Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things 4K UHD Review/Comparison
Blu-ray Release: December 6, 2021
Video: 1.85:1/2160p (SDR)/Color
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Run Time: 86:32
Director: Bob Clark
Alan (Alan Ormsby), the brilliant, but bizarre director of the company, has brought them to this foreboding place to dabble in witchcraft; specifically to dig up a fresh corpse and use it in a ritual ceremony, which is supposed to raise the dead from their graves. It seems as though Alan has really gathered his ‘children’ here only to play a practical joke, however, the joke’s on Alan. His bizarre ritual ceremony really does raise the dead from their graves…only they’re in no mood to party! (From VCI’s official synopsis)
Despite the enormous impact of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombie fiction took years, at least until the release of his second apocalyptic opus, Dawn of the Dead (1978), to fully embrace the mechanics of his particular living-dead mythology. A small contingent of films – such as Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death (French: Les Raisins de La Mort, 1978), Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies (1972-75), and Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Italian: Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti; Spanish: No profanar el sueño de los muertos; aka: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, 1974) – embraced gory flesh-eating antics, but more filmmakers were interested in expanding Romero’s idea of contagious psychosis, which they connected to hot-ticket current events. Movies like David E. Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970), Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine (1978), Romero’s own The Crazies (1973), and David Cronenberg’s Shivers (aka: The Parasite Murders and They Came from Within, 1975) explored zombism as the result of countercultural thought and psychedelic drug use or posed questions about the terrors of war, the ethics of medical experimentation, and the dangers of bureaucracy.
Writer and director pair Alan Ormsby and Bob Clark had the distinction of making two unique zombie movies during the early post-Night of the Living Dead era. The first was a snide comedy entitled Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) and the second was a bleak drama called Deathdream (aka: Dead of Night, 1974). Both films use Night of the Living Dead as a jumping off point and both indulge in E.C. Comic inspired irony, but they are otherwise strikingly different in their approach. Deathdream is the better of the two and still one of the more underappreciated movies, horror or otherwise, of the period (for more on that, please take a listen to the second part of Genre Grinder’s look at alternative American horror with guest Bill Ackerman). Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, on the other hand, comes closer to a flat-out spoof of Night of the Living Dead, or at least a satirical slant on the ways Romero’s film and his generation’s rhetoric changed monster movies.
It’s sort of unfair to compare the two films, despite all that they have in common, because Deathdream is a properly planned B-movie built on concepts and themes, while Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things was practically made up on the fly, thrown together by a group of friends who were just playing versions of themselves (except the zombies, one assumes). It exhibits all the amateur shortcomings and spontaneous charms that go along with these types of movies, making it all the harder to really appreciate the things it does well. Truth be told, I remember renting it as a Romero and Fulci obsessed teenager and being very upset that the zombies take an hour to show up and that the bloodshed is comparatively minimal (though still gruesome for the PG-rating). On top of the slow burn, Ormsby’s character is designed to be frustratingly obnoxious and he gets little pushback from the others, leaving the audience without protagonists to latch onto. Still, if you can ride along Clark and Ormsby’s wavelength for the first hour, you might find yourself thoroughly disturbed by the time the zombies begin rising from their graves. Either that, or you’ll be heartily rooting for the undead when they finally begin killing everyone off.
At the very least, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things was a stepping stone to greater things. Beginning with Deathdream, the American-born Clark became one of Canada’s most prolific and successful filmmakers. His works include the genre-defining proto-slasher, Black Christmas (1974), a standard-setting coming-of-age sex comedy in Porky's (1982), an ahead of its time combination of Jack the Ripper lore and Sherlock Holmes in Murder by Decree (1979), and the single most popular holiday-themed cult movie this side of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), A Christmas Story (1983). Given that pedigree, it’s easy to forgive him for two Baby Geniuses (1999, 2004). Ormsby continued working with Clark and co-wrote Deathdream and Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983). He teamed up with Jeff Gillen to co-direct the dark, Ed Gein-themed comedy Deranged (aka: Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, 1974), which beat The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to theaters by more than six months and helped introduce Romero’s friend Tom Savini to the world. He also wrote Tony Bill’s My Bodyguard (1980), worked on Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982), co-wrote Robert Mandel’s The Substitute (1996) with Roy Frumkes and Rocco Simonelli, and even has an “additional story material” credit on the animated Disney version of Mulan (1998).
