We first got cable television in 1978. There weren’t the hundreds of channels with nothing to watch that you have today. There may have been a couple dozen channels and there seemed to be tons of stuff to watch. The big attraction of cable was the pay stations like HBO and PRISM. We had HBO which only aired in the evening; showed movies UNCUT and the occasional concert, boxing match or stand-up comedy show. There were also a few out-of-town television stations like WOR and WPIX out of New York that our cable provider carried for reasons unknown. Fortunately they did because right after Saturday Night Live went off, we would switch over to WOR for their horror late show Fright Night. That’s where I first discovered Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.
I’ve always been a horror and monster movie fan so I was always aware of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, but, at the time back in the ’70s, I had never seen it. It was never broadcast on TV further reinforcing the idea in my mind that it was entirely too bloody and ghastly ever to be shown on television. I knew the plot enough to know that Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things was a ripoff, but it was as close to the Living Dead opus as I was going to get outside of the trailer I saw at the drive-in in the early ’70s which made my younger brother and I hide in the backseat in mortal terror. Children was the zombie equivalent of Near Beer. Besides, it was on and it was horror which were reasons enough to watch.
In the movie, a hippie acting troop that looks like the Mystery Machine exploded ends up in a graveyard on an island off the coast of Florida. The pretentious leader of the troop played by Alan Ormsby leads them in a Satanic ritual where they attempt to raise the dead. It doesn’t work at first, and Ormsby is dejected where the rest of the troop is relieved. There’s a lot of back biting and scenery chewing before the ritual pays off in a time released fashion and corpses start popping up out of their graves just like EC Comics. It turns into a siege situation just like Night of the Living Dead, The Last Man on Earth before it and every Italian gut-munching knockoff made in their wake. Hippies are in the house. Zombies are outside. Zombies eat the living. Zombies are hungry. Board up the doors and windows! It’s Zombie Movie 101.
Eventually I did see Night of the Living Dead, and while it is a great movie, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be. I had heard and read so much about this legendary shocker that I was prepared to be scared out of my wits, and I just wasn’t. The same thing happened to me with Last House on the Left. I had heard that it was the scariest movie ever made, and it had that terrific It’s Only a Movie tagline. When it came out on video and I hunkered down to watch it, it was a let-down.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things isn’t all that scary either. It feels more like a spookhouse ride down the Jersey Shore. It’s not beating the audience over the head with tedious nihilism. It’s more like Spanky and the gang are putting on a show. In this case, Bob Clark was Spanky and he went on to direct a number of other terrific horror films throughout the 1970s – Death Dream being a favorite -Â as well as the Porky’s series of films.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things was one of those early VHS releases back during the Dawn of the Home Video Revolution. I saw it on video tape expecting to see more gore or something else cut from the televised version. No such luck. It was a PG rated movie, and the goriest scene is probably the one pictured below in the VCI brochure. Splash around a lot of stage blood and stay real still. You’re supposed to be dead, you know! I never saw House of the Living Dead, but if you spent money on makeup, you better put it in the ad!