Ed. note– Clearing out the backlog of reviews sometimes means cleaning out the trash. This flick is trash.– P.F.
You may ask why I would ever subject myself to CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD. I venerate George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and this flick has an infamous history. It’s another attempt of John Russo’s to grab some glory from his connection with NOTLD, written and produced by a woman who had no idea what screenwriting or making a film entailed, who also fired the original director so she could get the final cut she wanted, and even Russo and Tom Savini have disowned it as a miserable experience, and a terrible flick. But I’m the guy who sat through DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM, a film so blatantly awful it even made up a word for the subtitle. I’m the guy who suffered through Russo’s 30TH Anniversary cut of NOTLD twice (once straight, and once with the commentary), and somehow didn’t blow my own brains out. So if anybody owed himself the punishment of watching this flick, it was me. Suffice it to say, it’s not the worst zombie flick of all time. It’s not even as bad as CONTAGIUM. It’s just a sloppy mess that claims ties to NOTLD, which damns it.
In order to review CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD, it’s important to understand its two parts. There’s the first 16 minutes, which I refer to as the TOM SAVINI IS ACTION JESUS ZOMBIE KILLER portion. And there’s the much less thrilling “14 Years Later” portion. Let’s look at them separately.
The first two minutes of the TOM SAVINI IS ACTION JESUS ZOMBIE KILLER portion are the credits over a burning pyre set in black. I gather this is supposed to be a pile of zombies, but I can’t exactly prove that. The next two minutes are right out of the end of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with rednecks gunning down zombies all over the Pennsylvanian countryside. Four minutes and 11 seconds in, Savini makes his entrance. Savini’s character is a wild man, spinning his guns after every kill, flipping a zombie like an acrobat, pushing a car into a field and blowing it up with a sharp shot from his fancy pistol, taking out a small slew of the undead in the explosion. Savini teams up with the local sheriff, whom he drags along unwillingly to the Hayes house. Here, Tom wipes out a zombie, before ending up caught in the clutches of the evil Abbott Hayes, who rips out part of his chest and tosses him like a ragdoll. Because Savini is Action Jesus Zombie Killer, he pulls the sheriff’s gun to his own head and makes him pull the trigger.
With that, Savini is gone from the film. And with him dies all the fun. Say what you want about Tom Savini as an actor or a person, but his character makes 10 minutes of this film not only watchable, but good dumb fun. He brings a crazy verve to the flick, a machismo that amps things up and creates some actual enjoyment. This is the guy you want to follow if you’re the writer and director of this film, because whatever follows may be goofy and even incompetent, but it’ll keep the audience engaged. Instead, writer/ producer Karen Wolf decided to kill him off at the end of a short Act 1. And with him, any chance of joy to follow.
Before I move on to “14 Years Later,” I have to point out just how lousy everything around Savini is in his portion. Bad day-for-night filming is the first ominous sign. Savini reloads his guns and then fires until one of his pistols is out of ammo, with the open chamber a telltale sign; he then rolls onto the hood of the car, without reloading, and Action Jesus Savini used his powers from the Almighty to fire many more rounds out of the empty pistol. He pushes a car into a field, which lures in a few shambling zombies, and then shoots the back bumper; the ensuing explosion engulfs the zombies. What in God’s name? The car wasn’t a Pinto. Another sign of Action Jesus Savini using his heavenly powers. But by far the funniest slip in logic is when, in close up, Savini utters, “Surprise!” with his mouth closed. Clearly, Savini’s character needed to die in order to take his place at the right hand of Romero in Living Dead Heaven.
With Savini now made god in the afterlife, there is no excuse for the shoddiness of “14 Years Later,” which continues to commit the sin of sloppiness, and adds to it the sin of boredom. Let’s cruise through the remainder, as there’s not much fun to be had in discussing it. Abbott Hayes is still lurking around, with his triply long fingers and knockoff mask from the movie LEGEND. Kids run a toy van off a cliff and get turned into zombies while heading to a concert. A year later, a developer decides to rip up a graveyard so he can build on the land. Developer’s son goes to David’s Diner, doesn’t drink three cups of coffee, and takes the cute coffee girl on a date to the graveyard. Zombies multiply, besiege Dave’s Diner with sheriff, coffee girl and developer’s son inside. Some rednecks arrive, and messy fighting ensues. In a callback to Savini’s death, a character begs to be shot in the head, pointing his own gun at it. Abbott Hayes occupies the final shot of the film, leaving the ending open for a—oh goddamn—sequel. The zombie Armageddon isn’t over. Nobody learns anything. Nobody grows from this. The End.
It’s sad when the inconsistencies in continuity and physics are the only intriguing parts of a flick. Here’s a short list: Unlike in Romero’s Dead films, the act of dying doesn’t turn someone; also a change from the source, biting a day old corpse turns it. The coffee girl pours the developer’s son three cups, but he doesn’t take so much as a sip from any of them as she takes them away. The rednecks encircle some zombies, and fire across the circle, basically at each other, and there’s no collateral damage. And a stick of dynamite can defy the laws of physics. A redneck throws it across the roof of his car, at which point it reverses field on its own and rolls itself back into the car. Picking out these odd gaps in how both the world and films actually work provided the only fun in the “14 Years Later” portion. They’re Everywhere. As are all the characters talking with their mouths closed, guns firing without a muzzle spark, zombies who work without any internal logic from one second to the next, and every other thing that you’ve seen if you’ve ever watched someone’s $1,000 backyard zombie flick made with an iPhone.
Its biggest sin is that once Savini dies, this turns quickly into a Nothing Happens flick, with extended scenes of chatter involving coffee girl, developer’s son, the clerk at the motel, a foreman, and several other boring people. Look, bad will kill a flick. Bad and boring, and there’s no chance of any recovery.
The burden of blame all belongs to Karen Wolf. As the story goes, she made director Tor Ramsey hire her friends and friends of the producers, then canned him when he delivered his cut of the film. She reshot scenes that made no sense in their new context, and made the actors do all that awful dialogue looping that rarely matches their lips. Mad with power, she stripped anyone of their job who would challenge her, and pulled weight, the very weight that sunk CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD. She even cast herself in the small role of the developer’s bitchy wife, which from all I gather didn’t really involve acting.
And really, Karen. You couldn’t even script the diner siege in Beekman’s Diner? I would have forgiven every sin you committed had you just carried that continuity over from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
If CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD weren’t supposed to be some alternate timeline to Romero’s Dead saga, horror fans would probably have passed it off as just another amateurish zombie flick that was poorly aping Romero. But with Russo and Savini attached, and some dialogue connecting the first outbreak of the undead to 1968, it was gutshot before it ever finished filming. Holding it up to DAWN OF THE DEAD, there’s no way Wolf should have expected anything but scorn and derision. And her film deserves every ounce of it.
So no, CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD is not the worst zombie flick ever made. Hell, it’s not even the worst zombie flick with which Russo has been associated, as he spearheaded that abortion of a 30th Anniversary abomination. But it is a bizarre extension of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which I have now watched and reviewed, and fortunately never have to think about again.