Contains mild spoilers.
Make no bones about it, Bob Clark's directorial horror début is on the surface really quite the amateurish affair; shot over 14 days with a budget of just $70,000 and with a cast made up of friends and first-timers there's just no hiding it. The few sets that there are, are basic, the acting is hammy, the action when it finally makes an appearance, a good hour or so in, is full of things it would be easy to poke fun of it and would be easy to dismiss the film as just another bad 80s b-movie, and perhaps a year a go I would have. In the end though none of it really matters, somehow not only despite of, but even maybe because of the issues, Bob Clark and his team have managed to produce a fun, quirky and effective film that exudes charm with genuine earnestness. It shouldn't all work but it really does.
Alan (Alan Ormsby) is the petty despot owner and self-proclaimed king of a two-bit acting troupe he refers to as his children. For shits and giggles he has proclaimed that they should head out on his boat to Coconut Grove, an ex-resort island which he tells them is now used by Florida to bury the counties various degenerates and reprobates, to exhume a recent corpse and use it as part of a satanic ritual to raise the dead as his slaves.
The ragtag assortment of desperate actors while hesitant and even hostile towards Alan throw their protests to the side at the first threat of unemployment empowering him to increasingly wicked and extreme behaviour. After yet again being mocked mercilessly after his attempt to raise his undead army of servants seemingly fails, he turns his attention to ridiculing and demeaning the recently deceased Orville Dunworth (Seth Sklarey) who he has carried back to the undertakers cottage.
Despite the fact it takes over an hour before the zombies rise and start causing trouble it doesn't drag. The characters are interesting, the situation and story are ludicrous and original and the dialogue is always fun and delivered with surprising sincerity. In many ways this whole hour plays out like a dark character drama; each personality has it's role to play and each is sufficiently different and damaged. It's b-movie territory so obviously the acting and dialogue is a bit hammy but here because it's hammy actors playing hammy actors the lines all rather blurred and it actually kind of works. It's a neat trick if you think about it.
When the zombies do decide to finally make their appearance and I'll admit I was expecting a bit of a farce but it's all surprisingly effective. Hands strike out from the soil and corpses pull themselves out their graves; it's evocative, competent and dare I say even quite stylish. It's all very Night of the Living Dead as they shuffle and stagger around slowly, attacking anyone who gets too close but they're definitely a bit grubbier than Romero's more unspoilt, soil free creations. It's never quite explained whether Alan actually did succeed in his botched ritual or it was the disrespect given Orville that caused them to rise, but the fact the troupe once bitten don't rise to join the ranks and even get feasted upon when given the chance all points to evil, magic and Satan rather than virus or bacteria but it doesn't really matter.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things that tickled me. It's unapologetically a rip off of Night of the Living Dead with a finale that is in essence the siege of the farmhouse, and it has a myriad of problems but it's just so darn hard to dislike. Watching the ridiculous story unfold is always interesting and fun. It's daft without ever becoming a farce and whilst not particularly horror in a scare the pants off you way, there's a dark pervasive tension and some quite dark themes played with. Daft, captivating and original, I'm sure this will become a film I come back to regularly and quite the guilty pleasure, 7/10.