I know you’re skeptical of VCI’s first ever 4K UltraHD Blu-ray, I am too. We all are. Since the DVD days, VCI’s transfers have rarely lived up to the level of some of the other, bigger boutique labels, who have more money to throw at a digital remaster. Add to this the fact that Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things has never looked very good on home video. It looked dark and muddy on VHS, it looked dark and muddy on numerous DVDs, and has continued looking dark and muddy on Blu-ray. One assumes it looked dark and muddy in theaters and that’s just the way Clark and cinematographer Jack McGowan planned it.
I wish I could say that VCI beat expectations or simply failed, but the results are more complicated than that. I cannot access screencaps from a UHD disc, but I have included some caps from the included Blu-ray, alongside caps from VCI’s 2016 Blu-ray to illustrate that this is, indeed, a new transfer. It’s obvious from first glances that the new transfer (on the left slider) is considerably darker than the old one (on the right) and this can be a problem, because, as we’ve established, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is already dark and muddy. Fortunately, the darkest shots aren’t much dimmer than they were on the old transfer – the main issue is the dulling of bright images and pooling of the deepest blacks (of which there are many). The UHD doesn’t have any HDR enhancement, but it is definitely more dynamic than the Blu-ray, in large part mitigating the issue, at least in comparison with what you see here. There is a clarity upgrade across the board, as a matter of fact, including a sizable dialing back on the last release’s DNR problem, which boosts fine textures and produces better looking grain. I personally prefer the previous disc’s warmer palette, but this cooler one doesn’t desaturate the gaudy clothing, so no worries on that account. Note that each transfer has different framing/zooming and that the differences aren't consistent.
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is presented in uncompressed LPCM English and 1.0 Mono sound. This is about as good as I think we can ever expect from this particular film, especially considering the previous Blu-ray’s minor, but still annoying audio sync issues. Dialogue is crisp and clear without any major hiss or distortion, even when the footage shows signs of damage. The simple combination of incidental noises and library effects is at times shrill, but that seems to be a mixing issue and is secondary to the often avant garde and textural musical choices. Composer Carl Zittrer, who also worked with Clark on Deathdream, Black Christmas, Murder by Decree, Porky’s, and Christmas Story, indulges in a few stray melodies that hover between atmospheric synth noise and unnerving drums.
Disc One and Two (4K UHD and Blu-ray):
Commentary with Alan Ormsby, Jane Daly, and Anya Cronin – This track, featuring actor/co-writer Ormsby, actresses Cronin and Daly, and moderator David Gregory, was recorded specifically for VCI’s 35th Anniversary Edition DVD. It is an informative track, but more about hanging out and remembering good times than digging deeply into the production process. The participants are chatty enough that Gregory rarely needs to interject with questions to keep things moving.
Dreaming of Death: Bob Clark's Horror Films (72:50, HD) – A brand new feature-length documentary about Clark, his frequent collaborators (such as Ormsby), and the making of his first three horror movies, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Deathdream, and Black Christmas. It includes interviews with friends, associates, and genre experts, who offer up a plethora of anecdotes and criticisms, as well as footage from the films.
Disc three (Blu-ray)
Alan Ormsby interview (33:32, HD) – The second and final 2022 exclusive is a Zoom call with Ormsby, who discusses the making of this and other films, working with Bob Clark, and his ongoing career, all in greater detail than he does during the commentary track, though there is, naturally, some overlap in subject matter. About half of the interview is made up of fan questions.
Confessions of a Grave Digger (9:08, HD) – A 2007 interview with construction chief Ken Goch, who can also be seen on the Dreaming of Death documentary.
2007 Beverly Cinema Q&A (11:27, SD) – Footage from a Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Deathdream retrospective double-feature. Clark was meant to appear, but died and was replaced with a group of collaborators, including Ormsby, Goch, Albert Fisher, and Carl Zittrer.
Memories of Bob Clark (10:08, SD) – A tribute featurette to the director.
"Dead Girls Don’t Say No" music video by The Deadthings (3:50, SD)
"Cemetery Mary" music video by The Deadthings (3:53, SD)
Tribute video (2:00, SD) – I need more context for this, but it seems to be a song about the movie set to stills.
Radio spots (4:25, HD)
The one extra missing from the previous disc is the shorter UK cut of the film.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.