the zombies aren't terribly convincing, looking like regular folks dressed up in ratty clothes and bluish-grey makeup slathered over their faces. Compared to an average episode of "The Walking Dead," it's positively primitive. But the effect is still creepy enough for 1972.

Carl Zittrer provides the largely melody-free musical score, an assortment of atonal tones, moans and whispers of the wind. He would go on to work with Clark on most of his films over the next decade.

For true zombie movie devotees, "CSPWDT" offers some interesting perspective on the two important spectrums that often define the debate: speed and intelligence. While starting out quite slow and shambling after first clawing their way out of the ground, the zombies display bursts of speed that can overwhelm the humans.

They also appear to be quite cunning in their assault, backing off when it becomes clear they can't penetrate the doors or walls of the cabin in which the troupe has retreated. The zombies also employ sneak attacks and tactical retreats, snatching Terry away to the forest to be messily devoured.

Most interesting, the final shot that plays over the credits is of the zombies boarding the sailboat the actors arrived in, and successfully launching it toward the shores of Miami to continue the carnage. It seems that, at least in the Clark/Ormsby iteration, the living dead retain at least some of their human intelligence and knowledge.

I think what makes zombies stories so compelling is the dread sense of inevitability. Individual dead may not be very quick or powerful, but together they form a wave that rolls over any resistance, absorbing and adding to the horde. They operate very much as a multifaceted organism, a disease that infects all it touches.

"Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" is silly, cheap, deplorable and inexpressibly fun.

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