I debated including this 1980 schlock classic for quite some time, because I've never been able to determine if it's a zombie film or not. Certainly not in the traditional sense (no voodoo or viruses here), but director Max Kalmanowicz never specifies if his titular menace is the living dead, or simply a mutated by-product. Since I've been fairly cavalier with the standards for previous entries, I decided what the hell--it's a fun little movie, and I wanted to write about it.
A busload of grade school students (who like to sing woefully anachronistic songs to their improbably tolerant driver) are transformed into zombie-like creatures when they pass through a radioactive cloud, thanks to a leak at the nearby nuclear reactor. Possessing black fingernails and raccoon-eyed stares, they approach every adult in sight--particularly family members--imploring them for hugs, so they can cook them to death with their deadly touch. Does it make a lick of sense? Of course not, though that doesn't stop these scenes from being eerily gruesome, in spite of the cut-rate dissolve techniques (as a concession to the limited budget, much of the children's killing takes place offscreen once the modus operandi has been established, lessening the impact of a good portion of the second half).
Its inherent silliness notwithstanding, THE CHILDREN actually delivers a fair amount of effective scenes. Kalmanowicz's no-frills direction still captures the right mood, keeping the somewhat repetitive nature of the children's killing spree creepy and mildly disturbing. It's only when the so-called normal adults are onscreen that the picture threatens to crumble; most of the characters simply don't behave the way real human beings do, their actions implausible to the point of ridiculousness. But hey, it's an exploitation flick, right? All that matters is that they find themselves in harm's way in a timely fashion. (And if you can accept that mindset, you'll have a ball with this movie.)
Though THE CHILDREN tends to lose momentum heading into its third act, it compensates by providing a sadistic solution to its problem--that is, the surviving adults learn the only way to kill the children is to sever their hands (which they do with remarkable efficiency). The filmmakers' glee is quite apparent in these moments, which come close to being dangerous and taboo-breaking, but is ultimately hampered by the B-movie nature of its plot. (For a much more unnerving example, see the closing scenes of 1989's similarly-themed BEWARE! CHILDREN AT PLAY, which delivers an amazingly over-the-top barrage of adult-on-child carnage.)
At first glance, it's easy to dismiss THE CHILDREN as one of the many anti-nuclear sentiments making the rounds in the early '80s, but the real underlying message seems to be a fear of the generation gap--parents unable to control their offspring, and adults becoming overwhelmed by the younger generation. Take a stroll to your local galleria any given weekend and the film seems rather prescient--I'd rather take THE CHILDREN than some of these obnoxious bastards any day.
One of the many overlooked films from the waning days of the drive-in/grindhouse era (producer Carlton J. Albright would go on to make the equally underappreciated LUTHER THE GEEK), THE CHILDREN is a rough-around-the-edges gem.
And a creepy highlight: